Madonna of the Rocks 2009
Oil on canvas
With frame 80 x 70 cm, canvas 50.6 x 40.6 cm
The composition of Madonna of the rocks was derived from Raphael’s Cowper Madonna. The image is of a mother and child, set against the background of the Rocks district in Sydney. The mother is semi-naked. There is an element of eroticism created by the right breast’s erect nipple which is positioned centrally in the composition.
To her right is a banner proclaiming an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art by controversial photographer Bill Henson. His exhibition is advertised by the very image at the heart of the controversy surrounding claims that he produces pornographic images of minors. At the top of the pole supporting the banner is a transverse beam forming a small flattened out cross or crucifix. The MCA is visible behind the banner and beyond that in the far distance is the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
To the Madonna’s left, or her sinister side, is a cup containing an orange liquid. The white cup has a red polka dot pattern which is a somewhat oblique reference to one of the more famous outfits worn by Leigh Bowery, the gay cross dressing performance artist. In traditional Christian iconography a cup or container next to a Madonna-like image denotes that she is not Mother Mary, but Mary Magdalene the (reformed and sanitised) prostitute. The cup contains the balm with which she will anoint or massage Jesus and the polka dots reference the gay performance artist Leigh Bowery. Beyond the cup is the iconic Sydney opera house from which a rainbow appears to emanate. There is a strong connexion between Sydney and the rainbow, the appropriated (now universal) symbol of the Gay community. The (Gay) rainbow arcs over both the child (saviour/victim) and the woman (mother/lover) providing them with a common halo.
By including various sexual signifiers I raise questions about the woman’s relationship with the cherubic (also) naked child which we find found attempting to climb onto her. If she is Mary Magdalene prior to her salvation, what is she doing with this male child; and why are they portrayed at the Rocks in Sydney, an area traditionally notorious for hedonistic indulgence. The bone structure of the woman’s forearm and hand are visible through the flesh. This penetrating through to the anatomical sub-structure acts as a metaphor for the entire image.