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Gabrielle Burton Headshot

The Mother's Day Image That Says It All

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There are countless images celebrating motherhood from just about anything by Mary Cassatt to those adorable polar bear cubs snuggling with Momma Bear.

Here's my nomination for an image that says it all (or at least a lot of it): Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne." Painted in the early 1500s, it hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris.


There are many biblical and artistic interpretations of this picture and its symbols, (including a wacky one by Freud about vultures and nursing -- you can find it on Wikipedia).

I'm not a biblical or art scholar, and have simply an immediate emotional response to the painting.

It's beautiful.

It's life flowing through three generations.

It captures a shift in child-rearing as you age. The two mothers are each focused on their child, while the child Jesus looks back at his mother/reaches outward to the lamb. Mary is protective, perhaps restraining, while Anne seems wise and accepting that Jesus is moving away as children do.

I love how Anne, the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus, is huge. It's almost comical. She's eight feet tall, just like our mothers and grandmothers were (and perhaps Leonardo's also). I admit that as a short grandmother, I aspire to tallness.

But the very top reason I love this painting is because the adult Mary is sitting on her mother's lap.

In our secret hearts, don't many of us long to do that once more? To be held and also to hold.

To have our mothers smile at us the way Anne smiles at her daughter, benevolent and approving, just beaming maternal pride.

To hold our grown children physically close in such a casual way.

In Michelangelo's sculpture, "Pieta," done about the same time as this painting, Mary holds her grown son's dead body across her lap. "Pieta" is the essence of sorrow captured.

"The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne" is the reverse -- simpler times and joy captured.

Happy Mother's Day to everyone who loves and nurtures children.