Munch's images of the Madonna are among the most haunting and evocative female icons in the history of European art. Originally conceived in Berlin between 1893 and 1894, the figure of Munch's Madonna stands at the crossroads between the symbolist art of the late nineteenth century and the modernism of the early twentieth century. The image, first created as a print in 1895, was the culmination of a series of five painted versions executed by Munch between 1893 and 1895 and has since become internationally ubiquitous. Just as Munch did not date the works in this series, they have been ascribed various titles, and two versions were originally presented as part of the series Die Liebe with the title Liebendes Weib (Woman Making Love). One of the first written references to the series came from Munch's friend and critic, Stanislaw Przybyszewski who described the painting exhibited in 1894 as " ...a robed Madonna lies on a crumpled sheet, with the halo of the future martyrdom of birth... the mystery of eternal procreation fills the woman's face with a radiant ecstasy" (quoted in W. Timm, The Graphic Art of Edvard Munch, Greenwich, 1969, p. 53). That same year Madonna would gain currency as the title of this series of works.
As Przybyszewski suggests, the image depicts the act of conception, clearly denoted by the border motif featuring sperm and fetus. This printed border replicates the frame created by the artist for one version of the painting exhibited on two occasions in 1895 and later discarded. For the print, Munch used a blood red ink to color the border, and the fetus in the lower left corner is not a small cherubic baby but rather a ghoulish creature. This perimeter bridges important archetypal themes that recur in Munch's art: life and death, desire and fear, holiness and carnality.
Munch's intent was to represent "Woman" from the point of view of her lover at the moment she conceives a new life within; Munch described that precise moment as being when "life and death join hands", when "Woman" stands at the gateway between life and death she reaches her apotheosis. She is then at her most desirable, her most majestic and her most fearful. In the artist's own words:
"The interval when the whole world stopped in its course-- Your face holds all the beauty of the kingdom of earth-- Your lips, crimson as the ripening fruit, part as in pain-- The smile of a corpse-- Now life shakes the hand of death-- The chain is forged which binds the thousand generations that are dead to the thousand generations yet to come" (quoted in A. Eggum, Edvard Munch: Paintings, Sketches, and Studies, Oslo, 1984, p. 116).
Madonna is the singular masterpiece of Edvard Munch's graphic oeuvre. In Munch's master graphics, he experimented over the course of several decades to perfect his vision. Therefore, many variations of major subjects like Madonna exist. The earliest monochromatic versions of Madonna were printed in 1895 and by 1902-1903 Munch was working with a master printer to apply copious color through printing methods. Eventually Munch's pictorial and technical acumen would make him one of the most highly acclaimed printmakers of the Modern era. Munch impressions exhibited at the Armory Show in New York in 1913 cost $200. At this price, lithographs of Madonna were among the most valuable prints of the early 20th century, a status which this powerful image retains even today, a hundred years later.