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