Stretching Our Necks

Parmigianino-Madonna of long neck

Madonna of the Long Neck

Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola

(commonly known as Parmigianino)


          Recently I was introduced to this unusual painting by Parmigianino. A strange painting in the “mannerist” style of the 16th century. A rather awkward painting with those elongated bodies of the Virgin and the Christ child. But, in spite of this awkwardness, or maybe because of it, I find the painting quite haunting. Something about that long, long neck of Mary that calls for pause and reflection. What is Parmigianino suggesting?

          Parmigianino’s work reminds me of another painting that’s been very meaningful to me—a Russian Orthodox icon known as the “Virgin of Vladimir,” painted by an anonymous Greek artist in the 12th century and housed for 200 years in the town of Vladimir, Russia.

Virgin of Vladimir

           Here, too we have long necks—the long neck of the Christ child in Mary’s arms and the long neck of Mary herself. Henri Nouwen tells us that in icons like this an elongated neck represents the Holy Spirit, the divine breath of God. Spirit who gave Mary the intense inner strength and courage needed to fulfill her divine destiny. Spirit who accompanied Jesus to give him amazing determination and strength throughout his life and through his death.

          Parmigianino was clearly not painting an icon, and he was probably not focusing on the Holy Spirit when he painted his Madonna’s long neck. It’s more likely that he was simply highlighting Mary’s strength, a strength emphasized in the strong, tall pillar just behind her. But surely the strength that Parmigianino saw in Mary, the strength he accentuated in his painting, the strength that gave her courage to open herself to the newness of God’s dramatic activity in her life, surely that strength came from the Spirit of God, even as the angel Gabriel had promised: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

          Long necks. Strong necks. Spirit-filled necks. Down through the centuries, so many saints have made our world a better place because they have let their necks be stretched by Spirit of God. Have let their lives be conduits for all the goodness that God longs to spill over our world. Some were giants of faith who influenced the history of the world. Many more were little people who quietly and faithfully made the lives of those around them brighter, caring for their needs and bringing God a little closer for them.

          Now it’s our turn. So here’s to longer necks for all of us. Here’s to Pentecostal Spirit breathing strength and courage into each of our lives. Strength and courage for our own inner healing. Strength and courage to help us move our world a little closer to the dream God dreamed when the world was freshly formed and Spirit’s Wind creatively and hopefully swept across its waters.


4 thoughts on “Stretching Our Necks

  1. Hi, Carol

    Some additional food for thought. With Mary’s long neck, Parmagianino is not referencing an icon, rather he is referencing the Song of Songs. In Medieval theology, the verse that says of the lover, “Your neck is like a tower overlooking Damascus upon which hang a thousand bucklers,” was seen as a foreshadowing of Mary. It did represent something of her strength and in his picture that strength is reinforced by the columns behind her.

    Equally intriguing to me is the position of Christ child. His pose recalls the pose of a Pieta with one arm hanging lifelessly from his side, his legs slightly akimbo, and his head flopping somewhat loosely. It was conventional in art to foreshadow the death of Christ in this kind of Madonna and child by making the child appear lifeless. Giovanni Bellini has two paintings painted within a couple of years of each other that makes that connection very clear. I’ll post them to your face book page.

    Blessings, Mike

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