MARY AND THE CATHOLIC IMAGINATION: AN IMAGINATIVE GEM

A sublime manifesto. Brief, but no mere trifle. Simultaneously lucid and poetic, Wendy M. Wright’s “Mary and the Catholic Imagination” dips its pen into a desperately needed Sophiastic inkwell.

An excerpt from her introduction:

“I encountered the fascinatingly polymorphous religious symbol and touchingly intimate presence who answers to the name of Mary…She occupies a generous space in the hearts of those who speak tom look to, identify with, implore, honor, and hope in her. In a conceptual world in which sacred presence is powerfully sensed, she is among those presences most poignantly and deeply felt.”

That last line could just as well be applied to this book, a multifaceted, diaphanous gem amongst seemingly countless essays. Wright invites us to cling for dear life to Her image, opening us to “the breath of the spirit to hear the whisper of mercy and conceive of justice in a world where it does not exist.”

This is no touchy feely, Stuart Smalley type of meditation, but a profound, imaginative work of art, which may feed those willing to partake.

The Annunciation, Stations of the Cross, Pieta.

The Annunciation, Stations of the Cross, Pieta.

In The Mary Myth, Andrew Greely writes, ” The Marian symbol is surely one of the most powerful symbols in the Western Tradition. Virtually every major painter from the fifth to the sixteenth century painted at least one Madonna. The Marian paintings and poetry tell us far more about the power and meaning of the Madonna than theology books could possibly portray.  Art is much better at conveying limit-experience than scholarly theology.” [1]

Annunciation

Last year, at the beginning of seminary, I began a series of works on canvas, entitled Stations to parallel my experience. The first three works were completed last year and this year I have painted the fourth through the sixth.

Stations I. Christ is condemned to death.

The point of entryism is the primordial Sophia.  The apophatic Stations rejects the crude violence inherent in subscription to the tyranny of the hyper- realism often associated with the passion narrative.  From Genesis, Sophia’s stream of hallowed pathos manifests in the intricate Magnificat; the second testament’s renowned fiat of relentless communication. The illiterate adolescent Miriam issues her sublime revolt, exalting the destitute, fragmenting the elite. From the womb of her proclamation, the obscure is cultivated. Miriam issues forth the faint beacon; Christus. In the pondering of Miriam’s heart the character of Christus is wistfully seeded. Miriam and Christus, unified in erect clarity, are Sophia’s intimate motif.  The translucent  passion of Christus, endured through the Mother of sorrows, reaps an unequivocal music.

Stations II. Christ is given his cross.

Historical-critical analysis, while having its place, is not a concern in these works. Rather, the meditative Stations reflects John Henry Newman’s “Fact of the Imagination.”  Stations,  lamenting the bankruptcy of theological idiosyncrasy, is the expression of an illegible signpost.  These works, admittedly, subscribe to a type of Zen Catholicism, although there is also resistance in labeling it such, just as an idiosyncratic theology resists attachment to a dogmatic school. In this, the works are post-modern in both theological and artistic expression. For me, the age of theological and artistic schools has passed and is rendered impotent. Subscribing to a particular movement, within the arts or within theology, is as linear, is as institutional as stifling attachment towards a blueprint for doctrinal, patriarchal religion. Sacramental pathos sows freedom in the secular crisis of symbols. Symbolic idea is equated with the incarnation. The artistic theology in these works seeks to simultaneously beautify and inspire discomfort. By jettisoning traditional imagery, the risk of subscribing to a perceived totalitarian atheism runs high. However, the discarding of  solidified imagery and adhering instead to the internal, emotionally organic content inherent in the Stations, breaths an ecumenical expression. Catholicism (iconography), Zen Buddhism (indefinable), Judaism (Genesis heritage), and Protestantism (subduing of concrete imagery) are influentially present within. Prominent in the creative process is Jorunn Okland’s[2] observation that “Symbolic Continuity is fundamental to our culture.” For that reason, both The Annunciation and Pieta serve as “bookends” to the unfolding, journeyed Stations.

Stations III. Christ falls for the first time.

In The Annunciation I painted Mary as a fleshy, ethnic, girlish, peasant youth. In contrast to her fleshiness, is the diaphanous, ethereal milieu in which she is encompassed. This milieu is conveyed with monochromatic, Prussian blues, Pthalo blues, Viridian Hues and Dioxadine Purple. Flowers adorn her, weaving in and out of the fabric of her dress. Behind her is the questioning angel. Fiercely independent, Mary is on the verge of her Yes, her “Let it be done”,  without consulting her family or her betrothed.

STATIONS IV. Christ meets his Mother.

The Pieta is thirty years later in the narrative. Often, the Madonna is painted, at that scene, still young, still unblemished by age. I chose, again, to depict her ethnicity, combined with age. She looks very different here, weathered. She is on the verge of collapse, but, she surrenders herself, her naiveté, to her dead son’s ambitions. Her silence protects her fragile dignity. John the apostle, and Joseph of Arimathea lift the Corpus Christi to Her; the lowly, the woman of whom it was derogatively asked, “Isn’t this the son of Mary?” She, alone, is caught up in a state of contemplation. Rather than the traditional depiction of the Mother physically embracing the son, this Pieta depicts the two worshipers of Christ in the immensely struggled act of lifting the dead son up to the Mother. John and Joseph are worshipers of the Son and so the Son is elevated. However, the Mother is elevated even higher because She has no worshipers. Unlike Her Son, She is completely human and through her full humanity She is thusly edified for us.  A cadmium red rose adorns the lower left corner, symbolic of the rosary. An emotional storm of Dioxadine purple flows through the scene.

Stations V. Simone of Cyrene carries the cross.

The language of the icon is an ambiguous presence in Stations. The emotional symbology from “Mary’s Stations of the Cross” was latently in thinking, colors, brush work and organic form from those two “bookends. The works have an intentional Debussian feel, no doubt enhanced by the fact that I listened to much of  Debussy’s later music, along with the music of  the Second Viennese School, Morton Feldman and Luigi Nono, during the painting process.

STATIONS VI. Veronica wipes the face of Christ.

Andrew Greeley writes, “She guides us to see ultimate reality not only as creating, organizing, directing, planning, bringing to completion but also tenderly caring, seductively attracting, passionately inspiring and gently healing.” [3]

Greeley sees, in this devotion, an imaginative attitude that is not confined to the limits of dogma or that faction of “creepy” Mariology. “Mary has been a prisoner to creeps far too often.” he writes. Greeley relates an amusing, supposedly true story in which Heidegger was “caught” genuflecting at a festival of Our Lady. Heidegger was incredulously asked if he wasn’t an atheist, to which the philosopher replied, “a rationalist like you wouldn’t understand.”

A Marian spirituality surfaced amazingly fast in early Christendom. “The early Christians were far more casual about the similarities between Mary and the pagan goddesses.” However, Greely believes he, like the early Christian, is far more interested in the differences between Mary and those pagan deities, rather than the similarities.

Leonardo Boff  is considerably more weary in regards to using mythological Marian terminology and he focuses primarily on finding valid edification through historicity. In The Maternal Face of God Boff writes, “There is a danger of reducing Mariology to modifications of archaic mythologies. Historically, God did not choose a princess. God was not taken by the beauty of Athena, but the plain visage of a destitute woman. The Holy Spirit chose a fragile woman of poverty  to be the living temple of God.  Mary did not give birth in a royal palace, but was surrounded by beasts. The Mariology of exaltation must know what it is exalting: concrete, humble realities. It must extract the divine transparency that hides in the lowly, it must uncover the depth that is concealed in the humble. God the eternal mother is totally historicized in Mary ” [4]

The tragically short-lived John Paul I wrote, “God is Father, but above that, God is mother.” Greely concurs with an explanation of his view for the symbol, ” I am not discussing Mary as a person, but I am discussing God who is revealed to us through Mary.”

Boff sums up the hidden historicity of Mary, “The historical figure of Mary is very much hidden, much like a hidden pearl in an out-of-the-way place.” [5]But, this does allow much in the way for an imaginative projection of our personalized imagery into creative expression, which is why, for myself, the Marian image is the boundlessly expansive conduit for an idiosyncratic theology of artistry.

PIETA


[1] page 120

[2]  Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary.

[3] The Mary Myth. Page 20.

[4] page 125-126.

[5] page 108.

OUR LADY: CATHOLICISM’S DIAPHANOUS ADAGIO

Alfred EAKER 'Our Lady Of The Mermaids%22 oil on canvas © 2011 Alfred Eaker“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.

annunciation2012

“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.

Alfred Eaker PIETA (2011) oil on canvas © 2011 Alfred Eaker

“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.

Alfred Eaker %22Stations IV%22 Christ Meets His Mother On The Way To The Cross. oil on canvas 5 ft x 5 ft. ©2011 Alfred Eaker

“Christ Meets His Mother On The Way To The Cross.” © 2012 Alfred Eaker