Maman Vs Mother

A Contemplation on Symbolic Confrontation: Two Mothers at the Heart of Ottawa

385 Sussex Drive in Ottawa is home to the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, the oldest church in Canada’s capital and the seat of Canada’s Archbishop and the Pope’s representative. The small wooden church that originally stood on this site in 1832 was moved across the street in 1849 to make way for the construction of this Neo-Gothic cathedral, which was elevated to the rank of a minor basilica by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. Notre Dame Cathedral has hosted a speech by Pope John Paul II and serves as the venue for the most important ceremonial events in Canada’s capital. Upon entering the cathedral, one sees a summary of Christian art in its design. However, the most striking feature is the cathedral’s star-adorned ceiling.

Mythologist Mircea Eliade discusses the sacred in architecture, noting how religious buildings often transition from the mundane earthly realm to a holy space. In mosques, the turquoise half-domes represent the celestial dome, although made of ornate tiles, gradually separating one from the daily work environment, leading one through a gateway from the profane to the sacred, into the central dome, which is not a physical but a celestial dome, under which lies the main pool of holy water. When there is not enough space, a complete physical dome takes on the role of the sacred celestial dome.

Similarly, in the cathedral, beyond a gate guarded by angels and gargoyles, there is a small bowl of holy water for symbolic cleansing, followed by a grand hall flanked by statues of saints holding the building’s roof aloft, their arms extended in an invitation to holiness. At the end of the corridor, extensive church goldwork marks the priest’s position and pulpit, with stained-glass windows casting light in stunning colours across the ceiling, walls, and floor. The saints’ shoulders support vaulted ceilings painted in lapis lazuli, depicting the sacred celestial realm with golden stars. The sound of the great church organ resonating in the hall seems like the heavenly music of the celestial kingdom.

For the traditional church designers, this represents the holy and celestial heaven ordained for us through the grace and sacrifice of saints, divine figures, and above all, Christ crucified, who bore the weight of our sins. Outside the church, above the entrance gate—the invisible boundary between the sacred earth and the celestial realm—a golden statue of the mother and child stands atop a small stone tower.

The Holy Mary, holding her child who gazes upon the city through his death and suffering, delivers salvation to humanity. She stands alone, like a pillar between earth and heaven, overlooking the town and its inhabitants.

Perhaps from her vantage point atop the towers, the Virgin Mary asks the people below why they do not cross the threshold from the profane earth into the divine kingdom she and her child have prepared for them. Is there anything more natural than moving from the turmoil of the unholy earth into the peace of our haven, built under a heaven borne by the shoulders of saints, martyrs, and the lost souls of the righteous path?

Maman is directly across the street, facing the grandeur of the church and the mother’s celestial gaze toward the earth. Maman is a giant spider sculpture made of bronze, steel, and marble by Louise Bourgeois, placed in front of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Under its lofty body, 32 marble eggs cling to it. Bourgeois considered this work, of which several copies have been installed around our planet, a tribute to her mother.

However, Maman symbolizes more than just a child’s love for their mother. With its rugged, intertwined legs firmly planted on the ground, Maman stands in contrast to the celestial mother. Unlike the Virgin Mary, Maman does not stand on a high pedestal, clothed in gold, looking down on the people below with pity. Maman does not possess the conventional beauty fully embodied in the mother across from it and the tower she belongs to. She owns neither a palace nor shrine nor home. Yet, she stands tall with all her absolute majesty, firmly rooted to the ground to protect her unborn children.

If the Holy Mary stands on the threshold of the sacred and the profane to invite people under a roof adorned with golden stars, the sky above Maman is illuminated by countless stars of the night. If to enter the realm of the Holy Mary, one must touch the holy water; Maman is cleansed every time it rains, together with me and you and her unborn children in the rain. She needs no sound of a great organ; the wind that blows, the people passing by, the whispers of humans and the songs of birds are the sounds that mark her presence.

The golden mother, adorned with all elements of deceptive beauty, holds her child and gazes down upon the earthlings. Perhaps she intends in her look to protect us from such a monstrous and immense creature.

But in this confrontation between Mother and Maman, which one embodies ethical value?

The gold-clad mother, who sees the invitation to the divine kingdom as the most natural option for humanity, considers the gateway to this kingdom to be a child born unnaturally. She is the Virgin Mary, whose very existence and belief in her deny nature and maternal authenticity. She is a mother, but her sanctity comes from an unnatural child, and she stands ready to sacrifice him and send him to his death.

Maman, on the other hand, harbours no celestial aspirations nor claims to the supernatural. She is born of nature, with all its splendour, horror, and beauty, unadorned and unyielding to contemporary aesthetic beliefs. Unlike the mother opposite her, who holds her child with a promise of his death for the salvation of others, Maman protects her children within the safest parts of her robust yet delicate body, watching over and guarding them as only a mother can.

She is the most natural expression of nature. Born of nature and embodying it, Maman is herself without any adornment or effort to conform to the imaginations of others, concerned for her children and in balance with nature.

So why do we call her a monster and the other a Holy Mother? The answer might be simple. We deem the unfamiliar and unknown monstrous. When we consider the “other” a monster, we see no other way but to fight or destroy them.

When the creators of the myth of the Holy Mary constructed their power structures, alienating and othering anyone and everything that threatened their myths and illusions was their only way to survive. They denied the most natural behaviours of nature (like the process of childbirth or unconditional love for a child). They labelled everything natural and true-to-life as the other, making it monstrous.

But Maman does not engage in this game. Unlike the mother opposite her, she has no intention of destroying and reshaping the world; she merely seeks a space to breathe, give birth, and care for her children.

She embraces herself, her nature, and her existence, unbothered by being called a monster. In contrast, the other mother is concerned about the slightest stain or dust that might settle on the golden robes the power holders have clothed her in. She and her myth have not only plundered nature but have directed their blessings towards those who, in their name, have been fighting and destroying “othered” and made monstrous.

Maman, however, stands naked and proud amid this natural world. She is unpretentious and desires nothing but to live and protect her offspring. She does not sacrifice her children to demonize the rest of the world.

In the confrontation between the mother and Maman, who is the real monster? Is it the one who honours nature’s path or denies every natural structure?

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