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Picturing Mary: A Mother's Love
By John Feister
She has been called by many names over the ages. All of them point to her son, Jesus. Now a new documentary takes a look at Marian images from across the world.


The Story Behind Picturing Mary

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.

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 see him.”

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 for more information). In these images, we grasp the breadth and depth of Christianity’s devotion to Mary, our Mother.


The Story Behind Picturing Mary

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, or by phone at (800) 235-8722. There’s a full Web site describing the production and its content at


John Feister is an assistant editor of this publication, who has master’s degrees in humanities and theology from Xavier University, Cincinnati.


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