Sunday, December 30, 2018

Mary, Mother of God

Raphael, The Sistine Madonna
Italian, 1513-1514
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie
On January 1 each year, the Church celebrates the feast of Mary, Mother of God.  To some contemporary Christian groups and to some others the use of the term “Mother of God” feels uncomfortable, perhaps even blasphemous, for how could a mortal woman be the mother of God?

However, in reality, the shoe is (as it were) on the other foot.  Denial of this term is the actual blasphemy, the actual heresy.  How is this so?  Because it was so declared by the Council of Ephesus in 431, the third Ecumenical Council and one of the seven held to be definitive by Orthodox, Roman Catholic and most Protestant communities. 

The title “Mother of God” was one result of the long and intense debate that occupied Christians for the first several centuries after Christ.  These debates centered on how to understand the identity of Jesus and His relation to the Godhead.  

Already in the earliest Christian writings, the epistles of St. Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, there was an understanding of God as a Trinity of three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in one Godhead.  However, it took a lot of thought and argument to work out how the Second Person, the Son, was related to the human being who was Jesus.  Was the man Jesus simply some kind of mask for the Second Person of the Trinity, the Divine Logos?  Was Jesus possessed of two different natures (human and divine) each acting independently from the other?  Was He a single Person with two natures combined?  It took most of the first 500 years of the Christian church to resolve these issues to the agreement of most parties. 

Bartolomeo Vivarini, Madonna and Child
Italian, 1465-1470
Venice, Museo Correr

The eventual decision was that He combined the two natures in one person and was both human and Divine, without division.  This is called the “hypostatic union”.  Ephesus was one of the councils in which this understanding was worked out. 

Therefore, it followed logically that if Jesus was both human and Divine in equal and undivided measure, then Mary His mother was not just the mother of the human being named Jesus, but also the mother of Jesus in His incarnate divinity and, therefore, entitled to be called “Mother of God”.  This is understood always to mean that she is the mother of Jesus, who was both man and God, and not that she was the mother of the Godhead, which has no beginning and no end and, therefore, cannot have a human mother.    As St. Cyril of Alexandria put it at Ephesus “since the holy Virgin brought forth corporally God made one with flesh according to nature, for this reason we also call her Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word had the beginning of its existence from the flesh.” 1

In art the theme of Mary as Mother of God has many manifestations, each exploring a particular way in which she relates to Jesus and to us.  For Catholics, one of the most familiar pictures of Mary with Jesus, her Child, is a picture known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help.  What the majority of Catholics are not aware of is that this image is actually Greek, probably painted on the island of Crete in the 14th century and brought to Rome in the 15th.  Since 1499 this image has been venerated in a Church on Via Merulana in Rome.  For many centuries it resided in the Church of San Matteo, but that church was demolished by troops of the French Republic when they invaded Rome in 1798.  The picture was rescued and venerated in a nearby church until, in 1865, it was placed in a new church, which was built over the ruins of San Matteo and dedicated to Saint Alphonsus Ligouri.  Since 1865 it has been housed in the church of Saint Alphonsus Ligouri on Via Merulana.  2

Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Cretan, 14th-15th Centry
Rome, Church of Sant'Alfonso Liguori

This image is one of a group of images which are known as the Theotokos Hodegetria.  These Greek words mean respectively “God-bearer” or “She who bears God” and “She who shows the way”.  In these images, Mary, the Theotokos, the Mother of God, holds the Infant Jesus and, with her free hand gestures toward Him, she literally shows us the Way.  Typically, Mary looks out of the picture at us, as she gestures toward Jesus. She is calling us to contemplation of the mystery of God made flesh through her.  This is one of the oldest types of Byzantine icons dedicated to Mary and one of the most prevalent.

Virgin of Blachernae
Byzantine, 7th Century
Moscow, The State Tretyakov Gallery
This is on of the earliest extant images of the Hodegetria type of icon.  It was originally in the Blachernae Palace
in Constantinople, built around the time of the Council of Ephesus for the Empress Pulcheria.

Virgin Hodegetria
Byzantine ivory, mid-10-mid-11th Centuries
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Virgin Hodegetria
Byzantine, 1175-1200
Kastoria (Greece), Byzantine Museum

Enthroned Hodegetria
Byzantine, 13th Century
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Dionysius, Hodegetria
Greek, 1482
Moscow, The State Tretyakov Gallery

The Hodegetria image also lies at the base of many well-known images of the Western (or Latin) Church.  The early Renaissance artists, especially in Italy, derived their iconography from Byzantine icons, which they modified over time until many of the recognizably Byzantine elements disappeared and softer, less formal poses in more realistic settings became the norm.  Yet the positions of Mary and Jesus and Mary’s gesture towards her Son largely remained unchanged. 

Mosaic, Madonna and Child
Italian, 13th Century
Rome, Church of San Paolo fuori le Mura

Berlinghiero, Madonna and Child
Italian, c. 1230
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cimabue, Madonna and Child in Majesty
Italian, 1285-1286
Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi

Duccio, Rucellai Madonna
Italian, 1285
Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi

Duccio, Madonna and Child
Italian, 1304-1308
Perugia, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria

Simone Martini, Madonna and Child
Italian, c.1308-1310
Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale

Simone Martini, Maesta
Italian, 1315
Siena, Palazzo Publico

Pietro Lorenzetti, Madonna and Child with St. Francis and St. John the Baptist
Italian, c.1320
Assisi, Basilica of San Francesco, Lower Church

Simone Martini, Madonna and Child
Italian, c.1326
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Robert Lehman Collection

Lippo Memmi, Madonna and Child with a Donor
Italian, c.1335
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Masaccio, Madonna and Child
Italian, 1426
London, National Gallery

Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child
Italian, c.1440
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Jacopo Bellini, Madonna and Child
Italian, 1450
Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi

Benozzo Gozzoli, Madonna and Child
Italian, c.1460
Detroit, Institute of Arts

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child
Italian, c.1470
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection

Workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, Madonna and Child
Italian, c.1470
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Benvenuto di Giovanni, Madonna and Child with
 St. Jerome and St. Bernardino
Italian, c.1480-1485
Washington,  National Gallery of Art

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child
Italian, c.1480
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child
Italian, 1485-1490
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Albrecht Durer, Madonna and Child
German, c.1496-1499
Washington, National Gallery of Art

On the feast of the Mother of God we recognize how much we owe to Our Lady and to our forefathers in the faith.

© M. Duffy, 2017

  1. Translated by Henry Percival. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 14. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1900.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
  2. Information on the history of the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help from the Redemptorist Fathers, now its guardians.

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