May 2, 2011

Picturing Mary

Since May is the month of Mary, I thought it might be a nice idea to look at some art work depicting Mary througout the centuries.  Of all the human subjects ever used in art, our Blessed Mother is probably the most popular.  Yet if we look at the Marian art most Catholics would have in their homes, I would catagorize it "Catholic kitsch."  What is that, you ask?  It is sort of what you find on holy cards, statuettes, popular renderings, and even some truly outrageous stuff.  I keep saying that one day I am going to start a collection of Catholic kitsch.  If the American Pickers can find buyers and collectors for the stuff they find, think of what I could do in Catholic circles with some of the strange things I've come across. Like the "glow in the dark" Mary.  Or how about this rainbow collection of Marys.  You can have a color for whatever mood you might be in.  I even came across one that had an LED display and it would flash different colors.

Then there are the popular portrayals of Mary that we find on holy cards or receive in the mail with requests for donations.  Usually it is a picture of Our Lady of Grace, Our Lady of Fatima, or the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  While there is nothing wrong with these images, they pale next to the great works of art down through the centuries that show us the depth of Marian devotion. Having studied art, and being Catholic, I am fascinated by the ways Mary has been portrayed, and while I am sure these popular depictions do much to foster people's devotion, I prefer the more classical artistic renderings.

The earliest known depiction of Mary is found on the walls of the Catacomb of Priscilla  in Rome. The paintings found in this catacomb are beautiful. In this wall painting from the beginning of the third century, we see Mary nursing Jesus while a man who appears to be a prophet, points to the star (out of view). It is a reference to the prophesy by Balaam in the book of Numbers 24:17, "A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel."  I find it appropriate that the first painting of Mary is one of her engaging in one of the most motherly things she can do, and that is nourish her Child. The image of Mary as the nursing mother is not as popular as other images, although I have found many beautiful paintings online.  Perhaps the image of Mary with her breast exposed is something some people don't deal with well expecting a greater sense of modesty in a portrayal of Our Lady, yet nursing a child is the most natural, intimate, and beautiful things a woman can do.  

Over 30 years ago, someone gave me a holy card and medal with the image of "Our Lady of the Plentiful Milk and Happy Delivery" from the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine, Florida. I was a young nursing mother at the time and this image meant much to me.  Meditating on Our Lady nursing Jesus got me through many sleepless nights with a fussy baby knowing that Mary too comforted her Precious Child at the breast. The medal is still attached to my rosary.

When I made a pilgrimage to Greece several years ago, I purchased a nineteenth century icon of the nursing Madonna.  It was first spotted by one of my fellow pilgrims who wanted it, but once I saw it I knew I had to have it. It originally comes from Crete. It is a rare depction and very precious to me, although I must admit, it has bothered me that the writer of the icon had very little sense of female anatomy.
Throughout this month of Mary, along with other posts, I will comment on some of my favorite works of art depicting our Blessed Mother.

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