Paint the World is a 501(c)3 aiming to shift the paradigm around the impact potential of the arts. In 2021, PTW ran programs in 6 countries, engaging healthcare, education, and engineering professionals. Our Symbols Series is an exploration of archetypal symbols that arise from a community’s collective unconscious & how we can strategically use the appearance of these symbols in art to better understand community needs. To stay up to date on latest releases, follow us on instagram, and join us here.
The Mother Archetype
Transcending time and space, changing forms from culture to culture, the essence of the “Mother” archetype has undoubtedly remained intact. In Carl Jung’s analytical psychology, the primordial image of the generative and sustaining mother figure that has occurred repeatedly in various cultural concepts and myths since ancient times is sustained within the collective unconscious.
This archetype inevitably has an effect so profoundly powerful that our experience with it can effectively determine the entire course of our life. Accordingly, Jung considered the “Mother” the most important archetype because it simply seems to contain all else.
The “Mother” can take the more obvious form of personal mother, grandmother, stepmother, mother in law, nurse, governess, but can also be fulfilled in figurative Mothers such as the “Madonna” or the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Other Mother symbols include the Church, country, the Earth, the woods, the sea, a garden, a ploughed field, a spring or well. Often, nature is seen as the “Mother,” nurturing and caring for all of humanity.
Depictions of mothers in art, both physically and figuratively, date back to the early stages of human life. One of the very first forms of human religious expression to ever emerge was the symbol of the Great Mother.
From earthy depictions in prehistoric statues to vibrant street art that resonates with the energy of the present, the “Mother” archetype spans time and space as a cornerstone of our psychology.
The Mother Archetype in Ancient Art
In many cultures, the role of mothers has long been linked to the concept of fertility. Mothers provide nourishment, and abundance. As (human) babies live and thrive through breast milk, the connection between the Mother symbol and ideas of sustenance and prosperity are strong.
The prehistoric Venus of WIllendorf statue is a 30,000 year-old example of this, and one of the world’s oldest known works of art. As an early depiction of the Mother archetype, this statue was carved from limestone and tinged with red ochre, and the woman’s exaggerated proportions with well-rounded breasts and a voluminous abdomen represent fertility and sexual reproduction; a true celebration of the “Mother” in all her glory.
Left to right: Michelangelo “Pieta” (1498–99), Great Mother Headdress (African Baga Region, Madonna del Libro (Milan, 1483), Detail of Gaia (Greek Goddess of Earth) from War of Giants painting, Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Rome), Statue of Santa Maria del Mar (Barcelona)
Mothers in Art Across Cultures
The Mother archetype can be found in infinite abundance across cultures. For example, Indian culture is home to the Goddess Durga, the mother of the universe. In Sanskrit, ‘durga’ means “fort” or “a place that is protected” and challenging to access or reach. Durga Maa is said to represent the Supreme Being while preserving moral order and the virtue of creation.
From literal interpretations of the “Mother” archetype, to more symbolic interpretations involving general nurturing for all of humanity as givers of life, there is not one community or culture around the world wherein the concept of “Mother” is not clearly evident.
Mothers in Modern Street Art
Today, mother imagery is regularly found on gallery walls and in street art created around the world. The representation of Mother Earth in Parisian street art by Sophie Wilkins connects females with the beauty of nature. A mural by Ben Slow and Ma o Shishu in London shows the intimate relationship that can exist between a mother and child. Finally, a mural by Swoon, dedicated to people affected by Hurricane Sandy in New York City, shows a thriving mother rising above conflict and trouble — a true symbol of resilience.
The Mother archetype signifies nature, beauty, strength, fertility, and abundance in the art world. While the symbol of a mother changes from culture to culture, oftentimes the meaning behind the imagery is carried over, reinforcing the universal role mothers play in the consciousness of humanity.
How will this symbol and role evolve in the future? Time will tell! For the moment, mothers represent a feeling and idea that connects us and binds us together.
From left to right: Mother Earth and Her Daughter (Philadelphia) by Jess X. Snow, Mother Earth (Paris) by Sophie Wilkins, Recovery Diaspora (NYC) by Caledonia Curry (aka Swoon), Louise Bourgeois, “Spider Maman,” circa 1999, https://www.behance.net/gallery/21633253/Mother-Earth-Sketch-Graphic-art-Street-art (Mongolia)
From left to right: Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” (1936), Gustav Klimt’s “Death and Life” (1911–1915)
Paint the World is a 501(c)3 aiming to shift the paradigm potential of the arts. To learn more about Paint the World’s mission and impact to date, click here. To learn more about Paint the World’s Symbols Series, click here.