Is this the Blessed Virgin?

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Alice Springs: “Brigitte Nielsen with Her Son Kilian Marcus in Beverly Hills, 1990” © Alice Springs
Alice Springs: “Brigitte Nielsen with Her Son Kilian Marcus in Beverly Hills, 1990” © Alice Springs


Christmassy Thoughts on Photos of Pairs

By Greta Brentano

As every year, this December 25 we will once again celebrate the festival of improbability.

The Virgin Mary gave birth to a child after the “immaculate conception.” According to the myth. Forensics experts would add: “In fact, no traces of semen were established.” And what do you think? Can a woman who is virgo intacta become a mother? Completely impossible! And because it is impossible and yet true, believers speak of a miracle.

As an agnostic, I cannot be convinced that virgins can bear the sons of gods. It never crossed my mind to take Bach’s Christmas Oratorio as a factual report; nevertheless, it makes a believer out of me.

In my view, it would be utter nonsense to accept that the Bible, Tanakh, Koran, Pāli Canon, or other holy texts present research findings. They proclaim messages of salvation. We can call them myths, legends, or fairy tales. Not even a child would accept the telling of a fairy story as proof, but even the most perceptive skeptic must admit that good fairy tales convey profound truths.

No, I don’t intend to allow Allah, Zeus, Shiva, or the Holy Trinity to impose their will on me, but the call of the muezzin, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the works of J.S. Bach touch me – spiritually, too.

At Christmas especially I am happy to feel like a child. I consider it a gift to be able to experience reality as a miracle. That is the art of artists.

Occasionally, artists with cameras also succeed in bringing depth to the trivial. For example, this is how Alice Springs (June Newton, widow of Helmut Newton) portrays the Hollywood beauty Brigitte Nielsen with her firstborn in Fig. 1. Although her photograph from 1990 is no longer current and has therefore lost its attractiveness for news media, we still see an image that leaves a lasting impression: Mary and the baby Jesus – a Christmas icon.

“Glorious, high, and mighty, Queen of Heaven!” This Marian hymn from 1862 fits with a Regina Coeli that all the world looks up to. We down here – and they up there.

Appearing to contradict this, the photo by Howard Schatz (Fig. 2) presents a very different reality: a homeless New York mother with her child. Nothing more than reportage and documentation?

Then why do I – and perhaps you, too – see a Christmas image here? The unsheltered Mary, who had to give birth to the baby Jesus in a stable. A woman who remained dignified in hardship and faces us with her head held high.

Howard Schatz: “Homeless Mother and Child,” New York, 2007 © Schatz/Ornstein
Howard Schatz: “Homeless Mother and Child,” New York, 2007 © Schatz/Ornstein

The legend tries to appease us by naming the Almighty as the biological father. But following the code of ethics of the time (the intolerance of which is still rife in many countries today), the pregnant Mary – without a shotgun marriage to the paternal betrothed, Joseph – would have been condemned as a woman of easy virtue, a slut, and a whore.

I declare my solidarity with her: “O holy whore, pray for us!” This is my Christmas carol.

Too far for you? OK. I’m not encouraging you to preach sermons while you eat your Christmas goose. But perhaps we can agree that every form of love (including loving your neighbor, strangers, and enemies) should be wholehearted. There are no ifs and buts in love.

With this in mind, I wish all of you, dear readers, a happy festival of love!



My recommendations:

If you would rather avoid piety and family and spend a Christmas filled with love in the best of company, I recommend you visit or

Allow our personal experiences to guide you through a visit to Berlin:

You can find festive events on the stages of Berlin at

The Alice Springs exhibition at the Helmut Newton Foundation, Jebenstrasse 2, 106723 Berlin. Phone: +49-30-3196-4856;

The book by Howard Schatz, Homeless, is available from Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA 1994, and Schatz/Ornstein Studio, 435 West Broadway, New York, NY 10012; 75 BW photographs: