Monday, May 24, 2021

Mary, Mother of the Church

Jean Bourdichon, Pentecost
From the Grandes Heures of Anne d Bretagne
France (Tours), c. 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 49v

Today, the Monday after Pentecost, the Church once again celebrates Mary as Mother.  This particular celebration is a relatively new insert into the liturgical calendar, having been inserted by Pope Francis in 2018.1  However, as so often happens with “new” Marian feasts, the idea which it celebrates is an old one. 

There are profound implications that flow from the relationship between a mother and her Son in the Christian story.  Over many centuries the Church has thought and prayed as it untangles them, one by one.  Among the thinkers and prayers have been many saints, among them Paul and Augustine.

The chain of reasoning is as follows:  Mary, is the mother of the human Jesus.  However, Jesus is not only human, but divine, in fact he is the Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, and, therefore, God.  Consequently, she has been given the title of Mother of God.  But, Saint Paul tells us that as God, Jesus has elevated those who are baptized into his death to be his brothers and sisters and members of his Mystical Body.  Therefore, each believer is, in a unique way, a part of the body of Jesus Christ.   Therefore, if we are part of his body and Mary is his mother, then she is our own mother as well. 

Furthermore, as he hung dying on the cross, Jesus addressed her directly and told her to “behold your son”, then turned to the beloved disciple and told him, “behold your mother” (John 19:25-27).  In other words, as he brought the Church into being on the cross he bequeathed to it, in the representative person of the disciple, his own mother.  And, she fulfilled this role almost immediately.

The first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that immediately after Jesus had ascended to heaven the disciples went back to the city and gathered for prayer.   “When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” (Acts 1:13-14)

The Limbourg Brothers, Pentecost
From the Trés Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry
Chantilly, Musée Condé 
MS 65, fol.79r

And, while they were still there they received the great gift of the Holy Spirit, which we have just celebrated.  Pentecost is often called “the birthday of the church” because it marks the beginning of the missionary work of the apostles.  These men, who had been hiding in fear, were suddenly emboldened to begin to preach a new way of understanding God and his relationship to human beings, based on their lived experience with Jesus, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension.  Fortified by the Spirit, they could preach enthusiastically about this new Way for human beings.  And Mary was there with them at the birth of the Church in her role as Mother and as a sister in faith.

From the Hours of Antoine le Bon
French (Lorraine), 1533
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 302, fol. 45

Throughout the intervening centuries she has been honored by Christians as their mother.  People have turned to her, asking for her intercession with her son and Lord as a child turns to its mother for comfort and for intercession with its father.  And Mary, who is herself also a member of the Mystical Body, has always responded with love for her sibling children. 

Marc Gabriel Charles Gleyre, Pentecost
French, 1850
Paris, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris

As is often the case, popular piety has expressed ideas about Mary that official Church liturgy has not expressed until the implications have been thought through.  This was so with many of the Marian beliefs and devotions made official in the past, for example, the Immaculate Conception was well-known and celebrated the world over, long before it was made official dogma in 1848.  Similarly with the bodily Assumption of Mary, which was only defined definitively in 1950.  So too with the title of Mother of the Church. 

If one looks at images of the event of Pentecost that artists have produced over the millennia one is struck by an interesting fact.  Although some of the early images included Mary, most did not.  These were the centuries of persecution and then of internal struggle, as the Church tried to define the most basic elements of its beliefs, especially those about the person and nature of Jesus.  It is from these debates that Mary eventually received the title "Mother of God" and the Church began to explore the dimensions and implications of this title. 

From the Rabbula Gospels
Syrian, c.585
Florence, Laurentian Library

From a Gradual
German (Prüm), c. 986-1001
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9448, fol. 49r

Therefore, over the course of centuries she began to appear more frequently.  Her increasing prominence echoed the general rise in devotion to her, as the strands of belief and thought began to be explored.  It also coincides with the increase of everyday mention of Mary and her motherhood, most clearly indicated in the naming of many of the great cathedrals in the twelfth and later centuries, most famously of course, Notre-Dame de Paris.

From the Ingeborg Psalter
France (Paris), c. 1195
Chantilly, Musée Condé 
MS 9, fol. 32v

Pentecost and the Throne of Grace
From the Carrow Psalter-Hours
English (East Anglia), c. 1250
Baltimore, Walther Art Museum
MS W.34, fol. 29r 

From a Psalter
German (Magdeburg), c. 1265
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 23094, fol. 93v

From the Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Flemish (Hainaut), c.1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de Frace
MS Nouvelle acquisition française 16251, fol. 50r

Master of Jean de Papelau, Pentecost
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1300-1325
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 157, fol. 240

Duccio, Pentecost
Italian, c. 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

From a Book of Homilies
German (Lower Rhine), c. 1320-1350
Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum
MS W. 148, fol. 258v

Jean Pucelle, Jean le Noir, Jean Mahiet, Transfiguration
From Hours of Jeanne de Navarre
French (Paris), c. 1330-1340
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 3145, fol. 7
One interesting aspect of this particular illumination is that the first folio of the same manuscript is of a different version of the Pentecost -- with only male apostles represented. 

Taddeo Gaddi, Pentecost
Italian, c. 1335-1340
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

From a Psalter
English (Salisbury), c. 1350-1375
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 765, fol. 20r

From Vies de la Vierge et du Christ
Italian (Naples), c. 1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 9561, fol. 189v

Ivory Diptych with Scenes of the Ascension and Pentecost
French, c. 1360-1375
Paris, Musée du Louvre
This diptych highlights the connection between the Virgin Mary and the birth of the Church, as she is shown as central to the group of Apostles at both of the post-Resurrection events that formed it. 

Andrea da Firenze, Pentecost
Italian, 1366-1367
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Cappellone degli Spangnoli

Jacopo di Cione and Workshop, Pentecost
From The San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece
Italian, 1370-1371
London, National Gallery

Atelier of the Master of the Parement de Narbonne, Pentecost
From the Trés belles heures de Notre-Dame de Jean de Berry
French (Paris), c. 1380
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 3093, fol. 165v

Eventually, by about 1400, her presence is a given, not just as being a person who is present, but as the focal point of the event.  She often appears to lead and instruct the Apostles, as a mother might.

Master of Catherine of Cleves and/or the Masters of Zweder van Culemborg, Pentecost
From the Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau
Dutch (possibly Utrecht), c. 1450-1500
Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum
MS W. 174, fol.  116r

Venturino Mercati, Pentecost
From the Short Hours of the Holy Spirit
Italian (Milan), c. 1470-1480
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 14, fol.100v

Pentecost (wall painting)
German, 1472
Konstanz, Monastery Church of Our Lady

From a Book of Hours
French, c. 1475-1499
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 4, fol.98r

From Fleur des histoires by Jean Mansel
French, c. 1475-1499
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 56, fol. 64

Jacques de Besançon, Pentecost
From Legenda aurea by Jacobus de Voragine
French (Paris), c. 1480-1490
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 244, fol. 158r

Pentecost from High Altar of Charterhouse of Saint-Honore at Thuison-les-Abbeville
French (Picardy), c. 1490-1491
Chicago, Art Institute

Jean Poyer, Pentecost
From the Hours of Henry VIII
French (Tours), c. 1500
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H 8, fol. 101v

Jean Bourdichon, Pentecost
From the Hours of Frederic of Aragon
French (Tours), c. 1501-1504
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10532, fol. 206 

Artists and ordinary folk have sensed this role of Mary’s as mother and guardian of the Church and have honored it appropriately. 

Jan Joest of Kalkar, Pentecost
Dutch, c. 1508
Kleve, Parish Church St. Nicholas

Albrecht Dürer, Pentecost
From the "Small Passion" Series
German, c.1510
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Juan de Flandes, Pentecost
Flemish, c. 1514-1519
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Master of 1518, Pentecost
Flemish, c.1520
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland

Workshop of Bernard van Orley, Pentecost
Flemish, c. 1520-1525
Chicago, Art Institute

Titian, Pentecost
Italian, c.1545
Venice, Church of Santa Maria della Salute

Frencesco Salviati, Pentecost
Italian, c. 1549-1550
Rome, Church of Santa Maria dell'Anima

El Greco, Pentecost
Greco-Spanish, c.1600
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

“Official” Vatican acknowledgement of the title "Mother of the Church" began with the rediscovery of a work of the fourth century Saint Ambrose which gives the title “Mater Ecclesiae” to Mary, followed by Saints Augustine and Leo the Great.  

Giovanni Battista Ricci, Pentecost
Italian, c.1600
Rome, Church of San Marcello al Corso

Guido Reni, Mysteries of the Faith
Italian, 1608
Vatican City, Apostolic Palace

Fray Juan Bautista Maino, Pentecost
Spanish, c. 1612-1614
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Fray Juan Bautista Maino, Pentecost
Spanish, c. 1615-1620
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Anthony Van Dyck, Pentecost
Flemish, c. 1618-1620
Berlin,  Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Salomon de Bray, Pentecost
Dutch, Early-Middle of the 17th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Charles Le Brun, Pentecost
French, c. 1656-1657
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Georg Asam, Pentecost
German, 1683
Benedicktbeuern, Church of Saint Benedict

Giovanni Battista Brenni, Pentecost
Swiss, c. 1696-1697
Ebrach, Kreis Bamberg, Parish Church of Saints Mary, John Evangelist
and Nicholas

Jean Jouvenet,Pentecost
French, 1709
Versailles, Chateaux de Versailles et du Trianon, Chapel

Caspar Damian Asam, Pentecost
German, After 1720
Aldersbach, Abbey Church

Jacopo Amigoni, Pentecost
Italian, 1725
Ottobeuren, Benedictine Monastery

Jean Restout, Pentecost
French, 1732
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Johann Jakob Zeiller, Pentecost
German, c. 1757-1764
Ottobeuren, Monastery Church of Saints Theodore and Alexander

Francisco Bayeu, Pentecost
Spanish, c. 1769
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Constantin Prevost, Pentecost
French, 1842
Lavaur, Musée  du Pays Vaurais

Ernst Deger, Pentecost
German, c. 1849-1859
Stolzenfels, Schloss Stolzenfels

It has been used with increasing frequency by the Popes of the twentieth century, from Leo XIII to John Paul II and by their two most recent successors. At the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1964 Pope Paul VI proclaimed the title of "Mother of the Church" for Mary.  Then, in 1975 a votive Mass in honor of the Mother of the Church was added to the liturgical calendar.2  

What Pope Francis did in 2018 was to affix this title and this Mass to a specific day, the Monday following Pentecost Sunday, in the universal liturgical calendar of the Church, thereby creating a special feast day of Mary as Mother of the Church.

As the decree of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which enacted the change, states:  "This celebration will help us to remember that growth in the Christian life must be anchored to the Mystery of the Cross, to the oblation of Christ in the Eucharistic Banquet and to the Mother of the Redeemer and Mother of the Redeemed, the Virgin who makes her offering to God."

© M. Duffy, 2021

 1.  For the full text of the decree adding this feast to the calendar of the universal Church see:

2.  A votive Mass is a Mass that does not correspond with the office of the day but is said, as for a special intention, at the choice of the celebrant. (

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.