Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Sistine Madonna & The Waldorf Kindergarten

These are the emotions  I experience each time I walk into an Early Childhood Waldorf classroom.
Beautiful colors and details seem to mingle together, and I get the feeling that I am not only in a playspace, but a place that is very much like a home.
Pleasant smells...
Reverence for all things contained in the room...

                                                                                              Guardian Angel by Marjan Van Zeyl
Imagery does so much for me; evokes so many sensations and memories.
I imagine what imagery does for a very young child, and I believe that it effects children in a very powerful way.
This past week, I have been researching and considering the image of the Sistine Madonna.

                                                                              The Sistine Madonna by Raphael, 1513
Often, we find this image placed within the Waldorf Early Childhood classroom.
It's made me more than curious.
Is it appropriate? What does it mean?
The Sistine Madonna is one of many images within Waldorf Kindergartens and Nurseries that evoke a sense of motherly love....but it is certainly the one which has struck me the most. The image is thought to have healing qualities, or is even described as a "Yantra". (an image that works on a person on many levels, even by its mere presence!)

                                                       "Natalis" ("Natal Day" or "Day of Birth") by Marjan Van Zeyl

The image makes me feel peaceful and perhaps, as a mother myself, even powerful.
But it wasn't until I researched the details of the painting that I began to understand why this image means so much to so many....
Consider the man and woman below Mother and Child...
The man is Sixtus II, a pope who was widely admired for his magnanimity and benevolence. In short, he transformed his power into peace during a time of dire conflict.

He seems to be gesturing to us, the viewers, while he looks on in deep recognition and reverence at the Mother and Child. He also places his hand to his heart, which makes me think of truth and sympathy.

The woman is Saint Barbara, a beautiful woman who was locked up in a tower by her father who feared she had become a Christian.

She maintained her faith and suffered violence which left her disfigured for the rest of her life. Saint Barbara lived into her late seventies and was known for her caring and loving deeds for the poor and ailing.
Here we have 2 powerful archetypes: power turned to peace, and the sacrifice of beauty turned into spiritual love. A wise choice by the artist, I believe!

The two cherubs at the bottom of the piece are a well known image. To me, they represent a delightful childlike innocence. I also consider a child literally looking up at the piece, and this being the closest image to them...there is some significance there! The emotions involved with pondering so much about the vast world they are waking up to ate captured so beautifully here!!

The Madonna and Child eminate the strongest emotions for me. The Child is so robust and awake...and he is about the same size as my son at this time. He appears so aware and present! This vignette brings me into the realm of motherhood; the ultimate feminine quality...

How I feel when I hold him in my arms and nurse him..
How I feel when he reaches out to me in his sleep..
How he is instantly comforted by my touch; his eyes roll back and his body softens...

                                                                                      W and I, Spring 2010
All of the classrooms I have personally visited who have decided to display this image use a "cropped" version of solely the Mother and Child. The image is displayed on the wall in a simple fashion. I had questions for the classroom teacher I visited this past Fall....
"What's the siginifcance of this image in your classroom?", I asked.
"It's the archetypal mother," she replied. Plain and simple. "The image moves many people..."
We all know by now that Waldorf schools have been "accused" of operating as secular schools. They've been brought to court over it, and this is one of the small details in question. To a first time visitor in a Waldorf classroom, the image may suggest religious undertones in the classroom and teacher.

                                                                                      River Valley Waldorf School

I feel that a gentle and simple conversation (much like what I experienced) would be effective in explaining the significance of the piece. At the time, I wasn't religious by *any* means, but I still understood. As I walked closer to the print, I gazed at the Mother figure. Yes, I got it. I felt the magnitude. In fact, I now feel somewhat energized each time I look at an iconic representation....

                                                                                 Saint Martin, brave and kind...

Also noteworthy is the decision to display the piece in simplicity and reverence, not sentimentality. Draping the painting with cloth, surrounding it with flowers and candles in an altar-like fashion would be inappropriate in a Waldorf Kindergarten, not to mention overly suggestive and somewhat deceiving to families new to a school community.
Rudolf Steiner mentions The Sistine Madonna often in his lectures and teachings. It's pretty complicated, and I don't think I have a deep enough understanding of Anthroposophy yet to reflect upon it in this space. But worth mentioning is the advice which he gave mothers-to-be...."Look upon Raphael's painting of The Sistine Madonna often...."

 I've made the choice to display the piece in my home, in our playroom. As a  mother and hopeful Waldorf early childhood teacher, I draw sensation and potency from the archetypal mother. Isn't that what an early childhood teacher is: an archetypal mother? Someone who strives to move about the day emanating love, gentleness, and a model worthy of imitation? Some young visitors to our playschool recently noticed it, and exclaimed...."Look! That's like me and my mom!"
That's the most all encompassing and powerful explanation I've come across yet.

 ....I'm interested in your initial thoughts of the paining.
....How do you feel about the placement in a Waldorf classroom?


  1. i think it is a wonderful idea to display such a beautiful picture. it does have the power to remind us as mothers how we should be. i think i would like to have visual images like these to help bring to my mind the image i want to portray. but it's not the mother in the picture that brings the power to accomplish this task of mothering -it's the Baby.

  2. Hmmm, that's tricky. I find the painting beautiful and personally it has a lot of meaning for me. However I can certainly see how it is perceived as religious and specifically christian. Some of the lovely and more neutral Mother and child representations you've included seem more appropriate to me as they seem more pure- without religious overtones. Humanity is so touchy about religion, isn't it?

  3. I never knew about this painting being special in Waldorf edcation, but I am fairly new to it. I think it is so appropriate and incidentally this is the painting that made the strongest impression on me out of all (many) art museums that I have visited. When I saw it in person in Dresden, it was like I was hit in the abdomen, it is so much more powerful in real life. I just sat there for 30 minutes or more, taking in all the beautiful spiritual energy that just pours out of it. It is absolutely my favorite picture, thanks for sharing.

  4. I think the cropped version of the mother and child is perfect for a classroom, and honestly wouldn't have recognized it as part of the larger piece since I'm not religious myself. I would however probably find the whole image odd in a classroom as it does appear more religious in nature. I think I'd wonder what the meaning was and what they were teaching my children about it. The image of mother and child is completely self explanatory to me, and completely endearing... in fact I'll be keeping my eyes out for mother/child images for our playroom/classroom :)

  5. I don't think I have ever seen that painting before - we have images of the Madonna and Child in every room of our house. I love to look at the Holy Child and think about Him, about His dependence and neediness and vulnerability, and at her face and how she met all those needs and poured her love into the Child who was also her God. It does inspire me to look at such images. (the shot of you and W is also very beautiful and inspiring!)

  6. You know, I was just looking at this image yesterday answering your question about art postcards, specifically the drawing of the mother by the sleeping baby. I don't feel anything religious about it, even as a Christian. I feel tenderness for my own child, a compulsion to mother others I meet. If I were in a classroom setting, it would serve as a reminder to have compassion and respect for the children there. The softness of it softens my hard edges, reminds me that Waldorf is a very deliberate, intuitive way of teaching. Even though my own relationship with my mother does not resemble this picture, it still touches me in a positive way. :-)

  7. Dear Rebecca,
    thank you for this wonderful post. I do totally agree with you. Serenity.Safety.Love. The pictures touches me on many different levels in my heart, mind and soul. Our picture is hanging on the wall in our kitchen. The place where we come together each morning with the whole familiy to share our breakfast and plan the day.
    I want to take a photo and link it back in the next days (I will also link the beautiful cardholder) ;0)

  8. I have photographs of Mary with child in our home. I look to her example often. I would however think that this was a religious picture in a classroom. I associate the Holy Mother and most depictions of her with the catholic church.
    I have to say that photograph of you and W last spring is simply stunning. I would put THAT in your classroom:)

  9. Rebecca...First, I am struck by how well you articulated the symbolism of this painting. You are very gifted with words, my friend. I grappled with the appropriateness of this painting when I first experienced it in a Waldorf Kinderhaus we visited many many times five years ago when my youngest was in a Sweet Pea playgroup. Now, we have it in our home. When I have been pregnant (two more times) it came to a place of more prominence. Yes indeed, the presence of the images evokes calmness and serenity. Beauty and love. Christianity didn't resonate with me at all until I had my first child. Now, I really understand the connection of a mother and child, feeling like my son is a gift to the world and he will do amazing things here. Many thanks for your insightful, considerate appreciation of these images (most of which we have, too). Did I mention I was an Art History major and you may be one too?
    xo Jules

  10. I love our mother Mary. This depiction of her with the Child Jesus, is sweet. She is mother to us all, and He, Prince of Peace. A very appropriate image for any early childhood classroom. :) Thanks for sharing.

  11. I have a very old image/painting of the Sistine Madonna- I've been trying to find out more about the painting I have. It's very old- brown and white. It's not the whole painting as shown, but just the Madonna and child. Any thoughts?

  12. It´s so lovely to read your words, some of the things you sais is tuning me in on the waldorf road even more. It´s a work to stay tuned and awake and I must sometimes remember to think what I think, and your words reminded me of that,. Thank you

    Waldorf early childhood teacher in Denmark

  13. Now that I have discovered your wonderful blog, I hope that you won't mind me adding something here and there. Here is an introductory article I wrote for new Waldorf parents concerning the role of religion in Waldorf Education. There is a short section on the Sistine Madonna. I hope that you will find it of interest and value.

    Christine Natale

    Religion in Waldorf Education

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  15. The Sistine Madonna was painted by Raphael. It is an image of the developing human being through all ages, showing the emerging human soul “out of the clouds” It reflects inwardly our relationship to the Spiritual world in a universal sense. Raphael portrays in his paintings in a unique and profound way the transition of the pre-Christian era into the post-Christian era where the human being becomes more inward in his soul life (in contrast to the Greek era when beauty was portrayed more outwardly still).
    Rudolf Steiner advised that the Sistine Madonna in the surroundings of the young child was an image that would remind them subconsciously of their Spiritual origin and can bring a sense of security and trust in this earthly realm where they are now finding their way anew.
    Here are a few links to what Steiner said about Raphael and the Sistine Madonna, as well as some other references on the painting and its relevance for the young child.
    • The Mission of Raphael in the light of spiritual science – R Steiner

    • Isis and Madonna – R Steiner

    • The Sistine Madonna – thoughts and experiences:

    • Reflections on the Sistine Madonna:


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