How I Loved My Kitschy Madonna!

Gerda Wegener (1889-1940), Madonna and child with angels

My column in the latest Catholic Answer Magazine, is entitled “Mary, Mystery and Imagination”, and I explore therein the value of Catholic kitsch to a developing soul:

Because my mother was devoted to Our Lady, and also susceptible to Catholic kitsch, my childhood home was filled with small plastic statues of saints and devotional artwork that fascinated for the sheer incongruity of it.

On my bedroom wall, she had hung an image that looked for all the world as if Mary had brought the Baby Jesus in to a local photographer’s studio and posed for a portrait. The model, whose unnatural eyebrows seemed to have been inspired by Joan Crawford, wore lipstick and was dressed in Marian-blue robes, with a veil that vaguely suggested the starchy architecture of old-fashioned nun gear.

This awful image of Dita Von Teese-as-Mary, bad as it is, isn’t far off the mark of what I looked at, every night:

I loved it. My 5-year-old sensibilities missed such pronounced fakery; all I saw was a human lady, holding a human baby, and looking happy about it. Often in the evening, lying on my bed while my tumultuous family engaged in verbal rampages, I would contemplate the scene intently, noting the serenity of Mary’s brow, the chubby cheeks of the grinning Savior. Sometimes, it seemed to me her smile would broaden, as though Jesus had gurgled at her, and I felt privy to a moment of intimate joy.

Even as a child, I knew that was impossible, but as I grew older I would wonder: Could my imagination and weary eyes have been used by the Holy Spirit to communicate something reassuring to me about the depths of a parent’s love for a child? Sensible people will say no, but I’m willing to dare them and allow for mystery, because the Holy Spirit can use anything — even a bit of kitsch and our own synapses — toward God’s purposes.

In “The Story of a Soul,” St. Thérèse writes of being bedridden with fever, only to be healed after a statue of Mary seemed to smile at her. Many would read that and be justifiably skeptical; they would call her illness a psychosomatic event precipitated by the absence of a beloved sister and attribute her healing to self-hypnosis. We moderns do feel better, more secure, when we can reduce “things visible and invisible” to the ordinary with reasonable-sounding explanations.

But when has God ever been reasonable, particularly when it comes to Mary?

You can read the rest here.
What sort of Catholic Kitsch did you grow up with, and do you remember any of it fondly?

In order to let you answer, I’ll open comments, even though it is Lent.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • KyPerson

    For me it was the Infant of Prague. My Infant statue had more clothes than any Barbie doll. All the clothes were satin and lace and more satin and even more lace. I never liked dolls, but I did like dressing up my Infant of Prague.

  • Deacon Sean Smith

    Our living room had a “Jesus wall” where there were all kinds of images. The one that sticks out is one if those 3-D type images where as you adjust the angle of the picture, other images are revealed. This one had the Sacred Heart of Jesus image and the Immaculate Heart of Mary image. If you turned it just right, Mary appeared with Jesus’ beard. Unforgettable!


    Yep, dress up with Baby Jesus!

  • Adam Frey

    Yay, comments! As a kid, I had a Marvel Comics book about the Life of Pope John Paul II which covered him up until the 1980s. (Who knew he had another 20 to go?) I’m not sure I’d call it kitschy, as it was a fairly serious comic that covered his time as a Nazi prisoner and later dealing with the communists.

    Oh, and my Catholic elementary school had a small picture of the Holy Family in Egypt way back when I was in first grade. My class had its 20th anniversary reunion a few years ago, and I had a quick tour of the school to see how it changed. That same Holy Family picture is still in my old classroom. Pretty cool to see it almost 30 years later.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    There’s stuff way worse than kitsch.

  • elizabertha

    As a wedding gift, back in 1976, my grandmother gave me a 3-D ceramic wall plaque of the “Madonna of the Kitchen.” Mary looks like a very pale 1950s mom wearing a white robe with a peter pan collar, a blue veil, and a pink apron. I love it!! She is still on my kitchen wall.

  • Theodore Seeber

    I just bought my son a present I’m giving him next Wednesday Night: The Last Supper by Da Vinci, in Lego. Or at least, a lego-like third party substance. Still, 13 minifigs + 200 odd bricks for $39 isn’t bad.

  • Karin Erickson Deitrick

    Being a protestant minister’s daughter I didn’t grow up with Catholic kitsch. I guess you could say that I grew up with protestant kitsch. Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ” hung in our home. To this day when I think of Jesus that is how I picture him.

  • Nancy

    We had (and I have now) a picture of the child Jesus that was apparently quite popular in the 50s. He became known to my kids as “Jesus Christ Who Knocked Over the Garbage Cans.” The story goes is that my Dad was teaching my oldest brother about Jesus and would point to the picture or a crucifix and say “This is Jesus”. After overhearing Dad’s grumbling one day, my brother apparently thought Jesus had a middle and last name.

  • Mark.

    Or you could consider that a bonus picture of St. Wilgefortis!

  • Gail Finke

    I had a little square music box on a rope that hung from the knob of my closet door, decorated with that Hummel-style picture of the two little children crossing a bridge holding hands (I htink) while a transparent white female angel with huge wings watches over them. I thought it was beautiful and it made me feel very happy and secure. OTOH my grandmother’s bedroom had a picture of the “Two Hearts” – Mary and her Immaculate Heart and Jesus and his Sacred Heart — that I found fascinating and horrifying. Definitely got my religious imagination going!!!