by Liliane Baab
The painting "Mary with the Parrot" by Hans Baldung Grien is an unconventional key work. The panel made of lime wood shows the life-size Mary with the baby Jesus in her arms. There are also a winged putto and two birds in the foreground. Mary stands behind a stone window-like opening that can be seen at the left and bottom edges of the painting. The stone cornice, although openly witnessing the intimate scene, offers the viewer a certain distance that he or she does not feel like overcoming. The naked baby Jesus sits on a spread red cloth, which lies on the stone parapet, at chest level in front of her. The group of people stands in front of an unlit background, which is closed off by a dark curtain at the top. Thus the place where the scene takes place cannot be identified more closely.
Maria is visible up to about her waist and wears a dark blue dress made of a thick velvet fabric. The pulled-down neckline exposes her left breast, so that relatively much of her naked and very light skin is visible to the viewer. She holds her head slightly to the left, her upper body turned to the right. She looks at the viewer openly and relaxed in a mysterious and slightly teasing, but still reserved way. With her left hand she seems to support the baby Jesus through the fabric of her dress, while with her right hand she touches her naked breast directly. She wears a string of pearls around her neck and a jeweled bracelet in her hair. The reddish hair appears to be tied at the nape of her neck and hangs wavy over her right shoulder. The strikingly fair skin is evenly smooth, her face beautiful.
On Maria's left shoulder sits a full-grown gray parrot with a bright red tail. He nips Mary with his beak in the neck held out to him.
The baby Jesus is depicted as an infant of about one year with a nimbus. It sits upright and puts on or off to drink. He holds the nipple of his mother still or already between his lips and looks penetratingly at the viewer. A very unusual scene. At his feet sits a green parakeet on the stone windowsill, whose gaze meets the child.
A putto, equipped with wings, looks over his right shoulder into the face of Mary. He is together with her under the barely visible veil.
Obviously, the depiction is not a traditional religious devotion to Mary as a devotional image . Baldung leaves the path of regularity and perfection of his time, which was strongly influenced by Dürer. Instead, he allows for humanist and Reformation influences. Mary is depicted here as a saint, but also as a woman. Female beauty and the associated potential power over the man and the fear of losing control forms in Baldung's time with the witch hunt and may have played a rudimentary role in this painting, inspiring the painter to also have Mary break out of her usual role in the image.
The connotation of the parrot could help the viewer to interpret the picture. The title of the picture, "Mary with the Parrot," draws attention to its importance in this regard. The bird figure can be found in the Middle Ages quite in connection with the image type of the Madonna with the Child.(1) Bird plumage is just as dirt-repellent as the "white vest" of Mary. Baldung chose the parakeet deliberately as a bird picture addition, because the parakeet surrounds a similarly ambivalent interpretation as the depicted Mary. As an exotic bird it stands for unapproachable wealth, but at the same time it forms a connection to paradise and the fall of man. An important function of the bird in medieval panel painting is that of the herald of fate.(2) Using the example of Mary, Baldung's painting reflects the mood towards women at that time. A mixture of fear, threat and adoration.
1 Roth-Bojadzhiev, Gertrud: Studien zur Bedeutung der Vögel in der mittelelaterlichen Tafelmalerei , Cologne, 1985, p. 18.
2 Roth-Bojadzhiev, Gertrud, 1985, (see note 48), p. 53.
Hans Baldung Grien - Mary with the Parrot
Oil on lime wood, 1533, 91.5 x 63.3 cm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg.