Over the summer, this statue of the Virgin Mary by Maria Scanu went viral on Reddit, as people discussed whether or not it was intentional that the statue resembled a vulva. While we don’t know the artist’s intent, there is plenty of Christian tradition to support that the statue could have been designed that way on purpose.
Looking through the comments, you see a variety of opinions: there are some jokes being made, some people who are uncomfortable discussing female body parts (including the first comment that uses the phrase “lady bits”), some people who appreciate that the design both looks like a pregnant Mary and like a vulva, and some people who have to educate others on what exactly a vulva is. The assumption is that female body parts are gross or taboo, and that no one associated with a Church that emphasizes purity could possibly have intended to celebrate them.
Discussing the female body in the early Church
The exchange on Reddit reminded me of documents I read from the early days of the Church, when theologians debated Christ’s humanity. Even then, some theologians wanted to present the female body as too dirty and gruesome for God to emerge from. In one exchange, a theologian named Marcion stated his belief that the process of birth was unsuitable for God, and Tertullian of Carthage (also a theologian) defended it. He outlines Marcion’s complaints against the process of birth:
“...the filth of the generative seeds within the womb, of the bodily fluid and the blood; the loathsome, curdled lump of flesh which has to be fed for nine months off this same muck. Describe the womb – expanding daily, heavy, troubled, uneasy even in sleep, torn between the impulses of fastidious distaste and those of excessive hunger...” (On the Flesh of Christ)
Tertullian, however, said that the human body is inseparable from the rest of the human person, that God redeemed all of us, and that “He would not have redeemed what He did not love.” Ultimately, the Church sided with Tertullian - and declared Marcion a heretic.
This disagreement in thought about the female body seems to still exist in different forms today, but there are plenty of examples in Christian history of yonic artwork that celebrated the female body. Early Christians built vulva-shaped baptismal fonts like this one to celebrate being born into new life in Jesus, and medieval artists painted Jesus’s side wound in a yonic way, since it also produced new life as it released blood and water.
If, in fact, Maria Scanu did intend for her statue to resemble a vulva, her choice ought to be celebrated, rather than ridiculed. The vulva is the strong and flexible organ that pushes life into the world. And in Mary’s case, it is the means through which Jesus was brought to earth. If that idea is shocking, that is a good thing, because it helps us remember how truly momentous it is that God took on human flesh and was born to a young woman in Nazareth.
Remembering Mary’s side of the Christmas story
This Christmas, just five months after giving birth to my first child, I am trying to focus more on Mary’s experience the night that Jesus was born. The nativity story skips quickly from the tale of pregnant Mary riding on a donkey to baby Jesus sleeping in the manger, but any woman who has given birth will tell you that is not how it happens. Each year, we celebrate Jesus entering the world and taking on messy and fragile human flesh, which was entirely reliant on the blood, sweat, and tears of his mother’s laboring body.
When Christ was laying in the manger, she was still bleeding and aching, without the comfort of a hospital bed or pain killers. She was likely still recovering emotionally from a process that had a much lower survival rate than it does today, and the usual stress of assuming responsibility for a new person must have felt even heavier when that baby was an unexplained miracle. I imagine she was exhausted but couldn’t sleep, interrupted every few hours having to feed the baby Jesus, her nipples feeling the pain of that new experience.
It was because of Mary’s strength and resilience that Jesus was pushed into the world, nourished once he arrived, and loved as he grew. When I look at my nativity scene this Christmas, my eyes will linger a little longer on her figure, wonder why she doesn’t look a bit rounder and more exhausted. But mostly, I’ll be grateful that because of her birthing body, God came to be among us.