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Mary with the Midwives THE PAINTINGS

detail of Mary
"Mary with the Midwives""
from the collection of Barbara Marian

"Mary with the Midwives" is a 42"x54" oil painting on canvas, by Janet McKenzie, ©2003, and is part of the collection of Barbara Marian of Harvard, Illinois.

Barbara Marian commissioned "Mary with the Midwives" as the second of three images by Janet McKenzie that form the core of The Nativity Project, an effort initiated by Marian to encourage women and men to revisit the stories of the birth of Jesus and of his ministry in order to discover in them the active presence and vital role of women.

Here--perhaps for the first time in art--Mary is depicted in the embrace of midwives about to deliver her baby. True to her style, the artist grounds and supports the holy women against vertical and horizontal lines suggesting stained glass or, perhaps, a window, through which we see the red of the sun setting--marking the beginning of a new day, as time is reckoned in the Bible.

The midwives are black, pointing us toward the archetype of the Black Madonna, locating the origin of this visual midrash in the womb of the Earth Mother, and embracing the blackness of the divine mystery. The water-bearing gourds on their garments, designed and woven by African women, symbolize both womb and birth waters, recalling the sea of creation, the source and cradle of all life. Mary's skin color is light to include women from other parts of the world. She wears the black robe the artist uses in many of her paintings to symbolize the offering of a cloak of protection to all who behold her.

The women's eyes are closed in heightened awareness and communion with creative energy within. Supported by the midwives, Mary draws the strength and assurances she needs as she begins to experience the pain and the labor of giving birth. Lips parted, she is exhaling, surrendering her breath and being to the Divine at work and shining within her, as a white dove--the classic symbol of inspiration and new life--hovers above.

In the Book of Exodus midwives play an essential role in the story of liberation yet are "conspicuous in their absence" in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. In telling the story of the birth of Jesus neither evangelist mentions midwives. However, a person of the first-century Mediterranean world would have assumed that midwives were present to assist Mary at her time of delivery. Then as now, women would not attempt to give birth--one of the riskiest things any woman can do--without the guidance and help of someone who knows what she is doing.

Matthew used the story of Moses as background and parallel to his telling of the birth of Jesus. It is all the more interesting that he did not connect the heroic midwives of Moses' community, Shiphrah and Puah, who refused to follow Pharaoh's command to kill boy babies at birth--with midwives to assist Mary for the safe delivery of Jesus, whom Matthew considered to be the second Moses.

In Luke's narrative, Joseph travels with Mary to Bethlehem to the home of his family of origin to be enrolled in the census decreed by Caesar Augustus. The women of his family would have gathered around Mary and seen to her every need before, during, and after her baby was born.

In either case, neither Matthew nor Luke thought it necessary to mention the presence of midwives.

The infancy narrative in the Qur'an, on the other hand, illuminates the realities and needs of a woman laboring to deliver her child and that she does not do so by herself. Here is the story of the birth of Jesus from the sacred readings of Islam.

Juz' 16 Surah Maryam 19:22-27
"So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.
And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: she cried (in her anguish): AH! Would that I had died before this! Would that I had been a thing forgotten. But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): "Grieve not, for your Lord has provided a rivulet beneath you;
"And shake towards yourself the trunk of the palm-tree: and it will let fall fresh ripe dates upon you. So eat and drink and cool (your) eye. And if you do see any man, say: "I have vowed a fast to (Allah) Most Gracious, and this day will I enter into no talk with any human being. At length she brought the (babe) to her people, carrying him (in her arms).

The footnotes with the text are as follows:
#2476. She was but human, and suffered the pangs of an expectant mother, with no one to attend on her. The circumstances being peculiar,
she had got far away from her people.

#2477. Unseen Providence had seen that she should not suffer from thirst or from hunger. The rivulet provided her with water also for ablutions.

#2478. Cool your eye: an idiom for "comfort yourself and be glad".
The literal meaning should not, however, be lost sight of. She was to cool her eyes (perhaps full of tears) with the fresh water of the rivulet and take comfort that a remarkable babe had been born to her.

detail of midwives
"Mary with the Midwives "
from the collection of Barbara Marian

The story in the Qur'an is a startling revelation. According to this account, no one is around to help Mary as she labors to give birth to Jesus. No one, that is, except Allah Most Gracious! Mary is not alone. GOD is present. GOD is with her. God is Mary's companion and birth-coach, comforting her, advising her and providing what she needs to give birth--water to drink and for washing and food to strengthen and sustain her through her labor. GOD is Mary's MIDWIFE!

The life-giving role of the midwife fulfilled by God in the story in the Qur'an and absent from the Christian scriptures leaps into our awareness in Janet McKenzie's groundbreaking and luminous depiction of "Mary with the Midwives." Here for women of today is a transformative icon that names and celebrates the labor of women on behalf of others as birthing the divine--in their babies, their arts, their sciences, relationships and care of the earth--supported by the experience, wisdom, resources and advocacy of other women.

Pregnant women of all faiths--and none--midwives, cab drivers, medical teams, religious, clergy, teachers, artists, peace and justice activists--women everywhere who are laboring to bring their dreams to life will cherish this image and come to know that their work for the benefit of others, with Mary's, is full of grace.

In Exodus 1: 20 we read, "God dealt well with the midwives."
In Janet Mckenzie's "Mary, with the Midwives," all who serve as midwives to bring forth new life in and for others, see that they, too, are blest by
The One Who Saves.

Barbara Marian, ©2003