How to Crush a Serpent

A few weeks ago, there was a great ruckus at my parents’ house in Texas due to what we all thought was a 4-foot long water moccasin hanging out in my mother’s flower bed. Hours of monitoring the invertebrate’s whereabouts via binoculars (and much speculation as to whether or not the vile creature was actually a water moccasin) ended with what I assume was a very nice lady coming to pick up the snake and take it to the local nature preserve. For the record, it was not a water moccasin but rather a banded water snake. I tried to convince my mom to let it stay as it would help winnow the rodent population, but she understandably decided it needed a new home.

It wasn’t until recently when retelling the tale to a friend that I thought of this amazing painting by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio. I first heard it mentioned by Catholic author Emily Stimpson, who delightfully described the scene as such:

Anne (Mary’s mother): Mary, I’m not sure he’s ready.
Mary: Son, in this family, we crush the heads of serpents under our bare feet.
Jesus: I’m not sure I’m ready either.

There are of course numerous metaphorical, scriptural, and theological images conveyed in this one painting. Firstly, there is the fulfillment of Genesis:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
   and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
   and you will strike his heel.” (Gen. 3:15, NRSV)

The completion of the task of conquering evil began with Eve and ends with Mary; what one woman began, another ends. What I love about Caravaggio’s painting is that Mary is the one teaching the child Jesus. Mary, like any good mother, is demonstrating by putting his foot on hers, by holding his body upright, watching carefully over the top of his head, and barring the “potentially venomous snake bit,” is actually doing some sound pedagogical work.

The work is dangerous. A man with a spade might have been my first choice, if I am being honest. Certainly, this isn’t a job for a barefoot mother and her naked toddler to be undertaking. It’s brave, bold, risky work, and Mary has to know it’s the work her Son will ultimately undertake. 

Critics of the painting have voiced concerns and misgivings over the women’s appearances; Mary is “too provocatively dressed” and Anne looks “too old and leathery.” Several have called it “odd” and “disturbing,” citing that it certainly isn’t the best of Caravaggio’s work.

Maybe Emily made me biased, but somehow, I can’t help but look at this work and see two strong, faithful women teaching the Son of God, their lineage, how to crush evil. Historically accurate to scripture? We don’t really know. I can’t say for sure whether or not Mary instructed Jesus on how to squash snakes under his feet, and I’m not sure corsets and large-bustled dresses were really all the rage in first century Palestine.

What I do know for certain and give great thanks for is the multitude of women who have modeled for me what it means to crush the head of the serpent, even when it is risky, dangerous, and could potentially cause harm to me. Countless women have acted as mothers to me, gently reminding me when I get too hopped up on social media to dial it down a bit, or encouraging me to participate in the solutions to matters of injustice that I feel particularly passionate about. Many have placed my foot atop theirs, calmly and carefully instructing me to press on. It’s my prayer that, when the opportunity arises, I will be brave enough to do the same for someone else.

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