A pause when the word stops revolving. Your face encompasses the beauty of the whole earth. Your lips, as red as ripening fruit, gently part as if in pain. It is the smile of a corpse. Now the hand of death touches life.

Edvard Munch, c. 1916


In this written description of Madonna, Munch evoked the way in which the image, which depicts a young, nude woman with a red halo above her head, combines death and sex, the sacred and the profane. The figure has been most convincingly described as a woman who, in the act of lovemaking, tilts her head back in ecstasy, rendering her body entirely available. In her deadliness, however, she also epitomizes the femme fatale, an archetype of dangerous womanhood that enjoyed intense popularity in the late 19th century, a moment of pronounced nervousness about women’s emancipation and a perceived crisis of masculinity.

The seemingly opposed domains of the religious and the erotic were united in the femme fatale and frequently merged in vanguard imagery of the 1880s and 1890s. There was a strong tradition on which the artist could draw, ranging from works by British Pre-Raphaelites such as Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Beata Beatrix to the German artist Franz von Stuck’s extremely popular and provocative canvas Sin. French artists were flooding the market with prints that capitalized on themes of love, religion, and death, frequently adapting their subjects from literary texts. All of these visual sources were available to Munch through both exhibitions and reproductions, and an image such as Madonna is best understood within this wider context.

Edvard Munch. Madonna,1895. The Art Institute of Chicago, Print and Drawing Department Purchase Fund, 1945.229. © 2008 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.