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Trending: Breaking Down Beyonce's Religious Iconography

By David Schonauer   Monday July 31, 2017


And then Beyonce and Jay-Z begat twins. And it was good.

The arrival this summer of Sir and Rumi Carter was announced to the world with a memorable photo that has led to internet delve into art history to decode the religious iconography behind the image.

“Looking every inch the icon, Beyonce strikes a divine pose with new twins Sir and Rumi Carter while wearing a design from up-and-coming young designer Alejandro Gomez Palomo,” noted Vanity Fair.

“When Beyonce Knowles gifted the world with a picture of her 1-month-old twins — Rumi and Sir (a girl and a boy, respectively) — people were entranced by her look,” declared Business Insider. “How could you not be? Beyonce, 35, had turned her gorgeous face to the sun, made holding two infants look effortless, and wore a multicolored robe designed by a genderless designer as well as a blue veil. At the time of this post, around 10 million people had liked the photo.”

We should have seen this coming, of course:  Beyonce’s pregnancy announcement earlier this year came with a photograph art directed by Los Angeles-based multimedia artist Awol Erizku that was also filled with religious symbolism.

“Beyonce's pregnancy announcement photos make a great many references to works of art, both famous and little known," Dennis Geronimus, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Art History at New York University, told Harper’s Bazaar.

In the photo, Beyonce is seen crouching in front of a wall of flowers in a green veil — a clear reference, noted Bazaar, to the Roman Catholic Patroness of Mexico and the Americas, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Bazaar noted that Beyonce had invoked the Virgin May in other instances, as when she walked down the aisle to Ave Maria and when she recorded a version of the song for her 2008 album “I Am...Sasha Fierce.”

On the other hand, The Guardian  found rococo and Flemish influences in the pregnancy photos, while Pitchfork  zeroed in on Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.”

Vanity Fair suspects that Erizku—the artist behind the pregnancy announcement series—shot Sir and Rumi’s Instagram debut as well. Meanwhile, Business Insider gets down to business with detailed examination of the art history behind the new photo. Here are some of the tidbits put together by BI’s Megan Willett:


Beyonce as the Virgin Mary

“[C]ompare Beyonce's photo to medieval painter Duccio di Buoninsegna's ‘Rucellai Madonna.’ You can see that Beyonce also tilts her head towards her children and looks out at the viewer,” notes Willett. But this religious reference may also be a statement about stereotypes and racism in Western culture. Willett quotes from a Washington Post  conversation with Katie Edwards, the director of SIIBS at the University of Sheffield:

“Beyonce's re-appropriation of Virgin Mary iconography offers a biting critique of this supreme exemplar of feminine whiteness and the ideology that constructs and perpetuates it,” wrote Edwards.  


The Meaning of the Pyramid in Composition


“Beyonce's head combined with her billowing robe forms a triangle. Many renaissance paintings employ a similar triangular composition to Beyonce's Instagram photo since pyramidal composition is a classic, eye-pleasing structure,” notes Willetts. See also: Leonardo da Vinci's "Madonna and Child with Saint Anne” and Michelangelo's "The Last Judgement.”


Back to Botticelli

If Beyonce referenced “The Birth of Venus” in her pregnancy photos, she made the connection fairly explicit in her birth announcement.

“In Botticelli's work, Venus' hair is flowing, her face is also tilted to catch the sun, and she poses on a clam shell as flowers are strewn about her,” writes Willetts. “Though Beyonce is not on a clam shell, nor does she have any other figures surrounding her, she poses in a mirror image way, framed by flowers, and coming towards the audience with the ocean behind her."

There you have it — a singer’s journey from being simply "Bootylicious" to being divine. The word icon is passed around pretty commonly these days, but give Beyonce credit for putting actual religious iconography back in word, and some visual culture back in pop culture.

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