Yet what most may not have considered is the notion that this art is not there purely for the purpose of inspiring an appreciation of divine things, it is there, likewise, to stir our intellect to the point of contemplating the divine mysteries, particularly those mysteries that words cannot express in a satisfactory manner.
A picture may be "worth a thousand words," but this kind of picture offers something far superior, for a thousand words can often be quite tedious and hard to digest. By contrast, good Catholic art seeks to condense a thousand words into what feels like the pithiest and most succinct explanation of a complex idea.
Such is how I would describe my experience with Marian iconography. Though my own words regarding Mary are often clumsy and unsatisfying (at least to me), the following art, I would suggest, eloquently makes present that which is otherwise beyond expression.
Below I attempt to articulate Marian theology through the lens of Mary's maternity, coupled with the manner in which she is depicted in art. My thesis in essence comes down to this: biology is theology. In fact, one could argue that developments in biology have and will continue to be at the service of historical developments surrounding our theological understanding of Mary's unique role in the plan of salvation (not to mention the dignity and value of women in general).
For example, the role of a woman in the conception of a child was once believed to be little more than an incubative process; we now know better, and that lines up beautifully with Marian dignity. Another example involves the question surrounding the moment of conception. During the medieval period, many held that true conception did not occur until some weeks after fertilization. We now know differently, and not only does that not diminish the Church's deep and abiding respect for human life (as well as motherhood), it rather elevates it. In any case, far from inhibiting Catholic doctrine, science actually serves to clarify doctrinal definitions, and may even, as I attempt to argue here, deepen our insight and understanding on these matters. And while, needless to say, I am no expert on biological matters, I will attempt at the level of my capacity to expand upon the above insight, leaving it to the real biologists and artists to offer further insight as it relates to what I have begun here in embryo...
1. Mary, The Living Monstrance of God
"At last! This one is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" - Genesis 2:23
Mary, like no other human on the face of the earth literally "embodies" our Lord (in both senses). Not only does Mary look like Jesus, but even more startlingly, Jesus looks like Mary. Indeed, Jesus would not be Jesus in the particular way he manifested his humanity, had he another mother. The above image calls to mind three things in particular for me. First of it all, the icon itself looks a bit like some sort of divine sonogram revealing within Mary a kind of royal embryo. Secondly, it looks- based on the way Mary holds her hands- that she herself is a priest, the antecedent Priest from which the flesh and blood of God was originally conceived. And lastly, it causes me to reflect on Mary as the "living monstrance of God." In other words, this image depicts Mary as a sort of immaculate monstrance, a living sudarium showcasing the holy face of God. Mary is the true icon/window into heaven, a living canvas into which the masterpiece of salvation has been engrafted and branded from the first moment of her conception.
2. Mary, The Burning Bush
"God is an all-consuming fire..." - Hebrews 12:29
"Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up..." - Exodus 3:2
When gazing upon this icon I begin to reflect upon Mary's special capacity to bear (in both senses, once again) the Son of God. One could argue that she is just an "ordinary" woman given an extraordinary task, but that would be (in many ways) to miss the point. Yes, she is "ordinary," but that doesn't diminish her extraordinary relationship with God. Other than the Savior himself, Mary is singular in the part she plays in salvation. In this sense, all other saints are replaceable. According to the Archangel Gabriel, Mary is, in a unique way, 'filled with every grace and blessing in the heavens... having been chosen from the foundation of the world to be holy and without blemish' (Luke 1:28; Ephesians 1:3-4). How else could she have given flesh to God Himself, if she herself weren't already conformed to this "all-consuming fire?" She can bear the Flame Himself within her precisely because she is already consumed by the flame of divine love.
"When the day of Pentecost came around they were altogether in one place... They saw what seemed like tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each one of them" - Acts 2:1, 3
3. Mary of the Trinity
... and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh." - Mark 10:8
God has chosen (in a very literal way) to express his union with humanity through Mary's maternity. To put it another way, he has chosen motherhood to express what it looks like for humanity to be in communion with God. Joseph in a certain sense represents humanity's role in the Incarnation. As he became the adopted father of Jesus, he subsequently (with the rest of humanity) gets "adopted" into this divine project. There are only two "persons" in all of eternity from which the eternal Word has proceeded. The first, in order of priority, is the Father; the second, is Mary. Thus, calling Mary the "Mother of God" is not mere hyperbole, especially if we regard her motherhood as a complete biological fact (as opposed to some kind of alien incubation). Though Mary is created and therefore not with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from the beginning, she is nevertheless part of the real conception of the Son in the order of time. Biologically speaking, one does not conceive part of a person, but rather the totality of that person (we are not Hindus/Dualists). Not only is this consistent with the Church's teaching on when life begins, but further highlight the sublime intimacy between mother and child (both biologically and spiritually). Hence, it is no accident that we see in the above artwork a mysterious and inescapable "love triangle." Observe how the lines of the two holy families are ultimately united in a constellation of two shapes- cross and triangle, together forming the shape of a kite, held in unison by the wings of the Holy Spirit. In any case, the child really is a physical sign of the communion of a set of parents, the living embodiment of their intimacy. The child in this case is the Word made flesh, a manifestation of the communion shared between Mary and God.
4. Mary, the Church
"When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother; 'Woman, behold, your son!' Then he said to his disciple, 'Behold, your mother!'" - John 19:26-27
"She brought forth a male child, one who was to rule the nations... but her child was caught up to God and his throne... Then the dragon was angry with the Woman and went off to make war on her offspring..." - Revelation 12: 1-2, 5, 17
Everyone knows, I suspect, that the priesthood is something reserved for men only. Yet there is a sort of female priesthood, which is in some ways even more primitive, or rather primary, than the former. Motherhood in itself serves as a kind of priesthood in the biological sense, for a mother really does, from her very flesh, give "life to the world", and then sustains that life from her own substance. In that sense then, a mother is not only a sign of the priesthood, but a sign of everything the Church does. Indeed, this mother is eucharistic in every possible sense, for she holds back nothing of her being, and so is perfectly given over to the other for the sake of, and in the name of, her Son; "And just as a mother nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, Christ also constantly nourishes us with his own blood, those to whom he has given birth." (St. John Chrysostom)
5. Mary, Mother of the Immaculate Word
"But Mary treasured all of these things, pondering them in her heart..." - Luke 2:19
Every mother bears in her body the stigmata of her love and her communion with her child. For example, the indelible belly button which marks the place where the umbilical cord was formerly attached, exists as a living memorial of their connection, a physical mark that remains constant even while everything else changes. However, this unique communion of lives moves well beyond this physical reminder. A mother's memories possess two distinguishing characteristics: they are both meticulous and immaculate (i.e. idealized). For her part, Mary is truly a living Bible of memories, the Sacred Page upon which the infallible Word of God was inscribed by the Father, with the feathery quill (and ink) of the Holy Spirit. Every mother believes her son to be infallible (or at least tends to idealize them), Mary is the only mother who has ever had the benefit of being correct in this assumption.
6. Mary, Tree of Life
"By their fruit you will recognize them... Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit... a bad tree cannot bear good fruit." - Matthew 7:16-18
"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb..." - Luke 1:42
It's hard not to notice the trans-literary references to the word "fruit" in the Bible. Simple Bible logic: that which is fruitful is good, and that which is fruitless is bad. As the above piece of art indicates, Eve, by her actions, eats the fruit of sin and thus "delivers" death into the world, while Mary, as a result of her fiat, receives the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and thus delivers Life into the world. This is not only theo-logic, but life logic. After all, families that seem to embody sin and division more often than not tend to burden and curse the following generations, while on the other hand, the faithfulness and solidarity of a good father and mother naturally communicates the same to their offspring and so on. In such a family, there is even tremendous hope for the black sheep, for when the black sheep is the exception, there are many opportunities for him/her to return to the fold, when they are the "rule," to what fold can they return? As it relates to Mary, she is so life-giving and faithful, that the "fruit of her womb" turns out to be the "medicine of immortality," not only for a thousand generations, but for every generation (which is why they will always call her "blessed") By contrast, by imbibing death and disobedience, Eve transmits the venom of the ancient serpent to all of her subsequent generations.However, in spite of all of the curses brought on by the sin of disobedience, the blessing of motherhood cannot be overthrown, thanks be to God. The womb of Mary (as well as that of every other woman) is truly a kind of "tree of life", a graceful bough, producing the fruit of human existence. Mary is truly the mother of mankind in the double sense. She is both a sign of its creation and a sign of its redemption, for the fruit of her womb delivers both to the world simultaneously.
"You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below... for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of their parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations to those who love me and keep my commands." - Exodus 20:4-6
7. Mary, Gate of Heaven
"Behold you will conceive and give birth to a Son, and you shall give him the name Jesus... and his kingdom will never end!" - Luke 1:31, 33
"The Lord God said to me, 'this gate is to remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the Lord God of Israel shall enter by it'" - Ezekiel 44:2
The above work of art, along with this traditional title for Mary, causes me to reflect on just how theo-logical the various titles of Mary tend to be (i.e. they can be logically deduced from Mary's biological role as mother). In essence, motherhood is a gateway that enables humanity to pass from oblivion into existence. On the other hand, Christ in his unique birth is not so much passing from nothingness into existence, but rather from heaven to earth. Consequently, this remarkable "gate" has not only been given the capacity to introduce new life into this world, but additionally has been given the special task of introducing our world to Heaven. Mary is ultimately the primordial image of the Church. She is, as it were, the Church before the Church. Indeed, she is the first Church of God, and her womb is the first sanctuary. There is a kind of certain gritty honesty to this title that makes me quite frankly a little uncomfortable. Perhaps I am a bit of a Puritan, but it is more is than a little biologically direct to create a title for Mary that directly invokes her birth canal. In any case, Woman (in this way) represents both mystery and revelation, the mystical curtain from which the drama of all earthly life proceeds, not to mention the ultimate revelation of God's plan for salvation.
8. Mary, Seat of Wisdom
"Then the king made a great throne covered with ivory and overlaid with gold... on both sides of the seat were armrests... Nothing like it had ever been made for any kingdom." - 1 Kings 10:18-20
Whether it be the image of a child resting in his mother's arms, or one sitting on his mother's lap, such images are so deeply embedded in the human psyche that in some ways they might be regarded as the Alpha and the Omega of our childhood memories. Another particularly divine trait associated with motherhood is her gift of Wisdom. From the Book of Wisdom to the Book of the Beatles, this form of human intuition goes well beyond verbal expression, and borders on a kind of psychic awareness. In fact, one might even associate it with another kind of silent force, something that is commonly called "grace". This primal understanding serves to nurture life, especially at its most fundamental stages. For this reason, it is a representative virtue of both the Church and of Mary at the same time. Just as the mother seems to anticipate all of the mysterious twists and turns of life, so also the Church. When we need insight as to how to navigate the difficult riddles and challenges of life, we must return to our mother's arms, or rather, we must humble ourselves and listen to her marvelous wisdom and insight. Her awareness and intuitive skills derive from her primordial instincts, her intimate knowledge and concern for her children, and her extensive experience and contemplative life. Her ivory "seat of wisdom" is simultaneously an authoritative chair and a mother's lap. She may not always say what we want to hear, but her presence alone is a remarkable form of consolation.
9. Mary, House of Gold
"So Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, and he made a partition by the chains of gold across the front of the sanctuary; and he overlaid it with gold." - 1 Kings 6:21
"You shall overlay (the ark) with pure gold, inside and out shall overlay it, and you shall make a gold molding around it" - Exodus 25:11
In our age we assume that dignity and respect are the inevitable right of every woman and child (at least in theory), but in the ancient world it was not so. Though the image of a child nestling in his mother's arms is universally regarded as beautiful, there is a built-in vulnerability suggested there that threatens the solidarity of this dynamic duo. Consequently, the value of the divine biology (and the symbolism therein) should not be dismissed as a mere pious abstraction. At the Incarnation, divinity literally attached itself to humanity, thus elevating the value of both child and mother. Always the sanctuary of biological life, the womb has now become the sacred residence of the Incarnate God. No longer can this temple known as Woman be patronized as the "weaker sex", nor can the child within her womb be dismissed as having "potential value" (though the Supreme Court may beg to differ). Both sanctuary and temple, Ark and covenant, are to be regarded as fearful, reverential and inseparable. Perhaps this explains the holy fear that gripped both David and Joseph when confronted with their respective responsibility to care for the Temple. What then is the biggest threat to the joint dignity of mother and child? Separating what God has joined.
10. Mary, True Grail of God
"This is my body given for you; do this in memory of me" - Luke 22:19
Mary is the Holy Grail, the sacred vessel, the golden chalice from whence the precious blood of our Lord and Savior flows. Observe the way that the lines are drawn in this beautiful icon. It is as if the Child and his mother are both extending their arms in orans prayer, while the eucharistic chalice simultaneously proceeds from the mother's breast. Much like the "Mother of the Church" image, the emphasis here is placed on the co-mingling of the two persons in such a way that the flesh we receive cannot merely be assigned to Jesus irrespective of his mother. Though it appears that the child is authoritatively extending the mother's arms with his hands, this same child nevertheless proceeds from the flesh of the mother. The tragedy of modern talk surrounding abortion is just how perfectly it aligns with a Eucharistic mindset... but in reverse. "This is my body," doesn't have to be meant in an antagonistic way. It can be expressed in both a maternal and marital sense as well; "Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies" (Ephesians 5:28). The same way in which Christ, the Bridegroom, gives life to his "body" the Church, so also each mother from her own flesh literally gives life to the world. Hence, we are left with a profound conundrum. Who exactly gives us the Eucharist anyway: Jesus or Mary? Yes.
11. Mary, Immaculate Image of God
"So God created man in his own image; in his own image he created them; male and female he created them"
- Genesis 1:27
In another universally familiar image of mother and child, I am once again inspired to reflect on the primordial unity of mankind, not to mention the paradox of the above Scripture passage that employs both the singular and plural of the same idea; "he created him, male and female he created them." In this beautiful icon we can observe just how the new Adam and Eve together express the full face of God. Two distinct faces pressing against one another in affection to make one. I've never heard of Siamese twins conjoined at the cheek, but in this work of art we can imagine that what conjoins them is not so much a piece of vestigial skin, but rather the bonds of agape love. Indeed, like the original pair (as seen below), they really are an extension of one another, a visage of the whole human race. However, unlike the short-lived harmony of our first parents, we can imagine how the sequel, particularly as expressed in the above icon, helps restore the perfection of the once disfigured and malformed image of God in man.
12. Mary, Morning Star
"So we have prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts" -2 Peter 1:19
Marian devotion must be a perplexing thing to non-Catholics, especially when you consider the length to which the Church goes in order to honor her. Indeed, if Evangelicals believe in having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Catholics do likewise, but they might also consider it natural to have a personal relationship with Mary as well (for both are persons after all). Nevertheless, the language that is used to honor Mary is not meant to marginalize God, but rather to properly acknowledge the unique part that Mary played in salvation. God not only became man, but chose a man, or rather a woman, to be his partner in this project of restoring the "dawn" to humanity. Hence, much of what we might say about Jesus, we can also say of Mary by implication. For example, do we have the hope of an everlasting dawn, a tomorrow, a future, because of Jesus, or do we have one because of Mary. The answer is a resounding "yes"! And this is ultimately true of every mother that's ever conceived a child. Of course we must first set each thing in its proper order (i.e. God provided the conditions whereby this could take place in Mary), but nevertheless, in God's humility, he does ultimately permit us a share in his inheritance. When a citizen marries a foreigner, she shares all of the rights and privileges that a citizen does. Incidentally, we also see this, theologically speaking, with Peter as well. For he too is given various titles that God himself formerly possessed (i.e rock, shepherd, etc.). Like Mary, Peter possesses these titles, not because of his own merits, but because of whom he is united to in the Spirit.
13. Mary, Our Mystical Rose (and the New Eden)
"I am the rose of Sharon, like a lily of the valley. Like a lily among the thorns, so is my darling among the maidens." - Song of Songs 2:1-2
"A garden enclosed is my sister, my bride; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed." - Song of Songs 4:12
Of all the strange flowers in the garden of God, the rose is perhaps the strangest and most mystical. Why? Because in a most singular way it captures the ironic marriage between beauty and sorrow, between love and pain. The etymology of a word like "passion" tells us practically everything we need to know about the marriage between the thorn and the rose. Indeed, love and suffering, at least in this fallen world, are so deeply intertwined (like strands of DNA) that they are literally bound up in the same word, or as in the case of the flower, bound up in the same flower. Indeed, the mystery and mysticism of redemption is pregnant with symbology like this, especially surrounding gardens and flowers. For Mary herself is not simply a rose with a thorn pressed to her bosom, but also the virgin soil, prepared by God, enclosed, both fruitful and undefiled, the untainted ground from whence true salvation springs.
"Therefore when he comes into the world, he says, sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me" - Hebrews 10:5
14. Mary, Mother of Sorrows
"...and a sword shall pierce your own soul also, so that the secret thoughts of many shall be laid bare - Luke 2:35
Other than Jesus, never has another human being ever been so crucified and stigmatized by the death of God, nor has any human rejoiced more over His Resurrection as much as she. Does a child ever fully leave his mother's body? So fully are their lives interconnected and intertwined that at the suffering of her child, the mother must in some sense feel the ache in her womb, though the child has long departed. According to recent findings, there is a phenomenon known as micro-chimerism, wherein some of the biological DNA of the child remains in the mother's womb years after the birth of the child. Another interesting biological detail involves the discovery in recent years that prolonged stress in the life of a mother prior to giving birth, can effect the genetic development of the baby in utero (so the process can go both ways). Perhaps a more overtly positive biological discovery (among many) involves the release of a chemical known as oxytocin during breastfeeding, wherein a mother experiences bonding with her child as a result of this biological aid. Yet even beyond these biological factors, the bond between these two is so perfect that the mother often prefers her own suffering to that of her child's. Indeed, true love in this sense is so completely other-centered, that the suffering of the beloved is quite often a heavier burden than one's own personal suffering. Perhaps this explains the mystery of why certain icons depict every member of the Blessed Trinity suffering the pains of the crucifixion equally.
15. Mary, Pillar of Cloud
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him (Moses) and proclaimed his name, the Lord" -Exodus 34:5
Whenever God wishes to manifest his presence in the Old Testament (and frequently in the New Testament as well), more often than not this Presence is accompanied by the overshadowing of a cloud. For example, whenever the Lord manifests himself to Moses at the Tent of Meeting, there is always a cloud that overshadows the place wherein he speaks to the prophet. In the same way, motherhood is a white pillar that conceals the precise nature of the heavenly alchemy known as conception. Even with all that we now know about pregnancy from a biological standpoint, the mystery and wonder that accompanies the process whereby a woman (in particular) helps bring into existence a being ex nihilo, is a magic, or rather a power, that can only be described as a "miracle"... which is perhaps why it so often regarded as such.
16. Mary, Assumed into Heaven
"... because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see corruption." - Psalms 16:10
One of the central themes of Scripture is the deepening of man's understanding concerning the nature and meaning of sacrifice. Whereas in the Old Testament the language of substitution is often used (i.e. lambs, bulls, goats, etc), in the New Testament the focus shifts from the offering of animals to the language of self-offering. The school of Scripture is a long and arduous process, pastoring humanity to the ultimate form of sacrifice... "This is my body given for you. Do this..." From the Incarnation all the way to the Ascension, Christ, in a very literal sense, offers himself back to the Father. In the same way, at the end of her life, Mary, who also offered her body to the process of God's redemptive work, was likewise lifted to the Father as a sign commensurate with her sacrificial work. Because of her obedience in giving herself completely to this motherhood, salvation was planted in her body... literally. 'Where her heart is, she is also.' Like Christ, she gives her flesh over to the Father so that the world may have life. Thus, she follows Christ in this secondary fashion because by giving birth to him biologically, her "flesh and blood" (see the passage below) goes wherever He goes.
"These are those who did not defile themselves... for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as first-fruits to God and to the Lamb." Revelation 14:4
17. Mary, Queen of Heaven
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head. " - Revelation 12:1
"What is bound on earth shall be bound in heaven..." If the Incarnation means anything at all from a human standpoint, it means manifesting in heaven what has been manifested on earth (and vice versa). We are not merely being "saved" by God, but being made a "new creation." And so it makes perfect sense that all of the titles that Christ is given would be conferred in some complimentary way upon those with whom he has united Himself. Hence, if Christ is the Bridegroom, then who is the bride? And if Christ is King, who is the Queen? And if Christ is our Communion, then with whom is he communing? Theologically speaking, we know that we are the baptized members of the family of God. Yet how much more is Mary baptized due to the fact that she really is biologically and genetically related to God? It is true that we are also grafted (and adopted) into the divine family, but how much more is Mary a member of the family of God in that Jesus receives his human identity from her? It may be in our DNA and psychological makeup to be oriented towards our heavenly Father, but in truth it is only the result of Mary's "yes" to God (on our behalf), that this orientation can be brought to fruition.
"And the king arose to meet her (his mother), bowed before her, and sat on his throne; then he had a throne set for the king's mother, and she sat on his right. Then she said; 'I am making one small request of you; do not refuse me.' And the king said to her; 'Ask my mother, I will not refuse you.' "
- 1 Kings 2:19-20