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Catholic Culture Dedication

Mary Through the Ages, Her Beauty Bespeaks the Beauty of God

by Sylvie Barnay


This article by Sylvie Barnay lovingly traces the history of devotion to Mary and provides an overview of Her various titles — Miriam, Theotokos, Our Lady, the Immaculate Conception, the Mother of Christians.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano


6 & 7

Publisher & Date

Vatican, May 14, 2008

For us she is the Mother of God. The centuries hail her as Queen of Heaven. The Gospels call her Mary.

In the Middle Ages she was known as Nostra Signora (Our Lady), in more modern times Madonna (My Lady) and in the contemporary age, Immacolata (the Immaculate One).

Through the passing of time those who contemplate the Queen of Heaven make her face eternal by their gaze. This journey tells us how the woman of history became the Virgin Mary of the Christian faith.

Woman of the Gospel

Miriam, a young Jewish girl like so many others, was a real person who lived in Galilee in the first century. The first sources that mention her are the accounts written by the Evangelists Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.

In a morning vision, according to Luke, an angel entered her life to announce to her that she, a virgin, would conceive and give birth to a son called Jesus. The virgin gives birth: through this paradox shines the mystery of a God who becomes man, another paradox.

The history of Christianity begins with the Incarnation, at whose origin Mary is situated. The Evangelists, in fact, saw her as the one who gave birth to the Jesus of history, recognized as the "Christ" — a Greek word used by the early Christians to translate the Hebrew term "Messiah".

The figure of the Messiah is central to Judaism. Prophets and oracles did not cease to proclaim the coming of a son descended from the lineage of King David who would bring salvation and peace. This hope was rekindled in the protesting messianic movements that were widespread in Jewish society from the time when Palestine came under Roman occupation in 63 B.C.

It was to demonstrate the Messiahship of the Son to whom Mary had given birth that in about 6 B.C. the Evangelist recounted his miraculous conception. In the Bible, the event of barren women giving birth testifies to the renewal of the divine promise of numerous descendents to Abraham, a sign of the Covenant between God and man. The birth of a son from a Virgin woman then became the sign of a new Covenant that its witnesses sought to manifest.

'Theotokos' of the Councils

The history of the Virgin that begins with the Annunciation narrative is a history of the infinite interpretation of the central mystery of Christianity which makes her the Virgin Mary. She is "an unmarried bride", "touched without being touched", as hymns and homilies have continued down the ages to translate and retranslate with poetic inspiration.

Little by little, the gap that time created between this revelation and its interpretation created a theology of the Marian figure, in other words, a means of enabling human beings to understand her face rendered divine by God who made his dwelling place in her.

The reinterpretation of the Gospels, which were a sequel to the Gospels but not Revelation, had already given rise to the history of Marian devotion in the strict sense of the word.

From the second century these writings, known as "apocrypha", linked the Virgin's birth, life and death of which the Evangelists made no mention. Her mother, barren Anna, met her father, Joachim. Angels tend her in the cradle. As a 3 year old, she dances on the steps of the temple. She later gives birth to Jesus in a grotto. On her deathbed, she is surrounded by the Apostles while 12 clouds carry to Heaven the soul and body of she who, in the texts, is no longer the anonymous Mary of Nazareth but the Mother of God.

The Bishops who gathered at the Council in Ephesus on 22 June 431 professed their support for the definition of Mary as Mother of God, Theotokos, or literally, "genetrix of God".

"Does God have a mother?", the Church Fathers asked one another during the controversies. The previous century had seen the rise of conflicting beliefs between Christians and pagans concerning the virginal conception of Jesus.

It was necessary to distinguish the Son of God from divinized beings or demi-gods born from the love of a god and a mortal. The world was teeming with heresies that sought to deny the dual nature of Christ, at the same time human and divine, making him a God without a body or a body without God: in a word, a ghost or superman.

The dogma of the Divine Motherhood stands out, giving God a mother; the affirmation has the weight of Revelation in the same sense as the dogmatic term.

The formulation of this Dogma towards the second half of the fifth century helped to foster the beginning of a universal devotion to the Virgin, which drew on the traditional ways in which the cult of the Emperor had been spread: feasts, hymns, epithets, coins and images contributed progressively to universalizing the figure of Mary.

In the sixth and seventh centuries veneration of Mary's face spread throughout the Empire of the East and then, very gradually, to that of the West, at times not without giving rise to a certain confusion with the worship of mother goddesses.

Marian shrines welcomed an increasing number of people who came to implore help and healing. Their trust in her miracles and apparitions shows that she was proclaimed holy, blessed among women. In icons, visible images that portray the invisible, the Child touches her with his divinity while she touches him with her humanity.

Empress of the earth

In Byzantium, Mary reigned as Empress. As a sovereign, she was gradually subordinated to the exercise of power in Rome. Between 600 and 700 the Virgin's feasts won over the whole of the as yet barely Christianized Latin world. When the Carolingian dynasty came to power in 751, images of her were used to support the ideology of sovereignty that was defined as a sacred reality.

While she became Queen of the Earth, Mary was also proclaimed Queen of Heaven. This is another paradox that displays the unprecedented Christian mystery which is spelled out solely in the form of a paradox.

An uninterrupted rereading of the Gospels leads further to a deeper examination of the comparison between the Virgin and the Church. This parallelism originates in the comparison of the motherhood of both: Mary is Mother of Christ, the Church is mother of Christians. This was the origin of the doctrinal progress that led to the affirmation of Mary's spiritual motherhood: Mary is the Mother of Christians.

Correctly defined towards the ninth century as Mediatrix between Heaven and earth, the Virgin could henceforth turn her face to men and women of the early Middle Ages who called upon her as Mother. She was the bridge between the human universe and the divine universe.

Thus, on the threshold of the year 1000, Christianity as a whole gradually turned towards the Sovereign. While political structures were crumbling in the West and being strengthened in the East, the Mother of God was about to emerge as an important and powerful figure on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Virgin in majesty

At the beginning of the 11th century, the eyes of Latins beheld Mary seated on a carved wooden throne. A Virgin in majesty, she came down from Heaven to fill the emptiness of royalty whose authority was diluted by the feudal system. The new power structures, including the Monastic Order of Cluny, had recourse to this new image to consolidate their own sovereignty.

The Lady of ladies then appeared, charged to eliminate any disorder provoked by lay people: for example, those eager to lay their hands on the properties of Cluny. Strong in her inviolability, she reigned supreme over the monasteries which were presented as "virgin" land, free from sin and populated by spiritual men or monks.

The Most Pure Virgin was then able to enjoin her Church authority on various forms of paganism which the Gregorian Reform had been more or less successful in uprooting. With the Baby Jesus on her lap, she presents an Incarnate God to human beings, who continued to question one another on the meaning of the Christian mystery, even to the point of disputing it.

As St Anselm sums up: "Why did God become a man?", he answers through Mary. To go and venerate the Baby Jesus Christians set out for Marian shrines on pilgrimage towards the heavenly Jerusalem, the destination and end of their earthly exile.

Pilgrimages to the Virgin, mainly in Central and Northern Europe, began to increase in the year 1100. In Laon, Soissons and Chartres, thousands were eager to go and touch relics of Mary: some her white blouse, others her shoes, her milk or her hair, the last traces of her bodily presence.

In fact, belief in the Assumption, which took root in the 12th-century, located Mary's incorruptible body in Heaven, raised with her soul to God's light.

In Puy, pilgrims knelt before the Black Madonna, whose colour testifies to the mystery of the Annunciation described as Mary's passage from being white to black. Narratives of the Virgin's miracles, often written by monks or canons, sought to elicit in everyone a hope of healing while at the same time assuring support for pilgrimages.

It was not long before these accounts of the innumerable favours of the Mother of God were collected: here she restored a pilgrim's sight, there she enabled a paralytic to walk, elsewhere she drove demons out of a possessed person.

Those who received miracles in the Middle Ages seem to step straight out of the Gospels. They experienced the same share of suffering and sickness drawn from a common history which is humanity's lot, estranged after the Fall from the order established by God as told in Genesis. Our Lady intervened and worked a miracle, offering a divine solution to a human situation from which there seemed no way out.

Thus, the one who is "full of grace" shows to everyone the countenance of her grace. This explains why she is brimming with grace.

St Bernard used the image of the aqueduct to portray the stream of divine love that flows to every person who raises prayer to Mary. All these miracle accounts express belief in the Virgin's intercession: she listens to men and women, then presents their entreaties to her Son so that all may be saved.

The essential catechism of the 12th century is the "Hail Mary", a prayer that combines the Angel's greeting to Mary and Mary's greeting to Elizabeth.

Our Lady in cathedrals

In Medieval society she re-established blessed happiness similar to that which prevailed before the Fall in the Garden of Eden, and for this reason the Virgin in majesty was enthroned on cathedral doors. She became a monumental image.

Mary's coronation beside Christ, both Judge and King, was depicted from the end of the 12th century. She was Advocate for sinners and Queen of queens.

These representations show Mary triumphantly clad in a mantle held open by her beautiful hands and welcoming Christianity on church thresholds, which represent the gates of paradise.

Chroniclers now identify the Glorious One with the Woman of Revelation, clothed in the sun and crowned with stars, highlighting her role in the history of the end of time. Her maternal womb is filled out in conformity with the new motherhoods, defined as spiritual.

Toward the year 1200 the Cistercian Order proclaimed her Founder and Mother of monks. After this Order's example, the new religious orders of St Francis and St Dominic claimed her patronage. Iconography shows them arrayed beneath the folds of the Mother of Mercy's wide mantle.

From that moment, the Marian figure developed in all its magnificence. Indeed, Mary's body was made the centre of a central theology. She gave life to the Body of Christ who is at the same time a body of flesh, Body of the Eucharist and Body of the Church, that is, of all the baptized.

For this reason, the Marian image is also a metaphor used to designate Christianity itself, which is the Church. Each one of the members or corporations of which she is composed — from the people to the Pope — therefore see Mary as the Church's most eminent figuration.

On the eve of the Lateran Council (1251), the Virgin, a model of obedience to the Father, was proposed as a model for the Church's normalization. It was her task to set an example for religious Orders, to guide souls to the discovery of God's mystery, to invite the faithful to become exemplary Christians; in short, to ensure respect for the Council's programme to uproot the Cathar heresy, to set the Creed for lay people and to build Christian unity.

The Queen was therefore portrayed as the servant of this plan. The Gospel figure of the "handmaid" is highlighted in the reinterpretations of the sacred text.

As a result, towards the mid-13th century the first servants and handmaids of Mary appeared, either clerics or lay people: for instance, the Order of Friars Servants of Mary (Servites). Mary was a tender Mother to them, on her knees and smiling. Her "sons" and "daughters" found they were able to imitate her holiness.

At the beginning of the 14th century, imitation of the Virgin led to the disclosure of new spiritual paths to women mystics who found themselves pregnant by the Holy Spirit, giving birth to the Baby Jesus in their souls and, like tender loving mothers, sewing little tunics of "Hail Marys".

In her Dialogues, St Catherine of Sienna invited every traveller journeying on Mary's path to become Mother of the Lord. Marian devotion was part of this process of incorporation, destined to integrate every individual body and every group into the Body of the Church, a great Marian body resplendent in a garment with shades of blue.

From Flanders to Italy, a single movement listed confraternities, Third Orders, cities and universities. So it was that when the tunic was torn, Christianity itself lost its unity.

Following the great schism (1378), the Martyred Son of the deposition replaced the Baby Jesus on his Mother's lap. Pietas show the Sorrowful Virgin facing all the evils of the time, while the Stabat Mater and other laments are raised from pierced hearts. Suffering replaced joy in the litanies, and theologians commented on the communication of the Passion between the Virgin and her Son.

It was in Mary, keystone of Christianity, that the last impulse of communion was sought toward the end of the Middle Ages. People had recourse to her miracles and apparitions, especially in the controversies concerning her Immaculate Conception that were particularly threatening to Church unity. Her face without spot of wrinkle shone with pure beauty in pictures that show a Marian garden, a promise of Paradise offered for all the experiences of Hell.

Our Lady in modern times

The modern Virgin is also Our Lady of the Catholic Reconquest.

Since the Reformation suspected that Marian devotion was a form of idolatry, it conferred on her a strictly evangelical position. Protestant preaching magnifies the figure of the Handmaid to make her a model of faith and not of remedy. The Virgin does not save.

Consequently, the iconoclasm that accompanied religious wars swept away statues and miracles. As a reaction, the Counter Reformation gave them even greater visibility.

After the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Virgin acquired the face of the strong woman of the Old Testament. Like the ancient Nike [Winged Victory], she was adorned with laurel wreathes displaying the colours of triumphant Catholicism. The Church of Our Lady of Victory and the Virgin of the Laurel Grove/Loreto, spread throughout Catholic Europe.

As a result, Catholic monarchies of the 17th century turned to her victorious figure to build or consolidate their power.

The Immaculate Virgin legitimized the attempts to restore the monarchy of the Iberian States. The Sorrowful Virgin welcomed the vow of Louis XIII who placed France under her protection.

At this time, her "virginal" face served the plans of missionaries who wanted to evangelize the New World, a vast expanse of virgin territory for Christianity.

The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, for example, even had a place in the humblest of Mexican chapels, around which the unity and common identity of this new Christianity were developed.

Marian priests such as Pierre de Berulle, John Eudes and Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort, discovered Marian images as tools for a far-reaching evangelization of the European countryside in the 18th century. The vow to Mary, the imitation of her virtues and of holy Marian slavery constituted the most widespread forms of Marian devotion at that time.

Statues of Mary depicted her holding the Rosary — the whole of her life summed up in its joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries meditated upon by the devout — and pointed to her Heart united with the Heart of Christ.

Yet the century of the Enlightenment, whose reason was no longer contemplative, once again disputed the meaning of the Incarnation. The Revolution in 1789 banished the Mother of God to exile. The goddess Reason held court at the altar at Notre-Dame in Paris.

'A lady dressed in white'

It was in the form of a blue and white statue that the Virgin staged her second apparition in the 19th century, pervaded by religious syncretism. Illustrations in catechetical texts of the Rue Saint-Sulpice Church in Paris gave Our Lady the face of the woman-flower of the Romantics. Pious images were rose and violet scented.

"Sons of Mary" and young women joined processions dressed in white and blue. They recognized the courage of their mothers in the features of the Mother of this exemplary Holy Family which the new social Catholicism sought to spread.

Our Lady of Grace, of Charity, of Piety, of Christian Help, sustained the silent majority of the working masses during the time of socialism's development.

The years 1830 to 1840 saw the resumption of Marian pilgrimages, the restoration of patronal celebrations and the rediscovery of miraculous statues borne in solemnity to the altars.

In 1858 the apparitions of Mary — more visible than ever — brought prayerful crowds to Lourdes.

Four years earlier, in 1854, Pope Pius IX had proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, conceived without the original sin that marks all humanity.

After 1870, in the face of liberal and anti-clerical doctrines, she was once again to be called upon as the strong woman, this time clothed as in the Apocalypse. She dominated the rocks and countrysides of France from her position at a height of 5, 10 or 20 metres.

Again in Puy, for example, her impressive statue crushes a serpent whose name is all the forms of secular and republican universalism.

Following the First World War, the Lady of Heaven entered the discourse of a radical and intransigent brand of Catholicism where authorities and anti-modernism held sway.

Reinterpretations of the Fatima apparitions for example, nourished an entire anti-Communist propaganda. It was the Virgin of this reactionary Catholicism who dominated the first part of the 20th century.

It evaporated after 1945 to give way to new attempts to build the Marian figure between tradition and modernity.

The dogmatic definition of the Assumption (1950) marked the peak of a theology that had reached the end of its rational explorations.

The Second Vatican Council then invited the faithful to see the Virgin with fresh eyes, to discover a new form of human contemplation of her face whose beauty expresses God's beauty, an unfinished interpretation of an infinite interpretation of the Scriptures: another paradox.

Miriam, the Jewish girl, the Mother of Jesus who became the Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Our Lady, the Handmaid of the Lord, Our Lady in Glory, the Virgin of the Poor, the Immaculate Conception, thus bears the names that describe her 2,000 year-old history. They are names, Péguy wrote, of the one "who is the closest to God, for she is also the closest to men and women."

© L'Osservatore Romano

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