From Nicki Minaj to FrankenMary, the Virgin Mary keeps on appearing in pop culture. This is why


When a hyper-sexualised rap artist channels the most holy “Mother of God”, is it blasphemy or art?

It can be both, says Matthew Tan, a senior lecturer in theology at University of Notre Dame.

“Operations of grace can actually be at work, even in attempts at transgression and blasphemy,” he says.

“If anything, it can communicate a very profound truth: that God can even be at work in these depictions.”

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This includes depictions, he says, like David LaChapelle’s photograph of rapper Nicki Minaj, which draws on religious iconography of the Virgin Mary.

It’s one of four photographs Minaj recently used to announce her pregnancy on social media. (The other three were more Harajuku-Barbie than Holy Mother.)

But Minaj isn’t the first celebrity to embody the Virgin Mary in a maternity photo shoot.

Singer Beyoncé Knowles-Carter did so in 2017, announcing on Instagram — à la Mary — that she and husband Jay-Z were expecting twins.

One month after the birth, Beyoncé published another photo rich with Catholic iconography, only this time she was cradling her newborns, Rumi and Sir.

Sexy mothers and the stain of Eve

According to Kinitra Brooks, a scholar with Michigan State University English department, both Minaj and Beyoncé are challenging notions of race, purity, and motherhood through these photographs.

“[The Virgin Mary] is the first mother who doesn’t have the stain of Eve,” she says.

“So, she becomes this mother that we judge all motherhood by — which is just problematic.

Artists have visually interpreted the Virgin Mary for centuries. This painting is by Italian artist Sandro Botticelli (circa 1480).(Wikimedia Commons)

In Roman Catholicism, it is believed that Mary was conceived and born free of original sin. This is referred to as the “immaculate conception” — not to be confused with the “virgin birth”, the belief that Mary conceived and birthed Jesus while remaining a virgin.

Catholics uphold that Mary retained perpetual virginity throughout her married life.

This belief is disputed by other Christian denominations and some scholars, who point to biblical references that Jesus had brothers and sisters — though Catholics uphold these figures were cousins or children of Joseph from an earlier marriage.

“Jesus was one of many children, so eventually some fun was had,” Dr Brooks contends.

Dr Brooks believes that Minaj’s portrait, in particular, seeks to dismantle the idea that women lose their sexuality when they become mothers.

She adds that Beyoncé’s portrait with her twins not only references Catholicism, but also African spiritual symbology.

“I like to call it the Oshun photo shoot, because it has a lot of Oshun imagery mixed up with the Virgin Mary imagery,” she says.

Singer Beyoncé with her one-month-old twins Rumi and Sir, wearing veil, with flowers behind her.
Dr Brooks says Beyoncé, pictured with her twins Rumi and Sir, brings a “regal nature to black motherhood”.(Supplied: Instagram @beyonce)

Oshun, also spelled Osun, is a goddess or deity of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana.

She is associated with water, fertility and motherhood and, Dr Brooks says, is viewed as “the first woman to give birth to twins” within this African faith system.

Dr Brooks says Beyoncé has increasingly invoked African religious practices and deities in her music and imagery since that 2017 maternity shoot.

The artist’s latest visual album Black Is King, released last month, is a celebration of these influences. The film references Oshun through recurring themes of water and motherhood, and Beyoncé dons the yellow-golden tones associated with the deity.

Lyrically, the reference is explicit. In the track Mood 4 Eva, she sings: “I am the Nala, sister of Naruba, Oshun, Queen Sheba, I am the mother.”

Why black shouldn’t equal lack

Beyoncé and Minaj’s nods to the Holy Mother don’t just counter notions of purity, they defy assumptions about race, says Dr Brooks.

“They are definitely pushing back on the problematic construct of black motherhood,” she says.

“[That’s the idea that] ‘black mothers don’t get married, black mothers don’t take care of their children, black mothers are poor.'”

Instead, she says, these portraits celebrate black motherhood — endowing it with a blessed, regal nature — and reinforce Mary’s ethnicity.

A Mexican Catholic holds up a Virgin of Guadalupe statue, as part of the feast of the virgin, in Mexico City.
In Mexico, the Virgin Mary, known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, is represented as a woman of colour.(Getty Images: NurPhoto)

According to Dr Tan, there are many representations of Mary as a woman of colour in Asian, African and South American communities.

“The most famous is the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico, where she’s depicted as a black woman,” he says.

“God can be present through all of these cultures, and Mary is the kind of representative of that.”

FrankenMary and immortality

For Dr Tan, this idea — that God can be present in all cultures, all art forms — can be taken one step further.

He believes God can also be found in the kitsch, including the controversial statues made by French artist Soasig Chamaillard.

The works transform traditional Virgin Mary figures into pop culture icons — think Super Mario, Hello Kitty, Frankenstein, and the pink Power Ranger. In some, Mary cradles a baby Elmo or Pikachu instead of baby Jesus.

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“That’s one way of reading it, but I think it’s a very shallow way of reading it.”

Dr Tan thinks there’s more at play — like the juxtaposition between Mary’s eternal nature and the fleeting lifespan of the kitsch.

Roman Catholics believe Mary was assumed “body and soul” into heaven. That belief is celebrated annually during the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on 15 August.

“Mary stands as a symbol of hope for what we as Christians hope to achieve, which is this immortality,” Dr Tan explains.

And perhaps, he says, immortality is precisely what Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé are striving for as artists.

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Young NSW Waratahs star Will Harrison ready to shine against Brumbies after appearing on Wallabies radar


The youngster can afford to laugh about his off-the-cuff description given Rennie could be his national coach in coming months.

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Harrison is remaining level-headed about his chances, and so too is his Waratahs coach. Whilst a great admirer of a player roughly a third his age, Rob Penney was torn when asked if Harrison would look out place if Rennie took a punt on the Coogee product.

“Certainly no,” Penney said. “Would it be the right thing now? I’m not sure. But I’ve been advocating for him. He’s such a mature kid in so many ways.”

Inevitable questions about whether Harrison is ready for international rugby can only be answered on the field. He has a brilliant chance this weekend as news emerged on Friday afternoon that Karmichael Hunt, Harrison’s outside man, had been ruled out with a hamstring injury, prompting Joey Walton to move to No.12, Lalakai Foketi to No.13 and Australian sevens representative Nick Malouf now coming onto a 5-3 bench with a Super Rugby debut beckoning.

Steering the Waratahs to their first victory in Canberra since 2018 and making amends for an ugly 47-14 loss earlier in the year would certainly do Harrison’s chances no harm.

“If Dave is happy to put me there, then I guess that shows he’s got confidence in me I can do my thing there,” Harrison told the Herald. “There’s a lot of good footballers in James O’Connor and Matty Toomua. Having an opportunity to learn off them would be unreal.

Will Harrison takes a carry against the Reds.

Will Harrison takes a carry against the Reds. Credit:Getty

“It was nice to have some recognition … I’ve got to keep working hard. Having that feedback from Dave and the other coaches is really positive for me.

“One of the big things I’m trying to work on in my game is just playing a bit flatter. A few times there I probably played a bit deep … and because I can run the ball a bit and have a bit of footwork at the line, they’ve encouraged me to back myself and play a bit flatter.”

Brumbies playmaker Noah Lolesio, Harrison’s Junior Wallabies teammate from last year, picked up a serious hamstring injury when the Waratahs and Brumbies last met in round three.

At a time when Australian rugby is crying out for its next superstar, the spotlight shifted from Lolesio, playing well behind a dominant Brumbies forward pack, to Harrison, who was slowly growing in confidence each game in his debut season.

“[Wearing a Wallabies jersey] is on every player’s mind to be honest,” Harrison said. “You play Super Rugby to be a Wallabies chance. It’s not the first thing I think of though. My mind is firmly on trying to win this comp with those boys.”

Michael Hooper said earlier this month that he found it far easier to brush off bad defeats as young player than he does now. That doesn’t appear to be totally the case for Harrison when questioned about the 24-23 loss to the Brumbies five weeks ago.

“It’s still hard to speak about,” said Harrison of a game where the Waratahs led 20-5. “We should have won that game. It was definitely a very sombre change room. The boys took that one really hard. We definitely don’t want to be repeating that. It’s going to be a long bus ride if we don’t win.”

Continuity has helped Harrison and he credited a chat with Penney after a loss to the Blues earlier in the year as a catalyst for him coming out of his shell.

“The first couple of weeks you’re running around and telling Michael Hooper and Rob Simmons and Kurtley Beale what to do, so it’s a bit intimidating as a young flyhalf,” Harrison said. “Definitely there is a lot of trust now between myself and other players.”

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Victory would all but lock up a finals spot for the Waratahs, who promise they will be fired up from minute one and ready to play expansive rugby.

“The biggest thing is not going in our shell,” Harrison said. “We’ve also got to win the collisions. They’ve got a big dominant forward pack and they always show up at home.

“From that first whistle, we’ve got to out-enthuse them and be in it for 80 minutes.”

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