This image of Mary from "Virgin and Child with Empress Mentewabe," from the 1700s, is at Lake Tana in Ethiopia. The image was moved to the isolated shrine where it is today when Christians retreated from the expansion of Islam in the 16th century. Narga Selassie was built under Empress Mentewabe, who is pictured at the foot of Mary and Jesus (not shown in this detail). The shrine is accessible only by boat, and is carefully preserved by local monks.
ALL MARIAN ART FROM PICTURING MARY
Ave Maria! These words of Cousin
Elizabeth, in Luke 1:28, have echoed
through millennia of Christian
history. It seems that, as early as Christians
have made sacred images of Our Lord, they
also have made images of Mary, his mother.
Why is this so? In a word, incarnation. Perhaps
before all else, Mary herself is testimony
that Jesus, not only divine, was human—every bit as much as you and I. In the words
of the Council of Chalcedon (451), Jesus was
fully human, as well as fully divine. He was
born of Mary, and therefore is one of us.
Today, when we see a mother helping her
child to eat breakfast, when we observe the
loving care she takes to help her or him hold
a spoon, take a napkin, when we witness the
amazement of discovery in young eyes, or
observe a child under Mother’s watchful eye
interacting with others, we see the beautiful
and intimate bond between mother and child.
In this we have not only an image of Jesus, but
also an image of a loving, protecting Church.
Mary is all of this and much more. Historian
Jaroslav Pelikan, in his 1996 book, Mary
Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History
of Culture, explores the many ways that people
have identified with Mary. He looks at
why her picture has been such an object of
Christian devotion, why her image has been
called upon throughout history to help represent
key aspects of our faith in Christ.
She is Mary of the Bible, not only the New
Eve, humanity in Christ redeemed of sin, but
also the Daughter of Zion, a fulfillment of
biblical prophecy in a real place and time.
She is Mary, the Mother of God, that is,
Theotokos, the one who bears God. It was
Mary who bore Christ. Is that not, in some
sense, what each of us, what the Church, is
called to do?
When we think of Mary, we are called to her
son. Is hers not the face that most resembles
Christ’s? Pelikan quotes Dante’s Divine Comedy,
which recalled the words of St. Bernard of
Clairvaux: “Look now upon the face that is
most like the face of Christ, for only through
its brightness can you prepare your vision to
We consider Mary as the paragon of human
virtue, our model of faith who is the humble
handmaid of the Lord, yet a woman of
immense power. Her luster, though, always
shines in relation to Jesus. That’s why Vatican
Council II included its summary of Marian
doctrine in the Dogmatic Constitution on the
Church, rather than issue a separate decree
on Mary. The Council Fathers wanted us to
place Mary squarely within our experience as
a Christian community.
“Behold, your mother.” These words of
Jesus, from the cross, to his beloved disciple
(John 19:27) are a message of Jesus to each
member of his Church: Behold your mother,
the one who brings God’s life to you. Hence,
over time, Mary has become an image of the
Church itself. Women and men, created by
God, bound one to another by and through
the love of God—these are the Church and the
Church is our mother. Mary is our deepest
symbol of that.
Above, we see one of the images
from the film Picturing Mary: The Madonna
in Art Through the Ages, commissioned by the
U.S. bishops’ Catholic Communication Campaign
last year, with help from funders. A
sequel to the Emmy-winning The Face: Jesus in
Art (2001), it was first aired nationally on
many public TV stations this past Christmas
and is still being broadcast and distributed
on DVD (check www.picturingmary.com for more information). In these images, we
grasp the breadth and depth of Christianity’s
devotion to Mary, our Mother.
THE FILM Picturing Mary: The Madonna in
Art Through the Ages is a one-hour documentary
that explores how artistic images of Mary
have reflected a variety of traditions, devotional
practices and cultures across the globe. Not just a look
at the art books, the documentary seeks to show these
images in their locations, connecting the images themselves
to the historical contexts that produced them.
In making the film, the London-based crew, led by
Producer Rosemary Plum, set out to travel. They went
through parts of Europe, to Istanbul, across the Atlantic
to Mexico, and back again to eastern Africa. All told, they
traveled to 12 locations in eight countries. They didn’t
cover Marian devotion in every part of the world, but
they certainly captured the international flavor of Christianity’s
devotion to Mary.
One of the most unusual segments of the film is
devoted to a Marian shrine in Ethiopia, on an island in
Lake Tana. Ethiopian Christians had parted with mainstream
Christianity over the theological debates of the
early Christian centuries. They had been driven to further
isolation by the expansion of Islam, especially in
the 16th century. The Marian devotion of the monks
who moved to Lake Tana, though, remained steadfast.
The agricultural people of this region have meticulously
cared for and preserved this shrine, which vividly
shows the faith and perseverance of Marian devotion.
Another highlight for the crew was filming Michelangelo’s
Pietà at the Vatican, from inside the protective
glass that has shielded the masterpiece from the public
since 1970, when a tourist attacked the statue with
a hammer. “It was the first time in 30 years that anyone
has received permission to go behind the glass,” producer
Plum told Catholic News Service in December.
The show is a production of WNET Thirteen in New
York City and The Edge Facilities, in association with the
U.S. bishops. Picturing Mary is available on DVD for
$19.95 at www.usccbpublishing.org, or by phone at
(800) 235-8722. There’s a full Web site describing the
production and its content at www.picturingmary.com.
John Feister is an assistant editor of this publication, who has
master’s degrees in humanities and theology from Xavier University,