We see a young, pale-faced woman with downcast eyes. Her neck is bent, her head is covered, and she is swathed in a robe. The woman’s countenance is meditative and tranquil. The quiet mood is reinforced by the subdued palette dominated by shades of grey. The image stems from depictions of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Helene Schjerfbeck has here transcribed a detail from a larger composition by the sixteenth- century painter El Greco, titled The Holy Family and painted 1594–1604. During her journeys around Europe, Schjerfbeck made several copies of the religious paintings of Old Masters such as El Greco, Cimabue, and Fra Angelico. She was particularly fascinated by El Greco’s Madonna figures.
In Schjerfbeck’s painting we recognize El Greco’s characteristically elongated figures and their expressive miens. But the lucid peace of mind conveyed by El Greco seems to be less present in Schjerfbeck’s version. The title, My Worldly Madonna, reminds us that her picture is from our modern, secularized world.
Schjerfbeck’s hard, enigmatic shadowing of Mary’s eyes, together with her striking use of black among the otherwise serene hues, creates a dissonance that suggests something unresolved and uncompromising. This touches upon a key aspect of her art, as remarked upon by the artist herself:
“I have always had a longing for the elusive depths of the soul, ones that have yet to find themselves, where everything is still unconscious – that is where discoveries can be made.”
Text: Nina Denney Ness
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0