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.
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.