Blessed is the Mother
Mary And Her Book
Commentary by Anna Gannon
This majestic carved stone icon of the Virgin is part of a remarkable collection of Anglo-Saxon relief sculpture (animal and geometric friezes and figural panels) dated to the eighth–ninth centuries CE, and located in the Church of Saints Mary and Hardulph in Breedon-on-the-Hill in central England.
The half-length figure is framed in an arched niche between two short columns. Originally, she was most probably painted in rich colours, and her eyes would have been inset with coloured glass—we can only imagine their dramatic appearance when animated by the flickering light of candles.
Mary wears voluminous drapery and, in typical Byzantine fashion, a heavy veil covering her head (maphorion). Her hieratic pose is modelled on that of the Virgin Hodegetria, a Byzantine iconography in which the Virgin holds the infant Jesus and gestures towards him as the source of our Salvation. (The word Hodegetria literally means ‘She who points the Way’.)
At Breedon, though, a book held in her covered hand takes the place of the child. This choice may appear strange—indeed some scholars have wondered whether this was a mistake; whether the carver confused, or fused, Marian iconography with that of Christ Pantokrator, who is similarly depicted holding the Gospels. However, recent research has explored how the book is in fact a common and meaningful attribute and metaphor of the Virgin Mary herself, and that exegetically the book has come to signify the mystery of her holy conception. While an open book is frequently seen in scenes of the Annunciation (where Gabriel’s visit was said to coincide with Mary’s reading of the prophecy regarding the virgin birth: Isaiah 7:14), a closed book becomes an allegorical representation of its salvific outcome: the Word Incarnate, the Logos.
The closed book that Mary holds can therefore be seen as symbolic of her active role in God’s plan, and an exhortation to us to discover, treasure, and follow the word of God in the Gospels.
Keene, Catherine. 2018. ‘Read Her Like a Book: Female Patronage as Imitatio Mariae 1’, Magistra, 24.1: 8–38
Commentary by Anna Gannon
Hyperrealistic installations often shock us, when what we take to be a living person turns out to be an artwork. Yet, even by these standards, Anders Widoff’s Maria (The Return) is extraordinary. The sculpture, commissioned by Uppsala Cathedral in 2003 and installed in 2005, answered their brief for a ‘visible reinstatement of the Virgin Mary inside the church’ after the upheavals of the Reformation.
I came across the work totally unexpectedly when visiting the cathedral. My attention was caught by a woman standing in the retrochoir, composed, and seemingly deep in prayer. I took her for a refugee: her head was covered by a scarf, and her unfashionable coat too light for the time of year. I wondered where she had come from, and what she had been through. Not wanting to intrude, I waited a long while for her to move. Eventually I made my way past her, and as I went by, I turned to smile at her. It was only then that I realised what this figure was—and, more startlingly, who it was.
This was Maria, returning to the Cathedral where she was once exalted as Queen of Heaven, but in a form so different from any of the majestic images of earlier tradition. The portrayal is of an older, unassuming woman, quietly dignified and resolute, gazing unflinchingly towards the East Window. This is the symbolically-charged focus to which Christian churches are traditionally oriented: the place where the sun rises, and of resurrection and renewal (Matthew 24:27: ‘For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man’.).
Mary’s ‘return’ in this installation is much more than a religious/political restoration: when we encounter her, we meet her at a human level and on a human scale. Maria’s careworn look is emblematic of the suffering and courage of so many women around the world. Unlike the saccharine depictions featured so frequently on Christmas greetings cards and in nativity scenes, this striking image of Maria resonates with Jesus’s words in Luke 11:27–28. ‘Blessed’ is not just the woman who ‘gave Him birth and nursed Him’, but the courageous one who listened and freely accepted the role she was asked to fulfil, no matter the anguish and heartbreak. Widoff brings her back among us, sharing and heartening our expectant wait for His return.
Hark, The Bell Is Ringing
Commentary by Anna Gannon
This luminous scene is set on the lake of Pusiano, located between the two southern branches of Lake Como, in Brianza. This is a verdant area of Lombardy, and was beloved by the painter Giovanni Segantini.
A traditional wide rowing boat, with two hoops for mounting a tent as protection from the weather, is being used to ferry a small flock of sheep to higher pastures. It is a diminutive ‘transhumance’: the ancient seasonal tradition of the droving of livestock still practiced in the region. With the flock goes the family that owns it. The rowing is heavy work, but has now come to a standstill.
In the golden light of the sunset reflected in the still waters, the hoops of the boat encompass a sacred space framing the church on the far shore and the small family, so evocative of the Holy Family, at prayer in the boat. What we are invited to imagine, and to lend our ear to, is the sound of the bell from the church. It is the ringing of the Angelus, calling the faithful to halt their labour and join in prayer, quietness, and contemplation, wherever they are, as the title of the work tells us.
The Angelus evolved from the ancient monastic custom of reciting three Hail Marys during the ringing of the evening bell, to commemorate the Annunciation. It became a short prayer recited three times a day (at 06:00, 12:00, and 18:00), telling of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, her acceptance of God’s plan, and Jesus’s Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection: a concise Christian proclamation of the history of the world’s salvation.
In the hubbub of modern lives, the practice has now all but died out, but the painting captures for us a glimpse of earnest commitment to that tradition. In their quiet devotion, and in their own petitions to her, to ‘pray for us sinners’, this humble family imitates Mary’s own hearing the word of God (’Blessed is the mother’; Luke 11:27) and takes it up in the way Jesus commended when responding to the anonymous woman who called to him from the crowd (‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it’; Luke 11:28).
Unknown Anglo-Saxon artist :
The Breedon Virgin, 8th–9th century , Stone
Anders Widoff :
Maria (The Return), 2005 , Polyester, silicon, fabric, glass, hair, and oils
Giovanni Segantini :
Ave Maria a Trasbordo (Ave Maria at the Crossing), 1886 , Oil on canvas
Hearing is Believing
Commentary by Anna Gannon
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.