The focus of the second exhibition in our virtual series is on an important aspect of motherhood and the mother–child relationship, the embrace in a physical, spiritual and symbolic sense that provides and sustains security.
The mother is the primary source of safety for the fetus, the newborn, and the infant: she is the secure base for the child, to use the terminology of attachment theory. The mother and dyad of the mother and the child are surrounded by the father and the closer and wider social environment.
This selection presents objects and representations from the collection of the Museum of Applied Arts that are related to the safety of the child, the maternal holding, and the institutional system that supports the mother and the family with young children.
In the context of this virtual exhibition, ‘mother’ is to be understood broadly, referring to any carer who is important to the child, regardless of their gender or biological relationship.
Circles of Embrace
The motif of the tree of life is rich in religious and profane meanings: it symbolizes life, the giving of life, fertility, roots, growth, and family, among other things. Hungarian textile artist Zsuzsa Szenes’ tapestry, made with the technique of wool-stitching, is a visual expression of the enclosure and embrace that provide security—even for a new life.
Designed by Eva Zeisel, who was born in Hungary and lived in several countries before making New York her home, this matching salt shaker and pepper pot have an organic form that brings animals in mind. They are part of the Town and Country dinner set, which employs similar forms. The designer always made certain to point out that the two objects represent herself hugging her daughter.
This intimate colour print shows Mary turning her full, devoted attention to the newborn Jesus, her arms around him in a protective embrace; the two are flanked by praying angels.
Designed by József Rippl-Rónai and woven at the Erzsébet Nőipari Iskola, a vocational school, the tapestry entitled The Adoration of the Magi, the lower part of the double composition, The Nativity and Death of Christ, shows the infant Jesus lying in the lap of Mary, in her embracing arms. Mary is surrounded by the three Magi, and the whole scene is framed by architectural elements and the border of the tapestry.
Adoration of the Magi, tapestry (ca. 1895) by József Rippl-RónaiMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest
The event is presented as a genre scene, set in a room, whose commonplace furnishings include a made-up bed, and a cot on wheels, with bedlinen. The latter was probably a common type of pram/wheeled cradle in the Breton countryside in the 19th century.
Giving birth is not without its dangers, and society provides support with specific types of objects and rituals, which are typical of the given age and culture. It became customary to provide the new mother with food, and birth trays and platters were the symbolic objects of such support during the transitional period of becoming a mother. The figural birth trays of 15-16th-century Italy usually featured some harmonic scene of mythological or Christian origin, related to birth or confinement.
Until it became common to give birth in hospitals, babies were delivered in private spaces. The first social event at which the infant participated—and often still does—was a public initiation ceremony (in Christianity, the baptism), which took place in some sacred space of the community, served to provide protection for the initiate in the future, and occasioned celebration.
Baptism coat with bonnetMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest
In Christian culture, the clothing worn at baptism reflected the solemnity of the event, the cleansing and protective functions of the baptism and the innocence of the infant:
Baptism coat with bonnetMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest
it is typically white in colour, delicately executed, with motifs related to protection.
The baptism coat and bonnet shown here were decorated with the so-called bead knitting, popular in the Biedermeier period.
Bookplate, Royal Hungarian Midwifery Training Institute
At the beginning of the 20th century, efforts were redoubled to lower the high maternal and infant mortality rates. As mentioned in the Preparation section, in addition to the capital, obstetrics and gynaecology clinics were established in several Hungarian cities.
Midwifery training institutions opened in more and more towns, and the first initiatives for prenatal care and training for public health nurses appeared.
Bookplate, Department of Gynaecology, Debrecen Clinic
It is perhaps not a coincidence that in Hungary it was precisely in these years that women were first allowed to go to university and study medicine and pharmacy, following their admission into liberal arts faculties.
The imagery on the bookplates of the two obstetric institutions refers to their purpose and suggests protection and security.
Objects that Hug the Child
The safety of the sleeping baby and its bed are of great importance in the life of a family. Over its history of millennia, the cradle has seen many forms, from a plank attached to the mother’s back, through trough-like implements that can be moved, to hanging, rocking and wicker cradles. Their shapes have also been varied, as have the materials used, from textiles, wood and matting to ceramics.
Cradles have served the physical and spiritual protection of infants, and therefore a set of beliefs have become associated with them that seek to ward off harmful forces.
This Renaissance hanging cradle is made in France in the second half of the 16th century. Hung on two posts, the trough-like cradle can be rocked. Holes in the side panels allowed straps to be passed through to secure the child. This type of cradle has survived from religious settings as well—from the 14th century, scaled down considerably: in women’s monasteries, effigies of the infant Jesus was placed in hanging cradles during the Christmas ceremony.
The focus on the whole of the physical and mental environment of the child in the late 19th century and early 20th century is also evident in the work of the Hungarian representatives of the life reform movement, the members of the Gödöllő Artists’ Colony (e.g., Sándor Nagy and Ede Toroczkai Wigand) and their peers.
Children's room interior, design sheet (1903) by Sándor Nagy and Ede Toroczkai WigandMuseum of Applied Arts, Budapest
Design sheet for children's room interior
Sándor Nagy and Ede Toroczkai Wigand worked together on this pattern sheet for a children’s room: Sándor Nagy designed the carved and painted decorations, Toroczkai Wigand the furnishings: both are informed by the motifs and shapes of folk art and furniture.
The room is furnished to meet the changing needs of children of different ages, and has, for instance, both a cradle and a bed. Most pieces are small and easy to move, to maximize flexibility.
The distinct needs of young children led to the design of furniture meant specifically for them. A case in point is the high chair, which enables young children to be present at family meals whilst sitting at the adults’ table (no longer fed by a nanny but by the mother or eating unaided). Along with its practical use, the family table has an important social function, and could thus be an important instrument of the child’s socialization.
Béla Pálinkás’s high chair has a footrest and stylized decoration; the part under the seat and the cushion in the chair feature piebald cats similar to those on János Vaszary’s tapestry, Little Girl with Kittens, also in the Museum’s collection.
In line with the principles of reform pedagogy, psychology, health care and hygiene, the first third of the 20th century saw a heightened interest in the material environment of infants and young children. Their furniture, toys and clothing were designed to meet their specific and ever-changing needs.
The Archives of the Museum of Applied Arts holds a large number of furniture designs by Lajos Kozma, the architect, including the furnishings of a nursery, a railed cot and a changing cabinet, all with a clean design that allows free movement and motor development.
The Hungarian Büidesign Studio created its Silentio, a new take on the rocking cradle, in the first years of the 21st century, with simple materials and forms. The gentle rocking motion is thought by some scientists to help babies achieve a state of calm by recalling the experience of movement in the womb, and to promote cognitive and motor development.
Paq, a scaled-down version of an adult armchair for children, was also designed in the early 21st century. It is a mattress that transforms into a chair, with different structures along the way that hug the child: a hiding place or a nest.
by Judit Király, PhD (text) and Sarolta Sztankovics (editing)
We would like to thank our museologist colleagues for their help and assistance with the selection of objects and for the valuable information they provided:
Hilda Horváth, PhD
Zsuzsanna Lovay, PhD
Ágnes Prékopa, PhD
Szilveszter Terdik, PhD
and special thanks to: