I am not sure what my own first vision of Mary was, but from an early age I was aware of two images: one a literal picture, the other an imagined scene; and both remain with me half a century later.
The picture was a gilded reproduction of an icon, the original of which is displayed in Rome in the Church of Saint Alfonsus Liguiri, not far from the central railway station Termini. The image is known as that of ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Help,’ or more traditionally of ‘Perpetual Succour.’ Byzantine in style, it was brought to Rome more than 500 years ago.
Legend has it that the painting was stolen from a Church in Crete by a merchant who sailed home with it, then to be caught in a storm from which all aboard were only saved by invoking the intercession of Mary. Once in Rome the icon passed through several other less than wholly devout hands, but in due course it became an object of veneration, and it remains such today.
The image shows the Virgin Mary wrapped in a blue mantle whose folds are highlighted in gilt. Gathered in her left arm is the child Jesus who is looking over his shoulder to the golden sky where an angel hovers carrying a cross and nails. The figures are classically and stably posed, but the trauma of the crucifixion is anticipated, not least by the hand of Mary pointing to Jesus as if to say ‘this child is your savior and his sacrifice will be for your sake.’
The theology of redemption was no part of my childish appreciation of the reproduction that hung in the hallway. To me this was simply Mary Queen of Heaven from whom we sought intercession. That identity was confirmed in the second vision, this time the work of my own imagination. Every Friday evening we gathered to say the prayer known as the Memorare, and as we did I conjured up images of us gathered before the figure of Mary whose arms reached down to embrace us.
This well-known invocation of the Virgin began as part of a longer prayer composed in the West around the same time that the Eastern icon arrived in Rome. By coincidence, or by design, it was the same Pope, Pius IX, who in the nineteenth century commended both veneration of the icon, and the saying of the prayer.
The Memorare reminds Mary that “never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thy intercession was left unaided” and it ends by saying “in thy mercy hear and answer us.” I imagine that millions across the world have recalled and recited those words like childhood verses, finding hope and comfort in them, even as their lives collapsed, or as they sank beneath oceans of troubles. Such is the paradoxical power of faith: it provides hope against the threat of despair, and then offers consolation in the midst of it.
Further images of Mary have featured in my own life. As a child I used to travel from Scotland to holiday with cousins in London and Kent, and en route, and whenever in the area of Victoria, would call into Westminster Cathedral. The vastness of the Byzantine-inspired building is made unthreatening by the marble and mosaic decorations, and by the division of the right and left sides into a series of sanctuaries. Among the first of these to be decorated was the Lady Chapel.
It is a place unto itself, walled in misty marbles and vaulted in sparkling gold. Behind the altar is the blue-robed virgin holding the infant Jesus; and in the mosaics above, Mary stands to one side of the Tree of Life surrounded by the figures of saints known to have had special devotion to her.
The imagery of the Lady Chapel has entered as deeply into my consciousness as did the Marian images of early childhood. I came back often, first as an art student and then when studying philosophy; it was there that I was married, and it is to there that I continue to return whenever in London.
It must be said, however, that as well as being a source of artistic and spiritual inspiration, the prominence of Mary in Catholic consciousness has been the subject of theological denunciation and of psychological analysis.
Her unique elevation has been criticized from two opposing quarters: On the one hand by Biblical Protestants who view it as superstitious, idolatrous and entirely without scriptural foundation; and on the other by radical feminists who regard it is as part of the confinement of women, casting them in maternal and submissive roles.
It’s worth exploring, therefore, the origins and meaning of the Catholic devotion to Mary.
Along with the figure of Jesus, that of his mother has shaped Christian iconography from the earliest periods. The art, architecture, music and liturgy of the Greek-speaking Eastern Church and of the Latin-speaking Western one draw upon a series of identities of Mary: as the bodily bearer of Christ; as a commanding parent of Jesus, as his suffering mother, and as the glorified Queen of Heaven.
Out of these foundational visionary images have been composed various ‘Litanies of Mary’ which include the following titles for her:
Mother of Christ, Mother of our Creator, Mother of our Savior, Mother of the Church, Mother of divine grace, Mother most amiable, Mother most admirable, Mother of good counsel…
Mirror of justice, Seat of wisdom, Cause of our joy, Spiritual vessel, Vessel of honor, Mystical rose, Gate of heaven, Morning star, Refuge of sinners, Comforter of the afflicted, Help of Christians…
Queen of angels, Queen of apostles, Queen of all saints, Queen conceived without original sin, Queen assumed into heaven, Queen of families Queen of peace, and so on aplenty.
Some of these titles are the work of poetic imagination; some the product of fiercely fought theological controversies; while others are both. In particular three visions of Mary have dominated spiritual, theological and artistic reflection and practice:
First, Mary as Bearer or Mother of God—along with which has gone the idea of the virgin birth and the belief that she herself was conceived without stain of original sin (the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception).
Second, Mary as escaping the corruption of death—expressed in the idea that at the end of her earthly life she was assumed ‘Body and soul’ into heaven (the Dogma of the Assumption and in the east that of the Dormition (Mary’s ‘falling asleep’).
Third, Mary as chief among all created beings—standing as a mediator between God and humanity; sometimes expressed in terms of her being Queen of Saints.
Considering the criticisms of those who hold that all of this is mediaeval invention and pagan nonsense, I must first admit that the gospels say little about her. Mary first appears when an angel tells her that she is to conceive the Son of God; then we have the events leading up to and following the birth of Jesus. Thereafter Mary features as an attentive mother, aware of her son's mission and of his miraculous powers.
Her next appearances are during the period of the passion, culminating in Jesus’ words from the cross committing her to the care of the disciple John: “Woman, here is your son…Behold, here is your mother.” Finally, in the Acts of the Apostles we are told that Mary was with them after the ascension of the resurrected Jesus, and that they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.
There certainly seems a vast gap between these few elements and the complex and ornate edifice of Catholic ‘Mariology.’ Yet the foundation of the early Christian communities was not a book, but a combination of narratives, beliefs, and practices.
To understand the veneration of Mary, therefore, we need to look beyond the covers of the Bible. Among other writings there are eastern texts attributed to early church figures such as Melito of Sardis and Cyril of Jerusalem.
No less important, though somewhat neglected, is the early tradition of visual representations of Mary, and of liturgies in which she is specially honoured.
In the crypt of the Church of Santa Engracia at Saragossa in Spain, there is a sarcophagus one side of which depicts Mary’s Assumption into Heaven. It shows perhaps twelve men, with a central female figure being drawn upwards by a hand stretched down to grasp her. The probable dating of the sarcophagus, which contained bones presumed to be those of local martyrs, is around 320, and the technique and material suggest that it was made in Rome.
Somewhat later in the Eastern Church, there are exquisite Byzantine portrayals of Mary’s life, leading to her ‘falling asleep’ when the figure of the Christ is shown gathering the soul of his departed mother, and cradling the small and faint reclining spectre, just as she had cradled him in his infancy.
Ancient writings, art and liturgies testify to the antiquity of Mary’s veneration and to the idea that she has a special role interceding on behalf of humanity. In the medieval and later periods these traditions were expressed in the prayers and musical settings that have come to be known by their opening salutations: Ave Maria, Salve Regina, Memorare, and so on.
So much for origins and traditions, what of meanings? The key to this flowering of Marian devotion beyond the canon of scripture perhaps lies somewhere deeper in the idea of the relationship of mother and child: first, physically intimate, then nurturing and protective, next instructive and authoritative, and finally reversing into dependency. The idea of an eternal, all-powerful deity stands remote from human experience, but the idea that God entered the world through Mary and was subject to her care and direction provides an intermediary through whom pleas and petitions may pass.
It is upon this solid ground that the Catholic doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption were built. These hold first, that Mary alone among human beings was conceived without the inherited wounds of original sin, deriving from the fall; and second that at the end of her earthly life she was taken body and soul into heaven.
Both are products of deductive theology which begins with Mary’s vital role in the scheme of salvation: reflecting on what is fitting so far as the earthly Mother of Christ is concerned, and concluding that since God has the power to achieve whatever is fitting so he would have protected Mary from the fact and effects of inherited sin, and acted to exempt her from the process of bodily decay.
Far more powerful and compelling than logic in the minds of the faithful, however, is the imagery of a mother issuing instructions and requests to her son; and of he in turn acting in love and devotion towards her. Reflecting on this natural bond of mutual concern and affection what is perhaps surprising is not that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have made much of Mary, but that there are some Christians who have managed to find no place for her at all. Perhaps it is in this exiling of Mary and not in Marianism that we see the influence of an exclusive masculinism, and perhaps a narrowly exclusivist and fearful adherence to scripture.
The visions of Mary as aid and interceder, images that I, and millions of others first encountered in childhood speak to the reality of the human condition in its dependency, vulnerability and need of protection. At the same time, however, by denying that Mary is anything more than human, the uniqueness of God and the exclusiveness of his power to create and to sustain is preserved. Theologically and aesthetically that has proven to be an enduring and inspiring combination of ideas and images, a thoughtful vision.
John Haldane is professor of philosophy at the University of St. Andrews and author of Faithful Reason (2006), Practical Philosophy (2009), and Reasonable Faith (2010). He was recently appointed chairman of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. His Philosophy Lives appeared in the January issue.