“Our Lady of the Mermaids.” © 2011 Alfred Eaker
When it comes to Mariology, even self-proclaimed liberal, protestant denominations passionately raise objections towards the Catholic tradition of elevating Mary to the level of near goddess, arguing that she is an impossible role model for women (being both virgin and mother) and, understandably, resisting the ultra right’s tendency to use her image as a suppressive, brow-beating weapon.
Certainly, Marian symbology has often been used as a correctional tool, something akin to a “What Would Mary Do?” motivational. Mary, in her ever-virginal state, has often been reduced to bumper sticker theology, in an effort to combat the onslaught of puberty. Needless to say, Mary, as a potential, imaged disciplinarian, set before young Catholic school girls and boys, or seminarians, has, more often than not, been a predictably ineffectual inspiration.
However, Christ has certainly been used this way as well, of course; even more so. Indeed, Jesus of Nazareth may well be the Yukon Cornelius of deities since depictions and interpretations of him are as varied as the sands, and he never seems to quite fit in any one depiction, rendering him a misfit among misfits.
In regards to an imaged Christ, there is, at least, literary diversity within the New Testament that can be referenced, regardless of static images often applied to the Nazarene. The Christ of Mark’s Gospel projects qualities of aloofness and moodiness. He is enigmatic, earthy, and masculine. In contrast to that, Christ, as portrayed in the Gospel of John, is mystical, ethereal, sensitive, and effeminate. These varied, interpretive portraits of Christ beautifully flesh out the contradictory nature of his narrative, which we can readily identify with. The richness of disparity in the New Testament profiling of Christ has given rise to wildly contrasting Christs ever since.
Michelangelo’s Christ of the “Last Judgment” resembles a Prometheus unbound, the kind of Jesus one might picture in Mark’s action-packed gospel. This is the Jesus who, after having resisted Satanic temptation in the cave, descends into town, chest protruding, to further wallop the demon-possessed . Yet, near the end of his life, this same artist, depicted a much different savior, in stone. In his last, unfinished “Pieta” Michelangelo’s Christ, in death, is withered, vulnerable and his mother’s cradled son.
“Annunciation” ©2011 Alfred Eaker. oil on canvas.
Within scriptural text, the enigma of Mary is cloaked in pronounced minimalism, even if she has been referred to as “The First Evangelist” (when she visits Elizabeth) and “The First Church” (with the shepherds and Joseph on Christmas morn in the manger). The young Mary does have a girlish quality, but, as she grows older, in the dramatic narrative of the gospels, the characterization of Mary dissipates as the character of Christ expands.
From the point of Christ’ adulthood on, the events involving Mary do not reveal her emotional makeup or reactions. Tradition attaches slithers of emotion to her, but these are apt, artistically interpreted attributes.
Catholic apologetics liken the miracle of Cana to the Garden of Gethsemane. In the garden, Christ asks his Father to remove the bitter chalice that he must soon drink of, but he yields to his Father’s will. At Cana, Christ resists Mary’s prompting to transform the water into wine, telling her “It is not my time.” Christ is reluctant to begin his ministry, but yield’s to his mother’s will. This is a smart literary development, employing an example of Christ’s obedience to the forth commandment. However, Mary is merely a mother here, and no insight is given to her temperament.
The same is true of her appearance at the cross of her son and at Pentecost. Mary’s last appearance is a metaphorical one, in the Apocalypse. Two vivid images are given. First she appears in the desert(Egypt), after having given a painful birth, fleeing the dragon/serpent. Here, she is depicted as the New Eve, at enmity with the serpent. The serpent is symbolic of the king, seeking her son’s death. She flees to protect her child/the Church. This dream-like vignette is word painted in expressionist, monochromatic colors. The second image of her, as a Lady, clothed in the Sun, is strikingly colored.
“Pieta.” ©2011 Alfred Eaker
With the figure of Christ being illustrated in four canonical gospels, we are given multi-faceted perspectives for contemplation. From the Jewish rabbi, to the dusty human and the mystical god. With Mary, the gospels and the Apocalypse composite a consistent archetype of a young girl who becomes an increasingly otherworldly woman. The human quality, found in her as a lowly peasant, humble, expectant, teen mother, becomes subdued as the the adult image of her becomes increasingly preoccupied with a celestial state, that was pronounced even in the youthful figure of her as servant, hence the surrealist attraction to Our Lady.
Imagery of Christ as a warrior/judge figure can at least be attained from some of the wording of the Apocalypse, even if that depiction fatuously ignores the Christ of the Beatitudes and so on. More nonsensical is the Marian image used as a means of disciplinary chastisement. There are no literary or early traditions for the use of that image in that manner. Still, the representational imagery of a benevolent mother far outnumbers opposing depictions. The various, imaged incarnations of her; Our Lady of Peace, Our Lady of Sorrows (where one is invited to lay heavy burdens at her door), Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Mercy, Our Lady of the Snows, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Our Lady of the Rosary, all depict a womb of empathy. She is far less often portrayed as the judgmental yardstick that we are hopelessly measured against.
No family is complete without a mother, unless it is a dysfunctional family, of course. Objections to Mariology often are coached in terms of historicity, even from agnostic theologians, more likely betraying a misogynist resistance to the feminine as near divine.
More progressive mainline protestant denominations, while embracing a female clergy, cannot go so far as to embrace feminine symbology within the divine family. PC friendly denominations may abstractly refer to God in the vernacular, but are still resistant to an actual, solidified feminine image.
A Post-Vatican II Catholicism, in a strained effort to be “protestant friendly,”has taken the easiest, superficial, surface reforms by downplaying Mary’s presence, along with caving into an iconoclastic, protestant spirit. Rosary services are set aside in most parishes, usually after scantly attended early morning weekday masses. Predictably, we have still failed to grasp the deeper, mystical reforms of John the XXIII. Even more predictably, when the mystical quality fails to be attained, that most pronounced of mystical figures, Our Lady, is the first to go.
In place of a sea of rosaries amidst a parish of divinely inspired art, the post-modern American Catholic Church, more often than not, projects the atmosphere of a dull, artless, masculine basketball court, rather than a temple. Naturally, rosaries and Mary have no place on the court.
When protestant churches jettisoned the sacramental, mysterious qualities of Catholicism, they universally rejected the Marian symbology, and proved themselves even more unimaginatively patriarchal than the original role model. Much in protestantism densely attaches itself to an alarmingly limited perception of hyper realism, in which the Marian image becomes the equivalent of a round peg in a square hole. Of all the protestant tenants to avoid, this should have been the Church’s last route. Instead, the Church has emulated the worst in its competition.
Of course, sophomoric attempts to appease protestantism hardly stops two millennium of Marian devotion among the laity, particularly European, Scandinavian, and Hispanic laity. Marian apparitions and pilgrimages to attributed sights of these apparitions are still vigorous forces of mystical inspiration to be reckoned with. The Church, understandably- from its public point of view, looks at each sighting with skepticism. That is the face the Church is forced to put on for the world. The authenticity of each sighting is reviewed, but the authenticity lies in that translucent wave of inspiration. Marian devotion has never been preoccupied with historicity or vacuous realism.
Christ himself rarely acquires that level of frenzied sightings. That possibly is because the Marian image, while certainly ethereal in the end state of being, traverses that bridge between the human condition and the goal of inclusion in the divine family.
Being a woman in first century, patriarchal-ruled Judea, Mary is a symbolic outcast, a secondary citizen. It is written that a sword pierced her girl’s heart, the traditional “Mary’s Way of the Cross” depicts a mother closely following in the bloodied footsteps of her dying son, and the various Pietas capture the mystical and emotional anguish of a parent losing her child.
In his writings of “Total Concentration to Mary”, that Franciscan martyr Maximilan Kolbe wrote, ” Anyone incapable of bending his knee and of imploring from Her in humble prayer the grace to know who She really is, cannot hope to learn anything more about Her.
From the divine Maternity flow all the graces granted to the All Holy Virgin Mary, and the first of these graces is the Immaculate Conception. This privilege must be particularly dear to Her heart, if at Lourdes She herself wished to define Herself thus: I am the Immaculate Conception. With this name, so pleasing to Her heart, we also wish to call upon Her.
To draw close to Her, to make ourselves like Her, to allow Her to take possession of our heart and of all our being, that She might live and work in us and through us, that She Herself love God with our heart, that we belong to Her without any reserve: behold our ideal.
To shine in our environment, to conquer souls for Her, in such wise that in Her presence the hearts of our neighbors also open, so that She might extend Her reign in the hearts of all who live in any corner of the earth, without regard to difference of race, of nationality, of language, and likewise in the hearts of all who will live in any moment of history, until the end of the world: behold, our ideal.
Further, that Her life be ever more deeply rooted in us, from day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment, and this without any limitation: behold our ideal.
And still, that this Her life develop in the same way in every soul which exists or will exist in any time: behold our precious ideal.”
Despite some, admittedly, dated terminology (i.e; ‘conquering souls’) Kolbe’s ideal, inspired by his devotion, was put into action when he voluntarily laid down his life for a stranger in the Auschwitz concentration camp in August, 1941. “Greater love hath no man than this.”
Instead of eradicating her image and spiritual presence from our Churches, or applying a reductionist approach to her, the Marian image and presence can be embraced for what it is; the faith’s sublime, mysterious Tahitian pearl, a diaphanous adagio for our contemplation and inspiration, a startlingly sensuous rose which can, quite astonishingly, burst through the practicality of our senses. The Church and the faith are desperate for a veracious, mystical revival and movement. This will not be found in the hollow, pedestrian, futile, and predictable attempts that have been made time and again. No, the first steps of this can be attained by an image we have always had before us. As usual, she is forced to wait on our “coming round” to her embrace.
“Christ Meets His Mother On The Way To The Cross.” © 2012 Alfred Eaker