Top 5 Saints #5: Saint Mary

The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, by Peter Paul Reubens, 1626. In this case it’s not the kind of assumptions that make asses of you and me! Rather it is the transportation of a person from earth to heaven, similar to Christ’s ascension. There are numerous mirrors between the Mother Mary and the Son Jesus. Here Mary is a beautiful woman, her face emitting a holy glow and the kind of pacific expression you’d expect of someone truly beyond human. She is surrounded, carried effortlessly to heaven by babes, angels, cherubim who all look as though they are heavenly orphans finally getting a kindly mother to adopt them. Seldom does Mary not cut a striking figure (Credit: Rolf Kranz CC-BY-SA-4.0)

More commonly known as ‘The Virgin Mary’, ‘Holy Mother of God’, or ‘Jesus’ old lady’, Saint Mary is very interesting. As the mother of Jesus she is considered by many as the greatest, most holy of saints.

I mention in other articles in ths series how early Christianity owes an awful lot to women. Jesus himself had female followers, whose role as disciples seems to have been downplayed by a male dominated church. The most famous is probably Mary Magdalene. His mother Mary is another significant woman in the Christian tradition.

Women were also important for their role as leaders, prophets and preachers in the early Christian movement – when it was still basically a Jewish sub-sect. This is apparent even in scripture, especially the Pauline Epistles – the Letters of Paul that make up a huge amount of the New Testament. In them Paul mentions meeting in women’s houses, where they were leading a home-church, and of their activity as preachers, teachers and a very public face of Christianity in the Roman Empire.

I’ve written about the Sacred Heart before. The symbol of Christ’s internal world, his pains, his powers, his passionate devotion to the Lord. Well this is Mary’s Immaculate Heart. Another symbol mirrored between Christ and Mary. On the Sacred Heart we usually see wounds, or a spear, symbolising the stigmata. With the Immaculate Heart we see wounds, or a piercing through with a sword as in this case, symbolising the Seven Sorrows (or Dolours) of Mary. Christ’s heart is ringed with thorns, a reference to his ironic crown given at his crucifixion, and his inevitable suffering. Mary, though, has her heart ringed with flowers, symbolising her purity, her love and devotion. Flowers often spring from it, such as here where a pristine, white flower survives the burning flames of Mary’s passion for God, the Father and Christ, the Son. (Credit: Lawrence OP CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

Even once Christianity took on a more patriarchal and sexist attitude, they could not deny the importance of women, though they tried. His female followers were effectively scrubbed. Sometimes they can be seen standing in the background of artistic pieces. But some aspects of femininity and its importance could not be denied, even by a church determined to be a right bloody sausage-fest, and the Holy Mother is a perfect example of that.

She’s also got some stunning imagery and the motif of “The Virgin and the Child”, a glowing Mary, usually dressed in stunning blue robes, holding a beautiful infant Christ, has been reproduced by so many artists, with such beauty.

Our Lady of Sorrows – When not associated with pacific, maternal beauty Mary and Christ end up having another mirror. Mary is associated with suffering. Here she is on a paso – a religious float paraded during celebrations, from the Church of the True Cross in Salamanca. Here a Catholic fraternity, the ‘Illustrious Brotherhood of the Holy Cross of the Redeemer and the Immaculate Conception, his Mother’ worship Christ and his mother, The Virgin of Sorrows, and are said to have a reliquary containing a piece of the true cross on which Christ was crucified. Whether you believe any of that or not this image is compulsive. Mary’s beautiful sorrow is the world’s salvation, like the Passion of the Christ this muddles the morals. How can something so gruesomely violent be representative of our salvation. Are these images intended to stir up guilt and penitence? A reminder of the duty we owe to fulfil Christ’s mission that he and his mother suffered so much for? (Credit: Zarateman CC-BY-SA-4.0)

But I’m not really interested in her for that. It’s when we get to the comparative that my ears twitch and a smile comes over my face. You see Mary is also sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Heaven” and this epithet, this title, puts her in esteemed company for what is, seemingly, a universal symbol. A feminine ruler of the heavens.

Even in religions of the most sexist of cultures female Gods are present, and can often be very important. Hera, or Juno, in the Greco-Roman pantheon, Inanna or Ishtar in the Sumerian-Babylonian pantheon, Isis of the Egyptian pantheon and the ancient Semitic goddess Anat all bore this title of ‘Queen of Heaven’, or ‘Queen of the Heavens’.

I couldn’t leave it out. This is my single favourite representation of the Virgin and the Infant – Mary and Jesus. Not because it’s good, but because in this recreation both Jesus and Mary are being played by famous British Mr. Bean actor Rowan Atkinson for some reason. This is from a reliquary in the Aachen Cathedral Treasury. (Credit: Me)

It is widely considered that the Greco-Roman pantheon owes a lot to the Gods and Goddesses of the East. In that tradition there were many feminine rulers of heaven, such as those mentioned above. The symbolism of Mary being referred to this way is huge, then!

I can only speculate as for reasons why. Obviously as the mother of Jesus Mary is a significant figure in Christianity but her being placed in a position of reverence may also have helped early Christians adapt to their new religion, especially if they were following ancient pantheistic (multiple gods) religions. Perhaps it was deliberate, a specific intent to put the mother of Jesus on equal or greater footing than other prior female deities. Or could it be that the symbol of the ‘mother’ – however she is portrayed – is something of importance to a human psyche that, as a reproductive animal, places a massive weight of importance on parenthood? After all one of the first demands God makes of humankind is “…Be fruitful and multiply…” (Genesis 1:28).

The Coronation of the Virgin – Mary becomes the Queen of Heaven. This motif became very popular in Christianity, especially during the early renaissance movement in Italy between the 14th-16th centuries. It is Mary at her most potent and an excellent display of the importance of women in the Christian movement and in life in general. Mary is no longer the sorrowful virgin or the doting mother. She is now among the highest powers in heaven. She is crowned by her son, Christ (left) and God the Father (right). Both exhibit golden halos from behind them, Christ’s being cruciform (cross-shaped) to show the suffering and redemption he was born to fulfil. God’s is a triangle, a representation of his completeness as the sum of the trinity. The trinity is also in the composition, arranged triangularly! God the Father, Christ the Son and the Dove of the Holy Spirit above them. In this image, during this moment, a woman is being permitted the highest honours of heaven and even God himself gazes upon her still very pacific face with reverence. This is from the Lady Chapel of the Dominican Church of San Esteban in Salamanca, Spain. (Credit: Lawrence OP CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

What I do know is all of this places Mary as a very important figure not merely in Christianity, but in the study of the culture and influence of worship and religion itself. That’s cool!

Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.

Happy All Saints’ Day!

Top 5 Saints #4: Saint Sebastian – A former Roman guard turned arrow-filled Martyr.
Top 5 Saints #3: Saint Julian of Norwich – Locked herself in a cell for holiness.
Top 5 Saints #2: Saint Michael the Archangel – The heavy metal sword of God!
Top 5 Saints #1: Saint Francis of Assisi – Pious, compassionate and a role model.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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