- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 24, 2005

MARY IN WESTERN ART

By Timothy Verdon

Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, $60, 234 pages, illus.

The New Testament stories about Mary, Jesus’ mother, are few, but they are vivid and often deeply touching. There is the Annunciation, the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary to convey the news that she had been chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus. And there is Christ’s Nativity and the adoration paid the new born babe by local shepherds, after which, St. Luke tells us, “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Mary was present at her son’s Crucifixion and was among those to experience Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on Christ’s disciples and early followers.

There are a few other occasions Mary is mentioned, but not many. Yet from these limited number of instances and out of the many legends that sprang up over the centuries about her life, artists from the ancient world down to our own time have made innumerable sculptures, paintings and much else to tell her extraordinary story. Hundreds of these works, many of them among the most-admired and familiar in the whole of art history, are collected in the magnificent “Mary in Western Art,” a new, coffee-table book by Monsignor Timothy Verdon, a canon at St. Mary of the Flowers, the cathedral in Florence, Italy.

Most Protestants, though often expressing respect and admiration for her, don’t share the profound Catholic veneration of Mary, but Monsignor Verdon is correct in showing that this deep respect dates back to the very early church and was an intimate and ever developing part of Christian faith and practice long before Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.

Indeed, in the early years of the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch was already praising Mary for having carried Christ in her womb and underlining her special nature. At the Council of Ephesus in 431, 200 years later, the assembled bishops and other church officials formally accorded her the title “Mother of God,” a name she has held ever since among Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

The earliest works in Monsignor Verdon’s book date from ancient times — a “Female Deity” from 480 B.C., a late 2nd or early 3rd century A.D. “Mother and Child,” to name but two. The “pagan origin of some aspects of Marian devotion” is clear, writes Monsignor Verdon, describing the “striking similarity between special protection that the popes extended to Mary’s cultus and that which the Caesars had given religious cults,” such as those venerating emperors who had been declared divine.

The book’s most recent art works include the 1970 “Annunciation” by Theodore Prescott, and “The Greeting,” Bill Viola’s video installation at the 1995 Venice Biennale, recreating the joyous meeting, recorded in the New Testament, between Mary, pregnant with Christ, and Elizabeth, pregnant with the child who would become John the Baptist.

But the majority of paintings, sculptures and other works, not surprisingly, are from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, an era from the 13th through the 16th centuries when Christian art flourished and when Mary was a favorite subject. We do this art an injustice if we regard it in purely aesthetic terms, Monsignor Verdon rightly warns. It was first and foremost religious, he writes. Communicants who knelt before the altar and its central painting perceived “themselves as included in the same communion of saints” shown in the image. In a very real way, they celebrated Mass along with the Mother of God whose countenance was able to join them because of the skill of a talented artist.

It is important to realize that these artists rendered Mary very human, but at the same time emphasized her exceptional spirituality. In the grotto at Greccio in Italy, for instance, an unknown master in the 15th century painted Mary breast-feeding her son. This very worldy image, an act done by mothers throughout time, “perfectly expresses the mystery of the earth that nourished the physical life transmitted in Mary’s milk, forming Christ’s flesh, which, offered on the cross, became bread of life eternal,” Monsignor Verdon notes. Mary’s physical body helped make Christ’s body, and his life on earth, possible.

That there were excesses in Marian devotion was a fact noted by some of the greatest saints. Mary’s girdle could be viewed enshrined at Prato in Tuscany. Her veil was venerated at Chartres. And milk from her breast was found in such quantity in churches throughout Italy, according to Monsignor Verdon, that St. Bernardino of Siena in the 15th century wondered aloud in a sermon, with deep and realistic concern about what the faithful were being faithful to, whether his contemporaries took Mary for a cow.

There’s not an image reproduced in this book that is not in some way memorable (and whose significance is clearly explained by the author). There are paintings and sculptures by Leonardo and Michelangelo, by Giotto, Rubens, Piero della Francesco and so many others: a surfeit of extraordinary works that leaves readers with much to ponder. Mary’s story with its highs — the Annunciation, the Nativity — and lows — the Crucifixion — is surely like no other.

That this is a book for all Christians, indeed for all people, is underlined by Monsignor Verdon’s description of Mary as Christ’s educator, the woman with her child which is the subject of so many great works of art. “God who is love learned the gestures of human love from Mary, trusting her affection, and far from disdaining caresses, He gave and received them with joy,” he writes. That is a lovely image few could take issue with; “Mary in Western Art” is rich visually and a pleasure to read.

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