Gouache on paper.
Early Christians appropriated much of Isis’ iconography for the Virgin Mary. She was given several of Isis’ titles – such as “Star of the Sea” (Stella maris) and “Queen of Heaven”. And traditionally, Isis was shown standing on a crescent moon or with stars in her hair or around her head, as is Mary the Virgin.
But the most strikingly similar image is that of the mother and child.
Isis, too, was worshipped as a holy virgin. But although she was also the mother of Horus, this presented no problem to the minds of her millions of followers.
To them, their gods may or may not have once walked the earth: what mattered was what they embodied. The gods were understood to be living archetypes, not historical characters.
Far from being an unsophisticated and ignorant religion, Isians appear to have had a profound grasp of the human psyche.
Isis was worshipped as both Virgin and Mother – but not as a Virgin Mother.
The worship of most major goddesses emphasised their essential femininity by dividing it up into three main aspects, each representing the lifecycle of real women. First, the Virgin, then the Mother, then the Crone; all three are also linked to the new moon, the full moon and the dark of the moon.
Isis was understood to stand for the whole of female experience, including sexual love. The egg represents both new and renewal of life in many religious teachings through the ages, and has been appropriated in recent times for easter celebrations.
Interestingly, the Virgin Mary has not always worn blue. In Russian icons she is more often in red, while the Byzantine artists in the seventh century or so usually showed her in purple. Sometimes she is in white too – she had a big wardrobe.
In fifteenth century Holland, Mary often wore scarlet because that was the most expensive cloth; the earlier Byzantine choice of purple was similarly because this was a valuable dye at that period.
Several paintings of Mary from these times show her in cloth fringed with Arabic script which reads as the first of Islam’s Five Pillars: “There is no god but God, and Mohammed is His Prophet” – the finest cloths available were made by Moslems.
When in the thirteenth century ultramarine arrived in Italy as the most expensive colour on the market, it was used to dress Mary. Pope Pius V standardised liturgical colour coding in the sixteenth century, since then blue has always been reserved for the Mother of Christ.
So here’s my homage to life, mothers and the fascinating evolution of spiritual archetypes.