Hawthorne’s likening of Hester, pinned with a letter that allies her with the Whore of Babylon, to the Virgin Mary sets the stage for a complicated exploration of what “illicit” female sexuality means. In Puritan society, as in so many other cultures, there were only two possible roles for women: chaste or defiled. Hawthorne, a master of equivocation and ambiguity, uses the character of Hester to alternately undermine and give credence to this reductive binary opposition, and to explore ideas of sin and redemption.
As Hawthorne says, the iconography of the Virgin and Child has provided a fertile source of inspiration for generations of artists. The earliest surviving examples are in the Catacombs of Rome, and masters including Raphael, Botticelli and Lucas Cranach the Elder have all dedicated canvases to the holy pair. View a selection of especially famous examples here.