Julia Margaret Cameron and her Marys

‘Mary Mother’, 1867 and ‘The Angel at the Tomb’, 1870

The Virgin Mary is a compelling and complex character for any believer, particularly a woman of the mid-nineteenth century. On the one hand, she was the ideal of femininity – gentle, nurturing, compassionate. If ever there was a woman who was great through love, it is the Madonna. On the other hand, as both mother and virgin, she presented a paradox. Because her virtue was reconciled with her motherhood through divine interventions, a method not available to other mortals, she represented an unattainable realm for women. … [Noting the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception proposed by the Catholic Church in 1854] If Mary is without original sin, she is not simply a mortal who has been blessed, but she is both human and divine, unique in her purity, and, as such, all the more daunting as a model of feminine grace.

The photograph of The Angel at the Tomb takes as its subject the angel who was in attendance at the moment of Christ’s Resurrection. In the Scriptures, the angel is a man. In this photograph, the angel is Cameron’s maid Mary Hillier. Decidedly feminine, her profile is cut by a light from above that accentuates the delicate contour of her brow, nose and chin. Hillier’s hair is the dominant feature of the picture. rendered in soft contrast and orange-coloured tones, her cascade of kinky waves dissolves to cotton softness at the bottom of the frame. With a sheet wrapped around her shoulders and carelessly pinned just below the sternum, Hillier is slightly disheveled, a woman in dishabille. In fact, she looks more like Mary Magdalene. … The picture is of a woman who seems to be at once a heavenly figure and someone of flesh and blood – she is both melancholy and angelic, sensual and divine.

From Sylvia Wolf’s Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women, p. 62-63.

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