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The Byzantine Church was the first to permit Marian images, and these fifth century works of Mary holding Jesus were lively and actually were lifted from the Egyptian tradition, specifically, depictions of the goddess Isis holding her son Horus. As the Byzantine Empire expanded into the Balkan Peninsula and crossed the Adriatic to Italy in the seventh century, Mary the art object became in the process the passive, sad, dependent woman with whom present-day Judeo-Christian are familiar.
The first piece to catch my eye at Tonantzin was Lee Taiz' watercolor "On the Road to Altamira," which captures the depth of European Madonna devotion. Red, white, blue and purple flowers climb a trunk of a tree in the left foreground that houses a triangular yellow shrine with a blue Mary inside.
The painting's green fields roll past a stone church and red-tile-roof house that resemble those in many areas of northwest Spain where roadside shrines dot the crossroads. I have driven past many such shrines with believers who make the sign of the cross as they pass, forming a contemporary link between Mary and the countryside. Europe shares the black Madonna phenomenon with Mexico. While authorities attribute their color to candle smoke or divine intervention, the worship of these holy icons still inspires pilgrimages and miraculous cures.
That black is associated with night, the moon and soil--all feminine attributes in pre-Christian culture--may explain why fair-complected believers worship Madonna negra. Under this sacrosanct image, Rickard has placed a photo of the skull-head Aztec goddess Coatlicue, whose breasts sag like daggers and whose skirt writhes with snakes.
She also sports a necklace comprised of human hearts and hands. An uncoiling snake rises next to her. On the right is Coatlicue's headless daughter Coyolxauhqui, whose head was thrown into the sky to become the moon. Both of these strong muscular Aztec goddesses represent alternative ideal visions of how Chicana artists view themselves. The moon associated with Coyolxauhqui also shows up in another collage by Sylvia Betts, "Xochitl. The moon's supposed effect on women has made it a common symbol of Aztec goddesses.