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Painting: A detail from Raphael’s Sistine Madonna
No other faith has such a tender icon embedded at its heart
By Francis Phillips, Catholic Herald, 1 Jan 2018
There is an old French proverb that goes, “God loved mothers so much that He wanted one too.” It makes subliminal and human sense. When I think of Our Lady, I don’t think of her glorious theological titles or the impeccable theological arguments behind them; I simply see a mother. As Mother of God and thus as Mother of the Church, she provides a compellingly attractive maternal dimension to the Christian faith simply because she herself was fully and beautifully human.
No other faith has such a tender icon embedded at its heart. Years ago, visiting an exhibition of Aztec art I was struck by the latent violence behind it – and the fact that the concept of “Mother and child” was wholly absent from the Aztecs’ imaginative frame of reference. It reminds one how deeply this concept lies behind our own Christian civilisation, with so many great Gothic cathedrals and paintings dedicated to Our Lady.
There are glimpses of the mysterious force of Our Lady’s personality all through Regina Coeli: Art and Essays on the Blessed Virgin Mary, by Fr Michael Morris OP, a book of selections from his monthly art commentaries for Magnificat magazine. During the centuries when religious art dominated and flourished in the West, Our Lady seems to have been painted as much if not more that her divine Son. Something about her spiritual beauty, her maternal tenderness, the nobility of her status and demeanour, have always inspired artists to the heights of their ability.
But Our Lady has also inspired popular devotion; indeed, high art would be meaningless without the groundswell of the love of ordinary people for her. In one of his essays Fr Morris describes the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception by the Spanish painter Velasquez. In so doing he mentions that during the Counter-Reformation in Spain there was huge popular enthusiasm for this unique theological privilege. When Pope Pius V declared St Thomas Aquinas’s opinion that Mary had not been conceived immaculate but had been sanctified in the womb, was “the less pious opinion” (compared to fellow theologian Duns Scotus’s defence of her immaculate conception) there were fireworks, carnivals, tournaments and bullfights throughout the country.
This was the “sensus fidelium” in action, Spanish-style. Ordinary Spaniards, ignorant of the finer points of theology no doubt, instinctively knew that to be chosen to be the Mother of God would have entailed Our Lady’s complete preservation from original sin; how dare it be thought otherwise? Even though the dogma was not proclaimed officially until 1854 by Pope Pius IX, it had been understood and accepted throughout the Church for many centuries.
Last night, on New Year’s Eve (or the Eve of the Feast of the Mother of God, as we Catholics would call it) the sound of fireworks reverberated through my village (the locals are an excitable lot). It is simply inconceivable in our society today that fireworks would ever be used to celebrate a seemingly obscure Catholic belief; the faith that animated 17th-century Spaniards has long gone.
In his book Fr Morris also mentions the figure of St Barbara in Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. It seems that St Barbara, imprisoned by her pagan father in a tower, became the origin of the fairy tale Rapunzel. I mention it because it is a story much loved by my five-year-old granddaughter for all its scary-yet-satisfying ingredients of a wicked witch, a beautiful young girl and a handsome prince.
JRR Tolkein, quoted in Fr Morris’s book, once wrote: “All my own perception of beauty, both in majesty and simplicity, is founded upon Our Lady.” The good news is, that thanks to her consent to become the Mother of God, the wonderful Feast we celebrate today, we can all, as in the story of Rapunzel, which my granddaughter loves to hear over and over again, “live happily ever after”.