Toxic Mary, also titled Virgin Mary, is a print series that first appeared as a painting at Banksy’s first major show in London in 2003, Turf War. Drawing from religious iconography and Renaissance painting, Toxic Mary is an iconic example of Banksy’s critique of religious dogma and the art world.

Toxic Mary by Banksy

Banksy’s Toxic Mary

1. What does Banksy’s Toxic Mary depict?

Banksy’s Toxic Mary shows a mother feeding a baby from a bottle. The mother’s head is shrouded in a scarf, there is a single line halo around her head – as the title suggests this mother is The Virgin Mary, and the child is therefore Jesus. The mother and child are depicted in black and white, the background is grey and the bottle is bright yellow, emblazoned with a skull and crossbones – the universal symbol for poison. The image is created in Banksy’s trademark stencil style, unusually here, however, the paint appears to drip down the canvas, rather than leaving a crisp line.

2. What are Banksy’s influences in this artwork?

The subject matter ‘Virgin and Child’ is a popular motif seen throughout this history of art, perhaps most famously found in Renaissance artworks, with many of the greats including Boticelli,  da Vinci and Michelangelo making versions of the work at the pinnacles of their careers. The body positions of both mother and child, and the resulting triangular shapes, hark back to a Renaissance technique for creating depth within a flat canvas.

3. What is Banky’s message in Toxic Mary?

The image of the Virgin Mother feeding the infant Jesus poison is layered with meaning, touching on themes seen again and again in Banksy’s work. The work highlights the toxicity of family relationships, drawing on the idea that outdated ideas may be passed onto the next generation from infancy. In Wall and Piece Banksy comments that ‘A lot of mothers will do anything for their children, except let them be themselves”. Given the subject matter, it is clear that Banksy feels that religion is one of these ideas, represented by the toxic contents of the bottle passed from mother to child.

The bottled substance in the image, labelled toxic, is also representative of Banksy’s criticism of pharmaceutical companies – powerhouses in our contemporary consumer society – that produce formula milk for babies. The mother pictured willingly feeds her small child the toxic contents of the bottle, as she has been assured that this is the best course of action, and does not question the contents or who is really benefiting.

4. How has Toxic Mary been criticised?

Banksy’s Toxic Mary has been criticised as blasphemous by Christian communities. The Virgin Mother and child is a central image of piety and innocence in the christian faith, and the dark introduction of poison to an otherwise innocent scene has caused offence.

5. Where else has Banksy used religious iconography in his work?

In Christ with Shopping Bags, Banksy uses another image central to the Christian faith – Christ on the crucifix. In this image Banksy has removed the cross and has added shopping bags laden with Christmas gifts, several in each of Jesus’ hands. In doing this Banksy alters a central image of Christian faith – Jesus on the cross is a symbol of Jesus’ death before resurrection. Here, it is replaced with a more contemporary, commercial, interpretation of Christian festivity. Again, Banksy refers back to consumer society and it’s almost religious power over us.

Christ With Shopping Bags by Banksy

Banksy’s Christ with Shopping Bags

6. How does this artwork differ from other Banksy artworks?

While it is usual for Banksy to tackle difficult issues including politics, government, commercialism and war, he usually pairs a tough message with a light hearted, often humorous image. There is nothing funny about what we see in Toxic Mary – whether you are a parent, a practising christian or none of the above, the image shown is dark and disturbing.

7. Where did the image of Toxic Mary first appear?

Toxic Mary first appeared in Banksy’s 2003 exhibition: Turf War. The show was held in an East London Warehouse, and remained open for just two days before being shut down by the police. The version of Toxic Mary that appeared in the exhibition shows two images of the the virgin and child, mirrored. This was created on a colossal scale, 200 x 170 cm, painted on cardboard with a golden background. Above the figures’ heads are mirrored rifle sights. Other artworks shown in the exhibition included pigs in police uniforms and the Queen as a chimpanzee.

Dalston Banksy

Turf War exhibition, 2003. ‘Dalston Banksy’ by Alan Denney. CC by NC-SA 2.0.

8. Why was the Turf War exhibition important?

Turf War was one of the first major solo shows for Banksy, held in 2003 and caused much controversy due to its inclusion of real animals, painted and tied up, as well as a vandalised police van and provocative political images. The exhibition traversed sculpture, painting and performance, thus marking his expansive oeuvre and a turning point in his career. One of the most famous works to come from the exhibition was Banksy’s image of a punk-rock Winston Churchill, also titled Turf War.

Turf War by Banksy

Banksy’s Turf War

9. How many versions of Toxic Mary did Banksy produce as a limited edition print?

In 2004 Banksy released Toxic Mary as a limited edition of 50 signed prints, and 600 unsigned prints. He also produced artist’s proofs in alternative colourways of pink and blue.

10. What is the top price paid for a Toxic Mary print?

The highest value raised at auction by a Toxic Mary print was £119,700 – pink coloured artists proof, sold at auction by Sotheby’s in March 2021. At the same auction an unsigned, regular colourway Toxic Mary print sold for £71,500. In January 2021 a signed, regular colourway edition sold for £71,500 at an auction by Forum Auctions.

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