The “Mother and Child" idea is one of my two or three obsessions, one of my inexhaustible subjects. This may have something to do with the fact that the "Madonna and Child" was so important in the art of the past and that one loves the old masters and has learned so much from them. But the subject itself is eternal and unending, with so many sculptural possibilities in it a small form in relation to a big form, the big form protecting the small one, and so on. It is such a rich subject, both humanly and compositionally, that I will always go on using it.
One of the most fruitful and beloved of Moore’s repertoire was the Mother and Child theme, which he continued to explore throughout his career. This motif first appeared in his sculpture in 1922 (Bowness, no. 3), while still a student at the Royal College of Art, London, and displays the influence of the Mayan carvings Moore saw at the British Museum, with its totemic and angular qualities. In the 1920s and 1930s, Moore began abstracting his forms, focusing on the expression and symbol of the mother and child, instead of anatomical realism. During the war years the role of the mother and child was to take on a greater significance for the artist. Working on his Shelter Drawings (1940-41), Moore was faced with the truth of humanity, capturing not only acts of terror and brutality but more importantly, examples of love and protection, as people lay huddled together in the Underground shelters, their bodies pressed against one another for comfort and reassurance. These visions of human sympathy and kindness were to stay with Moore, imbuing within his Mother and Child sculptures a newfound tenderness.
This new intimacy and maturity of style can be seen in Madonna and Child, 1943. This year marked a turning point in Moore’s career when he was commissioned by his friend, Dr Walter Hussey, to create a sculpture of the Madonna and Child for St Matthew’s Church at Northampton, for which the present work is a study. This was one of Moore’s most important early commissions and one that Moore considered carefully, contemplating the relationship between secular and religious art. He expressed his concerns in discussions on the project, stating, ‘When I was first asked to carve a Madonna and Child for St Matthew's, Northampton, although I was very interested I wasn’t sure whether I could do it, or whether I wanted to do it. One knows that religion has been the inspiration of most of Europe’s greatest painting and sculpture, and the church in the past has encouraged and employed the greatest artists; but the tradition of religious art seems to have got lost completely in the present day’ (Moore quoted in D. Mitchinson (ed.), Henry Moore Sculpture with Comments by the Artist, London, 1981, p. 90).
Moore began to assess the difference between a Madonna and Child and a Mother and Child, concluding that the former should have an ‘austerity and nobility, and some touch of grandeur (even hieratic aloofness) which is missing in the everyday Mother and Child idea’. He continued, ‘Of the sketches and models I have done, the one chosen has, I think, a quiet dignity and gentleness. I have tried to give a sense of complete easiness and repose, as though the Madonna could stay in that position for ever’ (ibid., p. 90).
This sense of monumentality and grandeur can be seen in the present work. Set on a low bench, not unlike a throne, with the Madonna sat upright, her knees bent, safely balancing her infant on her knee, Moore references Renaissance art, citing artists such as Masaccio and Giotto, whose work he greatly admired and had seen on a travelling scholarship to Italy in 1925. By employing drapery here Moore also recalls the classical art of the Greek and Romans, which he studied at the British Museum, utilising the folded material to emphasise the parental relationship between the two figures, fusing the Madonna and Child so that they becomes a single entity. One can also see the influence of the sculptures of Ancient Egyptian and Pre-Columbian cultures, which Moore venerated, who worshipped mother-child imagery, viewing them as powerful symbols of rejuvenation and fertility.
Indeed the Mother and Child was one of the most common and evolving artistic themes and cannot be defined by any one religion, continent or century. As was the practice with Moore, he took inspiration from many sources, both religious and secular. What was of the utmost importance to the artist was that his work was instilled with a human quality that could speak to people on a personal level, while also acting as a universal symbol that could transcend the boundaries of religion and culture.