Murderous Mothers and the Discourse of Infanticide

This post is admittedly a slightly odd compilation of images and ideas – It seems that over the past several months I’ve been researching or teaching about murderous mothers in literature, film, history, and popular culture: from the assassination of Hildegart, to “La Llorona” (on which I will base my next teaching-related post), to infanticidal mothers in 19th-20th century Italy, I’ve been intrigued by these texts not merely for their fascinating portrayals of twisted and manipulative maternity, but for the images they employ in order to communicate what we regard as an aberrant act.  From the symbolic and cinematic (bullfighter) to the ghostly and horrific (Halloween costume), there are numerous examples of the murderous-mother in contemporary art and popular culture.

Aurora as the bullfighter (matador) - The Red Virgin

Murderous mother, Aurora, depicted as a bullfighter (matador) about to deal the final blow to the bull – The Red Virgin (film)

La Llorona – Halloween costume in Orlando, FL (2013) Source: Azteca noticias

For the article I am currently working on, I revisited a book chapter on infanticide that I had read during my first year as a PhD student nearly six years ago (before I had any clue as to what I would end up researching for my dissertation). “An Unwritable Law of Maternal Love: The Infanticide Debate” is the fifth chapter of Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg’s book The Pinocchio Effect: On Making Italians (1860-1920). Here, Stewart-Steinberg traces the history of the discourse of the infanticidal mother to determine this female figure’s impact on more general notions of Italian motherhood between the 1860s (the creation of the Italian national state) and the 1920s (the collapse of the liberal government and the rise of fascism). As a result of her research, Stewart-Steinberg asserts that infanticide came to be figured during this time as:

“the female crime par excellence and as an immensely productive model for establishing connections between subjectivity, legal responsibility, and sexuality. The power of these connections proved instrumental both in removing the discourse of infanticide from earlier theories that rendered it a crime against nature and in proving that all maternity, when left to its own devices, tended to exhibit dangerous antisocial behavior that therefore required expert intervention (185).

Thus, rather than falling within the discourses of legality and human rights, infanticide became more closely associated with defining, regulating, and criminalizing female, that is, maternal, behavior. What I find noteworthy about these observations is that they recognize the (ever increasing!) pathologizing of motherhood that not only places a great deal of pressure on women, but also makes mothers susceptible to extreme forms of control, surveillance, and scrutiny. In seventeenth and eighteenth century Italy, for example, infanticide was understood as a by-product of the rigid honor code that governed female behavior and sexuality – the infant child was the “evidence” that a woman had transgressed the boundaries that her society and culture had created for her. For Stewart-Steinberg, the infanticide debate in Italy was distinguished from that in other countries by the hegemonic role of the Catholic Church and the subsequent obsession with female honor (sexual purity) that, by extension, defined familial honor. Thus, an unmarried mother was forced to conceal her pregnancy, perhaps deposit the infant in a Church or Convent turnstile (“baby hatch“), and even rescind her maternal duties (189).

What a “baby hatch” on the side of a Church or convent might have looked like. This site, “Les enfants Troves,” provides information on the history of these devices in France:

As odd as it may seem to us today, Stewart-Steinberg suggests that “female honor” became the distinguishing factor in Italian infanticide debates: “Only ‘honest’ or honorable women committed infanticide, while the category of common homicide was to be reserved for dishonorable women” (197). This chapter goes on to discuss the “liberalizing” of infanticidal laws (aka, more lenient charges and punishments), infanticide in literature, Cesare Lombroso, and criminality – I highly recommend it if you are at all interested in these topics, either in an Italian or Western European context.

Coincidentally, after reading this chapter on infanticide, I found the below illustration of a murderous mother, accompanied by what appears to be an early modern rendition of the devil, by way of The British Library‘s collection of images, over 1 million of which are now available free in the Public Domain. Well, coincidentally might apply best to the fact that I found out about the free images after re-reading that chapter… then deliberately searched (a bit nervously) for “infanticide”!

A pittilesse Mother. That most unnaturally at one time murthe[red] two of her owne Children at Acton ... uppon holy thursday last 1616, the ninth of May. Beeing a gentlewoman named M. Vincent ... With her Examination, Confession and true discovery of all t[he] proceedings ... Whereunto is added Andersons Repentance w[ho] was executed ... the 18 of May 16[16].

A pittilesse Mother. That most unnaturally at one time murthe[red] two of her owne Children at Acton … uppon holy thursday last 1616, the ninth of May. Beeing a gentlewoman named M. Vincent … With her Examination, Confession and true discovery of all t[he] proceedings … Whereunto is added Andersons Repentance w[ho] was executed … the 18 of May 16[16]. [Image from: The British Library]

This illustration made me curious as to how and under what circumstances infanticide had actually been depicted in Western art since these early modern times.  Since I work with Spanish cultural history, I was especially interested in Spanish examples. I began by doing some background on one of Francisco de Goya‘s grotesque, yet perhaps most recognizable portrait of filicide, “Saturno devorando a su hijo” [“Saturn devouring his son”]. While not an example of maternal infanticide, it was the first Spanish example of child-destruction that came to mind! Below, then, are two additional examples of child-murder in art; I plan to do a bit more research on this topic in the future – especially in the Spanish context – so if you have any recommendations, please share them in the comments.

Saturno devorando a su hijo (Saturn Devouring His Son) – Francisco Goya (1819-1823), Museo del Prado

The above portrayal of infanticide is understood through the lens of mythology, and thus the viewer does not tend to judge Saturn in the same fashion as the aforementioned “pittilesse” mother of the early modern sketch.  Moreover, a father [“god”] killing his child [“son”] does not provoke the same shocking impact in [Christian] cultures that venerate maternal love as an innate, even sacred force, and accept that paternal love is all-powerful, even to the point of violence or destruction. The figures in Goya’s portrait resemble humans, certainly, but yet they remain “safely” distanced from us due to the exaggerated, distorted shapes of the bodies, as well as the dark colors that obscure the background (time and place). While Goya’s painting is at once grotesque, mythic, and macabre, I find Peter Paul Ruben‘s rendition (which some art historians believe was Goya’s inspiration) to be a bit more disturbing. Here, despite the representation of the same myth, Saturn and his son embody very human(-like) figures, and the detailed facial expressions, hair, and blood – each of which are highlighted with bright, contrasting colors – provoke visceral reactions of both repugnance and fascination.

Rubens saturn

“Saturn, Jupiter’s Father, Devours One of His Sons, Neptune” by Peter Paul Rubens (1636-38)

Though I was unable to find many “classical” renditions of infanticidal mothers in my brief search, I did learn a bit more about this portrait of Medea, poised to kill her children. Importantly, the narrative behind this image is one of vengeance. According to Euripides’ Greek tragedy Medea, this mother commits filicide as a means of avenging her husband’s betrayal.

Medea About to Kill her Children

Médée furieuse (Medea About to Kill her Children) by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix, 1862

I think this is an appropriate place to end before my next post on “La Llorona” since, like Medea, she purportedly murdered her children out of vengeance. Versions of this Mexican (Mexican-American and Latin American) legend describe a beautiful mestizo woman who drowned her children in the river (arroyo) when her lover abandoned her to marry another woman. Plus, now that I feel slightly productive after writing a short blog post, I can return to my article with (hopefully) a fresh perspective and “cured” writer’s block!

Do you know of other paintings and works of art (classical or modern) that depict maternal infanticide or filicide? What are other examples of infanticide in post-20th century literature and art?

Stewart-Steinberg, Suzanne. The Pinocchio Effect: On Making Italians, 1860-1920. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007. [Chapter 5, “An Unwritable Law of Maternal Love: The Infanticide Debate.” p. 184-228.]

About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
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3 Responses to Murderous Mothers and the Discourse of Infanticide

  1. “Beloved” by Toni Morrison is the first association I`ve got looking at your final question. But such heroes as Taras Bulba, Defo`s Roxane and mythological Gudrun are also to be mentioned.

  2. Pingback: ‘Unnatural Mothers’: The surprising story of abandoned children - Secrets of Women

  3. Pingback: ‘Unnatural Mothers’: The surprising history of abandoned children - Secrets of Women

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