How Modern-Day Christian Iconoclasts Lost Their Heads

Among the most striking paintings within St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum in Russia is Leonardo da Vinci’s “Madonna Litta” from around 1490. Mary, the Mother of God, is in half-profile, her auburn hair wound tightly in the fashion of a Florentine noblewoman, her celestial blue cloak the same color as the firmament visible through the two crescent-topped windows in the background, rendered in Leonardo’s characteristic sfumato shading technique. A cherubic Christ child, well-fed and with tightly curled blondish hair, gazes out at the viewer while suckling upon the exposed breast of Mary through her parted red shirt. 

Leonardo was no radical in depicting a lactating Madonna; such compositions were a mainstay of Medieval and Renaissance art, from a 12th-century mosaic on the façade of Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere to a shining golden 14th-century icon by Barnaba da Modena held at the Louvre, a warm scene of domestic tranquility entitled “The Holy Family” by the 16th-century Dutch master Joos van Cleve that is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the calm idyll of Artemisia Gentileschi’s 17th-century “Madonna and Child.” Scholar María Elvira Mocholí Martínez writes in her 2023 paper “The Nursing Madonna in the Middle Ages” that the Virgo Lactans, or the lactation of the Virgin, was a popular form because it “refers to the Incarnation of the Son of God and hence recalls the origin of his human nature.” What Virgo Lactans emphasizes is not just that Mary is the Mother of God, but that Mary is a mother.

A similar sentiment compelled the contemporary Austrian artist Esther Strauss, whose small sculpture “Crowning” (2024) was until recently installed in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Linz, Austria. Strauss’s Madonna depicts a young woman in a red dress hiked around her hips, face upturned in anguish and legs spread wide to deliver the Son of God. Part of an exhibition about women in the arts, “Crowning” focuses on the moment of incarnation, of God being gestated in a woman’s womb. Arguably the most distinctive aspect of Christian theology, a tenet of orthodoxy that ironically remains perennially uncomfortable to some orthodox believers, is the doctrine of the incarnation. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” as John 1:14 intones, which means a Christ who ate, slept, defecated, urinated, and was born, with all of the messy and painful particulars that birth implies. Strauss said her work is one in which “Mary gets her body back.” After centuries of art about Christ’s violent death, the sculpture is similarly honest about his birth. 

That argument was apparently not compelling to the vandal who took a mallet to the piece early on the morning of July 1. Certainly, there was controversy surrounding the work since it was unveiled on June 27, with over 15,000 people signing a petition against it as of this writing. But one individual decided to imitate the worst excesses of the Protestant iconoclasts of the 16th and 17th centuries, the last major movement to thrill at the destruction of statues of the Virgin Mary. 

Alexander Tschugguel, an Austrian Catholic traditionalist found guilty of throwing a statue of the Amazonian Virgin Mary known as Pachamama into Rome’s Tiber River in 2019, denied his role in the recent act but castigated the statue as “abominable and blasphemous.” It’s a strange symptom of modernity, this self-declared traditionalist reveling in the Virgin Mary having her head cut off as those who proudly proclaim themselves as “pro-life” are scandalized by a woman’s body in labor. A similarly noxious misogyny was also evident in the attack on artist Shahzia Sikander’s gilded statue representing women’s bodily autonomy and sovereignty, which was beheaded his week in Houston after anti-abortion zealots decried it as “satanic.” 

It would be disingenuous to pretend that Strauss’s feminist sculpture wasn’t intended to generate dialogue, but “Crowning” is a work that follows the spiritual tradition of Virgo Lactans, whereas the iconoclasm of this nameless criminal rather recalls the smashing of statues of the Virgin and Christ by Swiss reformers in 1523, or the disastrous dissolution of the monasteries in England the following decade, or the violent fury of the Low Country’s Beeldenstorm in 1566, which saw devotional statues defenestrated and crucifixes immolated. 

Whether or not “Crowning” made audiences uncomfortable is a subjective question, but I’d suggest that if there was offense taken, it stemmed from a discomfort with the radical paradoxes of Christianity itself. Critics had claimed that the sculpture denied the sacredness of the nativity — this statue where the Virgin is depicted with a halo. Others said that it rejected her perpetual virginity, but then we’re to assume that such critics are sexualizing the act of birth itself. 

The Church is undergoing a cultural schism that could prove as momentous as the original Reformation five centuries ago. Followers of “traditional Catholicism,” or “tradcaths,” are a post-modern manifestation of the extreme right-wing element that has unfortunately long existed but has been increasingly vocal as its power has waned since the Second Vatican Council from 1962–65, and especially following the ascension of Pope Francis.

Often a chronically online group of weirdos obsessed with the accouterment of Medieval Catholicism but not the substance — Latin but no social gospel, Gregorian chants but no social justice — tradcaths are a Trojan Horse for the global spread of extremist reactionary politics. They have traded the Magnificat and the Beatitudes for antisemitism, Islamophobia, and fascism. 

Many of them are ironically converts, often from evangelical Protestantism, so perhaps the zealous embrace of iconoclasm is to be expected. In the United States, this group frequently gravitates towards the black-pilled denizens of the alt-right, having swapped Pope Francis (and Jesus Christ) for Donald Trump. In a 2020 article for Vanity Fair, journalist Kathryn Joyce refers to these divisions as the “Pepe Catholicism” after the cartoon frog favored as a symbol by some on the alt-right, explaining how tradcaths are now drifting away from a global Church, seeing themselves instead as “isolated, angry, and alone, shouting accusations into the air.”

As for the vandalism of the Linz statue, the timing is telling of these fractures: Only a few days after its beheading, Pope Francis’s far-right critic Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former Secretary General of the Vatican, was excommunicated for his own heresies. 

In considering Strauss’s piece, that magnificent statue expressing the dichotomies of Mary giving birth to God as man, even in the double-entendre of its title, there is a lesson about humility, gentleness, and love, if only some were willing to listen to it. 

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