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The Breedon Virgin by Unknown Anglo-Saxon artist
Maria (The Return) by Anders Widoff
Ave Maria a Trasbordo (Ave Maria at the Crossing) by Giovanni Segantini

Unknown Anglo-Saxon artist

The Breedon Virgin, 8th–9th century, Stone, Church of Saints Mary and Hardulph, Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire, Robert Morris / Alamy Stock Photo

Anders Widoff

Maria (The Return), 2005, Polyester, silicon, fabric, glass, hair, and oils, © Anders Widoff / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Giovanni Segantini

Ave Maria a Trasbordo (Ave Maria at the Crossing), 1886, Oil on canvas, 120 x 93 cm or 121.2 x 92.2 cm, Segantini Museum, St Moritz; On permanent loan from the Otto Fischbacher Giovanni Segantini Foundation, HIP / Art Resource, NY

Hearing is Believing

Comparative Commentary by

Any interpretation of the exchange between Jesus and the woman in the crowd in Luke 11 faces the challenge of translating and problematising two key words in the original text (menoun and phylassontes), rendered in the NRSV as ‘rather’ and 'obey’. Let us see how.

Jesus is far from dismissive in his retort to the woman (most probably herself a mother) who is enthusiastically listening to him preaching. The particle menoun is there to agree and add: Jesus is encouraging her to think beyond the undoubted bliss of earthly motherhood made proud, and to consider what it means to be blessed in the eyes of God. His words recall the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:15), where he had called ‘blessed’ those who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. So, Jesus seems to be telling her what is really special and praiseworthy about his mother, and entrusting her example to us to follow.

We have become accustomed to representations of Mary as a sweet young virgin mother, self-possessed even when fainting at the foot of the cross. However, the reality of God’s call, which she freely answered, was difficult: mystifying, embarrassing to her and her betrothed, leading to a hard life, exile, and pain, and as in the prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:35), to ‘a sword piercing her own soul’. In Jesus’s praising of his mother’s resolute and enduring faith, he acknowledges her generous and collaborative role in securing the world’s salvation—she heard the word of God, guarded it in her heart (phylassō), and made it possible for it to yield good fruit, a hundredfold. She did not simply passively ‘obey’: hers was an active response of trust in the treasured word of God.

The hieratic icon of the Virgin at Breedon, dressed like a Byzantine empress, bears firm witness to this perspective and to the centrality of this word in her life and beyond. Steadfast in her gaze and majestic, metaphorically she is herself ‘a book’, the embodiment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 7:14). The book she holds and presents to us is the Logos, the Way to Salvation, which we are exhorted to heed and follow unswervingly, just as she did.  

The realistic statue presenting an older and careworn Maria has a complementary resonance. It speaks to us of the suffering and displacement that were her lot, and brings her literally down to earth—to us—sharing in the pain and misery that we suffer and witness all around us.

Indeed, thinking of Mary and the Holy Family as refugees seeking safety in Egypt (Matthew 2:13–23), and considering the painting of the young family halting in the middle of their rickety lake crossing to faithfully answer the call to prayer, I recollect those other perilous boat journeys being undertaken by people displaced and fleeing danger, even as I write.

The Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4–15) is about ‘quality hearing’ and response: ‘Let anyone who has ears to hear listen!’ (v.8). The compelling social and environmental issues that face us daily, and so close to home, cry out to us to take up the challenge earnestly and generously, and to follow His commandments of love.

In the passage treated in this exhibition (Luke 11:27–28), Mary is said to be truly blessed because of the way she responded to her call: it is by the pattern of her steadfastness that we are encouraged, and by the example of her fruitfulness that we are exhorted, so that we too may be called blessed.