In light of reports of Donald Trump’s recent conversion to Christianity, we have reason to hope that he will visit his home parish, Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, more frequently. (For Marble Collegiate's history, see the instructive remarks of Matthew Schmitz.) As Trump pays his respects at the imposing exterior statue of Norman Vincent Peale, perhaps he will notice a nearby statue that predates it. Just a few yards from Peale are the suffering Mary, Jesus, and Joseph en route to Egypt—the Holy Family as refugees. This statue constitutes one of the most unexpected, and welcome, placements in Manhattan—almost as if Joel Osteen’s I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life contained an appendix on what it means to “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). Consider the statue a visual corollary to Adlai Stevenson’s famous quip, “I find Apostle Paul appealing, and Apostle Peale appalling.”
It was sculpted by Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973) whose works pepper the city. She gave it to the church in 1966, at the height of Peale’s ministry, perhaps to offset his triumphalism. I suppose this makes it a Protestant Mary, though a copy of it exists at the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, making it a notable instance of Protestants and Catholics united around the Virgin. Joseph is downcast, their pack animal is spent, and Mary—eyes closed—hopes for consolation, not realizing perhaps that the cross on which her baby will hang hovers behind them. Is the statue likely to move Trump to a deeper Christian awakening? Perhaps not—given that it really is easy to miss—but I believe in the power of positive thinking.
It would be unfair, furthermore, to blame Trump for overlooking Mary, since scholars of early church history have long neglected her as well. Until very recently, Mary’s role in the first centuries of Christianity had been relatively invisible. She had remained tucked around the corner, as she is at Marble Collegiate, just out of sight. Doctrinal and theological surveys, to be sure, have long mentioned her, outlining her status as the New Eve or the Mother of God, as defined at Ephesus in 431. But astoundingly, a serious survey of devotion to Mary in early Christianity came out only this year. Taking advantage of recently recovered liturgies, architectural discoveries, and artistic reassessments, Stephen Shoemaker has encapsulated decades of research into a book that finally shows Mary to be far more present in the foundational years of Christianity than we had thought, well before the Council of Ephesus that confirmed her as Theotokos.
Once Mary is noticed, everything changes. It becomes clearer how new notes of suffering and compassion slowly emerged in Eastern Christianity as Jesus’s mother imparted her lessons to an Empire still intoxicated with dreams of Roman political glory. Tales of Mary as a military general were slowly replaced with her extended Good Friday lamentations. The burning bush, a favorite early Christian motif for proclaiming the Virgin birth, began to burn in a different kind of way. “What did she feel when the vinegar touched His pure lips?,” asked the ninth century homilist George of Nicomedia. “I will tell you: searing flames of fire penetrating her womb.” Art soon followed these rhetorical patterns. Icons of the confident Mary were replaced with human notes of tenderness and loss, as evidenced, most famously, by the twelfth century Virgin of Vladimir. These are the icons that generated the Renaissance, and which are the distant ancestors of the Marble Collegiate sculpture.
Devotion to the suffering Virgin prepared the Empire for its inevitable political collapse. By the fifteenth century, the writing was on the wall. And while most residents of the Empire no doubt clung to political aspiration, a different note was sounded by the renewal movement known as hesychasm (from esychía, the Greek word for stillness). This retreat from political power is expressed in one of Gregory of Palamas’s fourteenth-century homilies on the Virgin:
The signs of her rule are not that she has at her disposal crowns such as the masses will never touch, nor choice gems, ornaments and fabrics, nor regal costume different from the attire of common people. Such things were invented for those kings who cannot rise above what is earthly, and whose clothes reign rather than their souls. Instead, the tokens of her royal power are indescribable graces beyond our comprehension, abilities and energies surpassing nature and directed heavenwards.
Palamas’s post-political Mary illustrated a mystical turn, just as the prospects of the Empire grew most dismal.
Just as she leavened the Byzantine Empire with humility, we hope that the rediscovered Virgin Mary will help us to transcend the immediate exigencies of our political moment. In the evangelical youth group where I was converted as a teenager, a wise elderly volunteer, probably now long gone on to glory, wore a different kind of red baseball cap. It read “American by birth, Christian by the grace of God,” and he ceaselessly reminded us that his second birth trumped his first one. Likewise, notwithstanding what some polls say about evangelicals and Trump, there is a segment—well represented in this post by Matthew Lee Anderson—that will not take the bait. A heyschast shift in evangelicalism, into the depths of spiritual silence instead of out into imagined political glory, would be less a retreat back into Fundamentalism than a maturation of the movement in an hour of exceptional need.
Matthew Milliner (whose views do not necessarily represent those of his employer) is associate professor of art history at Wheaton College.