The intriguing history of the ‘Black Madonna’

Source: BBC News

By Alastair Sooke

Most people coming face to face for the first time with Dutch artist Maerten van Heemskerck’s 16th-Century oil painting of the Virgin and Child, at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland, would see a perfectly conventional picture: before an imaginary landscape meant to evoke Mediterranean antiquity, a seated blonde Mary, her plaited hair draped in orange cloth, glances at the viewer, while the Christ child fidgets on her lap, ignoring his mother’s exposed breast. So far, so traditional.

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For the celebrated 44-year-old US artist Theaster Gates, however, Van Heemskerck’s painting is charged with surprising significance. “Christ has turned away from his mom’s milk, and is looking dubious and devious,” he tells BBC Culture. “Meanwhile, Mary is the image of a harlot, with come-hither eyes. I call her ‘The Ghetto Madonna’.”

Gates’s ‘reading’ may be unorthodox, even provocative – in particular, his assertion that Van Heemskerck’s Virgin “is an octoroon, ie one-eighth black” is bound to make art historians start harrumphing. But it is typical of the way his deft mind works, making startling, unforeseen connections between disparate things.

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