Beautiful Images of Birth from Rome’s Lateran Palace


Photograph 1, Courtyard of the Lateran Palace (Copyright 2004, Blaise Tobia. All Rights Reserved)

Artist Virginia Macsymowicz recently contacted me live through the Visualizing Birth blog during my presentation in Chicago (College Art Association’s 2014 Annual Conference).  Through her own research, Macsymowicz has come across several wonderful art images, which she wanted to bring to my attention and to share with Visualizing Birth.  In this post, I discuss photos that her husband Blaise Tobia, also an artist, took at the ancient Roman palace, the Lateran Palace (Palazzo Laterano).  This palace, which functioned as the primary Apostolic residence from the 4th century CE up until the Avignon Exile, currently houses important collections of the Lateran Museum.  Devastated by fire in 1308, the palace was rebuilt in the 16th century by Domenico Fontana (1543-1607), a Swiss engineer and papal architect to Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590).

In 2004 while in Rome, Macsymowicz and Tobia wandered into the courtyard of the Lateran Palace, which is not typically open to the public but was unguarded at that moment.  They were amazed to find a series of relief columns.  Each of these columns appears different, although they are all composed of a fluted herm relief depicting the torso of a woman.  Beneath the torsos appear actual birth openings and/or emerging babies.  Tobia proceeded to photograph several of these images.

I am in the process of discerning the meanings of these images.  In the meantime, and with the permission of Macsymowicz and Tobia, I provide the images to blog viewers who might find the pictures helpful in the visualization of birth.  Of all the work I have seen since researching the topic of using art images to visualize birth, these Lateran Palace figures remind me most of the Sheela-na-gig figures.  They are useful in the visualization of birth, providing clear and beautiful images of crowning.

Honored with numerous grants and awards, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in sculpture (1984), Virginia Maksymowicz has exhibited her art widely in the US and abroad.  She is currently Associate Professor of Art at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  To view more of Maksymowicz’s work, please visit her website. Blaise Tobia is a visual artist in photography and a writer on photographic theory and criticism.  He has exhibited widely and has published book-length works.  Tobia is currently a Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Drexel University.  More of his work may be seen through his website.



Photograph 2, Courtyard of the Lateran Palace (Copyright 2004, Blaise Tobia. All Rights Reserved)



Photograph 3, Courtyard of the Lateran Palace (Copyright 2004, Blaise Tobia. All Rights Reserved)



Photograph 4, Courtyard of the Lateran Palace (Copyright 2004, Blaise Tobia. All Rights Reserved)