Māori depictions of the Madonna and Child

The Madonna and Child—Virgin Mary holding her infant son, Jesus—is a subject as old as the second-century Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. The Byzantine Church, for whom this subject held central importance, developed a standardized iconography for it, and it rose to popularity in the West in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the cult of the Virgin took root there.

Wherever Christianity travels and is received, the host culture tends to adapt the church’s iconography to its own context. The Māori—the indigenous people of New Zealand—are no exception.

Wood carvings by indigenous artists

Unfortunately, missionaries didn’t always approve of indigenous visual expressions of the gospel. Such was the case with two nineteenth-century Madonna and Child figurines, carved by new Māori converts to the faith and presented to, but rejected by, the local parish priests for chapel use.

The earlier of these two tekoteko (carved figures) was made around 1845, seven years after the first Roman Catholic mission was established in New Zealand. The artist has indicated Mary’s spiritual status by giving her a full-face moko (tattoo)—a distinction typically reserved for men. This likens her to an ariki tapairu, the firstborn female in a Māori family of rank, who was invested with sacred attributes and given the respect due to a princess or queen.

As is traditional in Māori carving, the eyes are made of pāua (abalone) shell.

Maori Madonna and Child

Pataromu Tamatea (disputed), Madonna and Child, ca. 1845. Auckland Museum, New Zealand. For a close-up, see Flickr user Nick Thompson’s photo.

Maori Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child, ca. 1890. Te Papa museum, Wellington, New Zealand.

The other tekoteko was carved around 1890. It too shows Mary with a full-face moko, but unlike its predecessor, the bodies of the figures are smooth, and they stand on a grotesque head with a protruding tongue.

Because such objects were unfamiliar to the European settlers, they tended to denigrate them as primitive and idolatrous. Out of concern for how the pakeha (non-Māori) in the parish would react to the Christianized tekoteko, the priests reluctantly declined the gifts. [1]

However, both tekoteko have ended up in New Zealand museums for a wider audience to enjoy, and the 1845 one was even featured prominently in the ceremony to welcome Pope John Paul II to the country in 1986.  

Stained glass window by Martin Roestenburg

Maori stained glass

Stained glass window by Martin Roestenburg, south wall, Church of St. Werenfried, Waihi Village, Lake Taupo, New Zealand. Photo: Ellen Andersen, for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

Another Māori Madonna and Child is found in the Catholic Church of St. Werenfried in Waihi Village, Lake Taupo, New Zealand. On the south wall (that is, the wall on the left if you’re facing the altar) is a stained glass window by Dutch immigrant Martin Roestenburg (1909–1966) that shows Mary wearing a korowai cloak and a huia-feather headdress. She crosses her arms in humility, a gesture common in solo portraits of Mary but rare in portraits of her holding Jesus. Both she and her babe in arms confront the viewer with a strong, dignified gaze.

At the base of the window is a Māori inscription that reads E MARIA E TOKU WHAEA (“Mary, my mother”).

The artist based his representation of the Madonna and Child on a portrait of the late Mamae Pitiroi, wife of the well-known Māori orator Heemi Pitiroi of the Ngāti Tūwharetoa tribe. [2]

This is one of two stained glass windows by Roestenburg that were installed in the church in 1957. (The other shows the resurrected Māori Christ displaying his wounds—more on this in the next post.)

Heritage New Zealand has declared St. Werenfried’s a historic place of outstanding cultural significance. “A symbol of the village, . . . an icon of the region,” the church has played an important role in the community since its construction in 1885. Its prominent display of biblical figures in Māori dress and its adoption of Māori designs on the rafters and wall panels make it an inviting space for Māori to worship.

Oil painting by Julia Lynch

Julia B. Lynch (1896–1975) was the daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants to New Zealand. After studying abroad at the Slade School of Art in London, Lynch returned to her native New Zealand and joined the Sisters of Mercy (RSM), a worldwide religious congregation of women committed to serving those in need.

Lynch frequently turned to religious subjects in her art. In one of her Madonna and Child paintings, Mary wears a moko kauae (chin tattoo)—as was traditional for Māori females—and amokura feathers in her hair. For jewelry she wears kuru (ear pendants) and a pekapeka (neck pendant) made of tangiwai pounamu.

Maori Madonna and Child

Julia Bridget Lynch (Sister Mary Lawrence, RSM) (1896-1975), Tangiwai, ca. 1945. St. Joseph’s Church, Hiruharama (Jerusalem), Wanganui River, New Zealand.

Pounamu—typically called greenstone by English speakers—is the name Māori give to various kinds of nephrite jade and bowenite found in southern New Zealand. Tangiwai (literally, “tear-water” or “river of tears”) is a type of pounamu that is nearly transparent; Māori legend claims it originated from the tears of a lamenting woman.

In titling the work Tangiwai, Lynch invokes the mythology of this treasured gem and grafts Mary into it.

Why does Mary weep? Because she knows a sword will pierce her heart, and the anticipation hurts. She considers along with Simeon’s words all the other messianic prophecies given throughout the history of her people and wishes there were another way for salvation to be achieved—a way other than the suffering and death of her little boy.

One could even extend the interpretation of the work to say that Mary, in her great compassion, weeps for the suffering of the Māori people, or of all humanity.

Quilt by Ku Bailey

The previous two art examples are by non-Māori individuals who nevertheless had a deep respect for the Māori, having had lived and worked among them. Mother and Child, on the other hand, was created by a Māori artist, Ku Bailey.

Maori Madonna and Child

Ku Bailey, Mother and Child, 2004. Machine-appliquéd and -quilted cottons with polyester batting, 150 x 108 cm. Photo: Helen Mitchell.

In this quilt Mary sits cross-legged on the ground, staring down at Baby Jesus as she rocks him in her arms. New life bursts forth from the pair of them, as represented by the kowhaiwhai patterns that swirl and pulse around their heads. The kete (basket) in the foreground holds a calabash of water and a loaf of rewena (Māori potato bread), allusions to Jesus as the Living Water and the Bread of Life; he refreshes, he sustains.

Bailey created Mother and Child from photos of her daughter and newborn grandson. Like the other Marys we’ve seen, this one wears a pekapeka around her neck and feathers in her hair. Even though the figures aren’t haloed their sacredness is evident.


Coming next week, a post on Māori depictions of an adult Christ.


1. ^ See Roger Niech, Carved Histories: Rotorua Ngati Tarawhai Woodcarving (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001), 197, and http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/topic/1079.

2. ^ Elizabeth Cox and Ellen Andersen, “New Zealand Heritage List / Rārangi Kōrero: Report for a Historic Place St Werenfried’s Church (Catholic), Waihī Village.” Last amended June 4, 2015. Accessed September 3, 2015.

This entry was posted in Non-Western Art and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Māori depictions of the Madonna and Child

  1. Becky says:

    Victoria, I love this blog and I’m so glad that you shared it with me!!! Regarding this particular post and these amazing pieces – It’s interesting to me that the relationship between Mary and Jesus is of universal value and inspiration, and yet, we the reformed tradition that I was raised in almost completely ignores Mary. A low view of women, perhaps (maybe it’s just my own baggage that suggests this?) – or a mistrust of sentimentality? I don’t know. Either way, I was always a little jealous of the relationship that my Catholic grandmothers had with Mary, and while I don’t think we ought to worship her as divine, I do believe we have something wrong when we can’t spare a sermon for a Biblical heroine that inspires people in cultures around the world.

    • Leonorilda Eugenia Robles-Vargas (Dori) says:

      Hi Becky, Our Blessed Virgin Mary is a creature and not divine. She is venerated but not worshipped in Catholicism. I have an extraordinary relationship with her. She became my mother when I lost my mother as a child.

  2. Pingback: Hehu Karaiti: Jesus Christ of the Māori | The Jesus Question

  3. I do accept as true with all the ideas you’ve presented for your post.

    They’re very convincing and will certainly work. Nonetheless, the
    posts are too brief for novices. May just you please extend them a bit from subsequent time?

    Thank you for the post.

  4. Pingback: Mele Kalikimaka! (song and fresco) – Art & Theology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s