In Western art Mary is frequently depicted in statues and paintings carrying a rosary. It is a popular image, one that has been confirmed with the apparitions of Lourdes and Fatima; on both those occasions the Virgin Mary appeared holding a rosary.
To some it is a strange composition, as it might suggest Our Lady was praying the “Hail Mary” to herself, an action that wouldn’t match up with Mary’s selfless humility, or really make much sense.
In order to understand the reason for the artistic choice it is important to look at what happened at Lourdes and Fatima. By doing so we realize that she isn’t praying to herself, but teaching us how to pray.
About Lourdes, St. Bernadette gives us the following testimony.
Without thinking of what I was doing, I took my rosary in my hands and fell on my knees. The Lady made a sign of approval with her head and took into her hands a rosary which hung on Her right arm. When I attempted to begin the rosary and tried to lift my hand to my forehead, my arm remained paralyzed, and it was only after the Lady had signed herself that I could do the same. The Lady left me to pray all alone; she passed the beads of her rosary between her fingers but she said nothing; only at the end of each decade did She say the ‘Gloria’ with me. When the recitation of the rosary was finished, the Lady returned to the interior of the rock and the golden cloud disappeared with her.
Bernadette explains how she prayed the rosary alone, while the Virgin Mary only joined in for the “Glory Be” prayer at the end of each decade. She also notes how she wasn’t able to start the rosary until Our Lady made the Sign of the Cross.
One of the primary requests of Mary at Lourdes was simply, “Pray for sinners.”
The apparitions at Fatima were much different, including longer conversations with the Virgin Mary. She first appeared when the three children were praying a truncated version of the Rosary and she held a rosary in her hands. In subsequent apparitions Our Lady appeared only after the children finished praying the Rosary.
Our Lady of Fatima repeatedly asked the children, “Say the Rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and an end to the war,” and also, “Make sacrifices for sinners.”
In the end, then, it is clear that the Virgin Mary is holding a rosary so as to encourage us to pray the Rosary. She does not pray the “Hail Mary” of each decade, but still accompanies us as a loving mother, guiding our hands when they fall limp.
Our Lady is a great teacher and as Pope Francis said in 2013, “The Rosary is a school of prayer, the Rosary is a school of faith!”