|Cristobal de Villalpando, The Holy Name of Mary (detail)|
Mexican, c. 1685-1690
Mexico City, Museo de la Basilica de Guadalupe
History, and its related discipline the History of Art, are funny things. You may start off researching one thing and suddenly find yourself looking at something completely different. I had this sensation a couple of years ago, when I first began research in the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I discovered that the familiar image had a long pre-history before Saint Margaret Mary began to see visions of Jesus displaying His heart .1 Similarly, the coincidence of the subject of a painting at the current exhibition of the works of Cristobal de Villalpando at the Metropolitan Museum and the feast day honoring the Holy Name of Mary led me on an exploration with astonishing vibes. Like the Marian title of Our Lady of Victory the feast of the Holy Name of Mary is related to the long struggle of European nations against the Muslim Turkish Empire.
For a little more background, we need to realize that Europe fought a long, long struggle against aggressive elements of Islam. It has been argued, beginning in the early 20th century by the historian, Henri Pirenne, that it was not the barbarian invasions that divided the southern Mediterranean world from the northern half. Pirenne’s argument was that the remnants of Roman Imperial administration and Roman trade that survived the fall of Rome and the invasions continued to function to a limited degree during the period from the fifth to the seventh centuries. But the sudden and rapid mid-seventh century conquest of the region by aggressive Islamic armies that swept out of their home in Arabia, conquering Egypt and then all of North Africa to the shores of the Atlantic and on into Spain by the early eighth century (711) dealt it the final blow. The western Mediterranean was closed to north-south shipping. Communications and trade stopped. For example, papyrus, an early form of paper, which had been imported to Europe from Egypt prior to this, ceased to exist in Europe and parchment, made from the hides of cattle, became the norm.2
Europe has largely forgotten that the tide of aggression engulfed all of Spain, save for a tiny enclave in the northwest, and pressed on into France. It was finally stopped at Tours in 732 by armies led by Charles Martel, whose grandson Charlemagne established the great Carolingian Empire in the ninth century. From then on western Europe was spared invasions from the south, although still having to deal with invasions from the north, i.e., the Vikings.
After Tours and the establishment of the Carolingian Empire and apart from the Viking invasions there was a reasonably peaceful climate in most of Europe, for the next several centuries. There were small territorial wars between the emerging feudal kingdoms and between rival feudal lords. With the exception of Spain, where sporadic fighting between the dominant Muslim culture, centered on Cordova, and known as Al Andaluz, and the remnants of the Visigothic Christian kingdoms of the northwest, known as Castille, Leon and Asturias continued for centuries, Europe was generally internally peaceful.
However, there was war in the Levant, centering on the area of Palestine which contained the holy city of Jerusalem. The region was lost by the Greek Christian Byzantine Empire, which centered on its capital of Constantinople, in a single battle in 636. The Byzantines continued to hold a line in Anatolia, in present day Turkey, with frequent skirmishing, while the victorious Muslims established a caliphate at Damascus, in present day Syria.
By the late fourteenth century, however, the native dynasties derived from the first wave of Islamic expansion had been swallowed up by a tide of newcomers, the Turks. They burst upon the scene in the mid-eleventh century. Converts to Islam they took seriously the call to wage holy war which had begun to falter in the Arabs and pressed it so vehemently that by 1453 they had crushed the Byzantines, destroying the Byzantine Empire and turning Constantinople into Istanbul. In the centuries that followed this victory they invaded and subdued Greece and the Balkans, including Transylvania, conquered eastern Hungary and had taken their armies all the way to the gates of Vienna, twice. The first siege, led by the great sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, in 1529, failed, although Suleiman retained control of the territory the Ottomans had conquered up to that point.
|August_Querfurt, The Turkish Army Besieging Vienna|
Austrian, c. 1750-1760
The second siege, in 1683, was very nearly an Ottoman victory. After two months of siege by the Ottomans, under the command of Kara Mustafa Pasha, and several allied armies from areas where there was great antipathy to the Austrian Habsburgs, the city was in an extremely desperate condition. The besiegers, encamped before the walls of Vienna, vastly outnumbered the number of defenders, Emperor Leopold I and many of the citizens of Vienna had evacuated.
The, in early September a relief force from Poland, led by King Jan Sobieski, joined forces with armies coming from some of the German states. However, this assembled relief army was only half the size of the attacking Ottomans.
|Artur Grottger, Meeting of King Jan III Sobieski and Emperor Leopold I near Schwert|
Lviv, National Museum
Nonetheless, an attack by the relief forces, plus the confusion caused among the Ottomans by beginning the battle with the relief armies while trying to continue the attack on the city, began to break the enormous Ottoman army.
|Anonymous, Siege and Relief of Vienna in September 1683|
Austrian, After 1683
Vienna, Heeresgeschichtlichen Museum
Towards evening of the day of battle the largest cavalry charge ever recorded, spearheaded by the famous Polish winged hussars led by their king, finally broke the Ottomans and lifted the threat from Istanbul permanently.
|Martino Altomonte, Relief of Vienna|
Italian, c. 1685
Herzogenburg, Herzongenburg Monastery
|Juliusz Kossak, Jan III Sobieski Blessing His Troops |
Before the Battle for Vienna
The Polish king had placed his forces under the protection of the Polish Madonna of Czestochowa, the famous “Black Madonna”. Mass was celebrated before the Polish army went into battle, blessed by their king.
|Jan Matejko, Jan Sobieski Sending a Message to the Pope Following the Victory at the Siege of Vienna|
Polish, c. 1882-1883
Vatican, Vatican Museums, Sobieski Room
As had happened after the decisive defeat of the Turkish navy at the battle of Lepanto, a little over 100 years earlier (October 7, 1571), Pope Innocent XI established a feast in honor of the Virgin Mary on the date of the battle. 3 The siege of Vienna was raised by the battle outside Vienna on September 12, 1683.
Although the feast day was established there was not an immediate outpouring of images related to it. There had, in fact, already been some iconographic images of the Holy Name of Mary in preceding centuries, as there was already an established devotion to the Our Lady under that title in the territories of Europe and the New World that were under Spanish rule.
Previous images that included the name of Mary had focused on the words of Luke 1:28 for the Angel Gabriel “Hail Mary, full of grace” (“Ave Maria, gratia plena”).
|Simon Marmion, Annunciation|
From a Book of Hours
Flemish, c. 1475-1485
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M6, fol. 21ra
|Neroccio de' Landi, Madonna and Child |
with Saints Jerome and Mary Magdalene
Italian, c. 1490
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
|Simon Bening, Madonna and Child|
From a Book of HoursFlemish (Bruges), 1531
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 451, fol. 97v
Apparently, it was only around the year 1600 that artists began to focus literally on the name of Mary, usually depicted as the monogram “MRA” and sometimes shown with the monogram for Jesus “IHS”. Occasionally, the two monograms are superimposed on each other to create a compound image.
|Michael Snijders, Monogram of Maria MRA, made up of Marian symbols|
Flemish, c. 1608-1630
|Martin Baes, Names of Jesus and Mary|
in Latin and Chinese
Dutch, c. 1614-1631
|Paolo Naldini, Angels with the Names of Jesus and Mary|
Rome, Church of the Santi Nomi di Gesu e Maria, Cappella Maggiore
|Attributed to Guglielmo Borremens, Adoration of the Name of Mary|
Palermo, Church de Immacolata Concepzione al Capo
|Johann Christoph Handke, Adoration of the Names of Jesus and Mary|
Gross-Ullersdorf, Castle, Small Chapel
|Jan Punt after Jan de Wit after Peter Paul Rubens, Four Angels Celebrating the Name of Mary|
It is clear from some of the contexts that the monogram is an actual substitute for an image of the virgin, as in the print in which the annunciation of her birth to her father, Joachim, is imagined as an instance in which an angel shows him the monogram of Maria instead of a figure of his soon-to-be daughter.
|Johan Esaias Nilson after Johann Evangelist Holzer, Annunciation of Mary Birth to Joachim|
Dutch, c. 1765-1770
In my several week search of image resources the one truly dramatic image of the title that I have found is the one by seventeenth-century Mexican painter, Cristobal de Villalpando, that I mentioned in the beginning of this essay image which is currently on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In this really beautiful picture Mary kneels before a golden object, which may be the Ark of the Covenant (to which she is frequently compared).3 She is surrounded by angels and archangels, who play musical instruments, while in the background a further countless throng of other angels, vaguely seen, surround her into the depths of the picture plane. Her face is lifted adoringly toward the heavens, where her monogram appears in glory. And around her head, instead of the traditional halo is a band, lettered in light, which reads “El Dulcissimo Nombre de Maria Santissima” (“the sweetest name of the Most Holy Mary”). Thus, the name of Mary is doubly honored, in the presence of Mary herself.
|Cristobal de Villalpando, The Holy Name of Mary|
Mexican, c. 1685-1690
Mexico City, Museo de la Basilica de Guadalupe
What is particularly intriguing in this picture is the date, between 1685 and 1690, which is to say, just a few years after the Battle for Vienna and the establishment of the feast of the Holy Name of Mary for the entire church. Can its somewhat startling iconography be a reflection of these events?
© M. Duffy, 2017
- See: "The Sacred Heart of Jesus—An Iconographic Introduction" at
- Pirenne, Henri. Mohammed and Charlemagne, Translated by Bernard Miall, London, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1939. Available on the internet at https://archive.org/stream/HenriPirenneMohammedCharlemagne/PirenneMohammed#page/n3/mode/2up
- For this see: "Our Lady of the Rosary, a Forgotten Battle and an Almost Forgotten Pope" at
- Brown, Jonathan; Gomar, Rogelio Ruiz; Kasl Ronda, et al., Cristobal de Villalpando, Mexican Painter of the Baroque; Mexico City, Palacio de Cultura Citibanamex-Palacio de Iturbide and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017, p. 62.