Michael Crotteau, a guest contributor, has graciously offered this post on Mary, Queen of the Arts.
This past July, inside of a warm candle-lit grotto in my home parish, I consecrated myself to Jesus through Mary, the Mother of God. It has been, without a doubt, the greatest step that I have ever taken thus far in my faith journey, providing within me innumerable spiritual graces and a much stronger connection not only to Mary, but also to Christ and the entire Communion of the saints. However, had I been told just half a year before my consecration that I would call myself the servant of Mary, I would have laughed and passed the idea by without a second thought. This is due to the fact that I was once a Marian skeptic, but not in the sense that I doubted Church doctrine on Mary. I was concerned, however, that if too much emphasis was placed on Mary, then it would draw one’s attention away from God. Sadly, I believe that many Catholics today hold true to this belief, and place Mary as one devotion among many. After all, what Catholic doesn’t have a rosary dangling from his or her rear-view mirror or store one in a purse, pocket, backpack, or suitcase?
So what was it that so quickly snatched me from this very plain understanding of Mary and placed within me such a profound desire to be her servant? What was it that caused me to cease thinking of the Virgin Mary simply as St. Mary, and to begin a new life with the Mediatrix of all Grace as my spiritual mother?
During Lent last year, I came upon a book filled with historical representations of Mary through art. Some of the images I found no interest in, but there were several that mesmerized me and continue to do so. They caused me to reflect on who Mary truly was and is, not only for Christ, but for all of us. The following three images were specific depictions which greatly expanded my understanding of Mariology.
OUR LADY OF MERCY, by Jean Mirailhet
It is easy to misinterpret this piece of art as material which supports the idea of Mary as a goddess, and thus not an authentic presentation of orthodox Mariology. However, we should ask what is really going on in this image before we assume that it is as sketchy as it may first appear. Mary stands still, waiting patiently with her arms spread out, opening her mantle so that all of the people in the image may come closer to her. She is much taller than all of them: royalty, priests, bishops, sisters, and laity. Mary’s eyes look out to the viewer, and she offers us an invitation to become closer to her as well. Needless to say, there are a lot of red flags at first glance.
Then we find something odd, very odd, which transforms the entire work of art. Notice the cincture around Mary. Strange… why is it placed that high and not around her waist? That is because there is someone very important hidden in this image, within the womb of Mary. Also, notice the place to where all the saints have locked their eyes: the womb of Mary. This image reflects Mary as the first Tabernacle of the New Testament, the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies, where the saints have gathered round just to be in the presence of Christ. And now, we can accept Mary’s invitation, to be wrapped in her mantle so that we may become closer to her son.
THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, by Francisco Zurbaran
While the first illustration presented Mary dressed eloquently in royal colors, here she is clothed in humble garments: a white gown and a blue cloak. Instead of people gathered around Mary, there are faces of small children, both underneath her feet and circling her head. These represent cherubs, which in both Jewish and Christian history have been used to symbolize not only the presence, but also the throne of God, his full glorification. It is odd that in this image they are presented as if they are the throne of Mary. However, it was Mary who was the earthly throne of God, before, during, and after her pregnancy with Christ. Her humanity, immaculately saved from the stain of original sin, was esteemed as “full of grace” in her meeting with the angel Gabriel. Furthermore, Mary was the first and the last person in Christ’s life, there at his birth and there at his death. In that sense, she is the frame of Christ. Just as the tabernacle is the sacred vessel which houses the mystery of God, so Mary is the sole person, the sacred vessel, whose life perfectly frames the mystery of God, so that she may bring his presence to all people.
In the image above, Mary’s hands are not spreading out her mantle, but are empty and facing upward. Her eyes do not look out to the viewer, but gaze above her. In this image, Mary is praying, and she is an exemplar for us on how to pray. She needs nothing in order to pray, and she holds onto nothing as she prays. All she does is recognize that she is God’s creation, “the handmade of the Lord,” and submits to his divine will, “according to your word.” It is a simple prayer, much like the clothes she wears. She prayed this prayer not only at the conception of our Lord, but also at every moment of her earthly life. We should do the same.
THE CORONATION OF THE VIRGIN, by Diego Velazquez
This image is quite different from the other two. While in the first two images, Mary was the primary figure within the work; here, she is one of several distinct persons. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are seated upon the heavenly throne and bestow a crown upon Mary’s head. This is to represent her heavenly coronation, which is easy for Catholics to hear and pass by without a complete understanding. Notice how close Mary is to God, as if one could not possibly get any closer. She is not placed at the same level with God, but she is respected by him as the highest of all creation, even higher than the cherubs of the holy throne of God. If God sees this reverence as proper, then without question we should be willing to give such a reverence to Mary as well.
I am drawn by how Mary so humbly accepts the crown, almost as if she is not even concerned about it, or at least does not appear to be. Rather, she looks down, with one hand upon her heart and the other facing downward. She looks down to earth, praying and asking that all the graces which she receives be passed down to all who look up to see God. This symbolizes the continuation of her earthly role, which she has never ceased to fulfill, the Mediatrix of all grace. She is truly deserving of this title, because all the graces known to man have been bestowed upon her, and she is more than willing to bestow them upon whoever seeks her aid. Why wouldn’t we honor her as Queen, for in doing so, our eyes are drawn to God, who chose her of all women to be his mother, theotokos.
Holy Mary, Queen of the Arts…Pray for us.