The image of Mary as mother presented through the centuries by Christian art is centered on love and contemplative interiority. We sense in countless images from the Middle Ages onwards that the artist wanted to illustrate the attitude described by Luke, in his narrative of the worship offered to the infant by some shepherds, when he says, “As for Mary, she kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:19). The silence of one who keeps and ponders extraordinary events envelops Mary in scenes of the Nativity represented, for example, by Geertgen tot Sint Jans and Georges de la Tour; and both cases the night-time setting allows the artist to insist on the intimacy of the moment. Both show Christ as a radiant light, and the meditative love with which she contemplates him then takes on the character of an “illumination.”
In Christian iconography, Mary, who keeps and ponders her Son’s mystery, is also at the center of the flight to Egypt, a subject that the Gospel more strongly associates with St. Joseph. In a version of the theme painted by Fra Angelico, for example, two inscriptions explain the event, one in a literal sense and the other in a Marian sense. The lower one shows the Gospel passage in which the angel tells Joseph to rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13); on the other hand, the upper inscription presents an Old Testament verse: “Yea, I would wander afar, I would lodge in the wilderness” (Psalm 55:8), in allusion to the “woman clothed with the sun” from the Book of Revelation who “fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God” (12:6). This is the more important of the two quotes because, while the lower one is only a caption, this one provides a key to understanding, by poetically associating the figure of Mary who hold Jesus to her breast with the psalmist who, disappointed by the duplicity of man and the world, asks: “Who will give me wings like a dove to fly away and be at rest? Far away I would flee; I would stay in the desert. I would soon find a shelter from the raging wind and storm” (Psalm 55:7–9). So Mary, carrying Christ “in solitude,” becomes the representation of every soul searching for inner peace far from the clamor of the world: the figure of the contemplative, the figure of monk and the religious man.
The same mystical role is assigned to Mary in Martin Schongauer’s woodcut of the Flight to Egypt: there, above the mother departing with her Son, we see little angels bending a tree to provide shade and allow Joseph to take a bunch of dates. This nice invention refers to another Old Testament passage, where it is said that “the woods, and every sweet-smelling tree have overshadowed Israel by the commandment of God" (Baruch 5:8). The context is a long sapiential poem, in which God says to the chosen people: “Learn where is wisdom, where is strength, where is understanding: that you may know also where is length of days and life, where is the light of the eyes, and peace” (Baruch 3:14), promising to facilitate their return to Him and to “bring down every high mountain, and the everlasting rocks, and to fill up the valleys to make them even with the ground: that Israel may walk diligently to the honor of God. Moreover the woods, and every sweet-smelling tree have overshadowed Israel by the commandment of God. For God will bring Israel with joy in the light of his glory” (Baruch 5:7–9). In Schongauer’s print, Mary, who looks at the little baby Jesus while holding him closely, is therefore the figure of those who have learned “where is wisdom, where is strength, where is understanding (...), the light of the eyes and peace.” For Mary, these things are in Him, in her Son, Jesus.
The same flavor permeates Caravaggio’s enchanting Rest on the Flight to Egypt, where the beauty of the Hellenistic angel seen from behind and the imagined harmony of the music he plays with the help of St. Joseph prepare the eye to dwell on the figure on the right: a young Mary bends over the little baby, sleeping with the little in midst of the nocturnal perfumes of the forest. In this case, the same composite —our visual movement from Joseph to the angel and then to Mary—associates the mystery of maternal love with the expressive harmony of “the force (...), the intelligence (...), the light of the eyes, and the peace” of those who have come to know God.
This then is the background of countless contemplative images of the Madonna with the Child: not only human sentiment but also divine wisdom is embodied in the arms of a mother, the Light is reflected in the eyes of a virgin. In both the solemn icons of the Oriental tradition, in which the Son of God who looks with fascination at the beauty of the chosen woman, embracing her, and the delicious Western drawings in which Mary plays with the baby Jesus as every mother does with her child, the message is clear: God-Love wanted to learn the gestures of human love from Mary; he put his trust in her affection; he did not scorn the pampering, but rather gave and received it with joy. For a time, he reduced his universal thirst to looking for a particular breast, slipping his little hand under into Mary’s dress with familiarity, certain the milk would not be denied. The Living bread come down from heaven (John 6: 51) satisfied his hunger at earthly breast of this young woman, taking his nourishment from her goodness.
Mary’s stillness holding in her arms a God to be nourished; the intelligence of this daughter of Jacob, who in a dream saw a ladder between heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending, and waking up confessed: “How dreadful is this place! This is the house of God, this is the gate of heaven” (cf. Genesis 28:12–17); the sweet intimacy of the woman who became “stairway”, “gate” and “house,” so that the Light could come down to the “people walking in the darkness (…) those who living a land of shadows” (cf. Isaiah 9:1): these are the themes immersed in the apparent simplicity of the Madonnas of Christian art, before which even the non-believer may want to pronounce Jacob words: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know” (Genesis 28:16).
“The Lord is in this place.” Where the mother is, there also is the Son, at least as long as he is a child. However, Mary’s Son is also the Son of a Heavenly Father, who remains most intimately united with him in the unique Spirit. Therefore, where Mary is with the Child, there also is the Holy Trinity; and the temporal relationship between a mother and a son intersects with the eternal love between the Father and the Son. This is the subject of a famous painting by Murillo, exposed in the National Gallery in London, in which the Holy Family here on earth and eternal “family” of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit come together in one reality, at the center of which we see the baby Jesus, the point of intersection of the horizontal relations between Mary and Joseph, as well as the vertical ones between humankind and God.
At the end of the Middle Ages, in the context of lay spirituality in Northern Europe, the idea of “Jesus’ family” had developed especially around the imaginary genealogy known as the Trinubiam Annae, according to which Mary had two sisters, born to Anne, after Joachim’s death, of two successive husbands respectively called Cleopas, and then —after his death— Saloma. All three girls were called Mary, and so the pious women the Gospels call “Mary of Cleopas” and “Maria Salome” would in fact have been close relatives, as was St. Elizabeth. The children of these women —the “brothers” or better cousins of the Lord— would naturally have grown up together in what is called the “Holy Kinship”: that is the subject of a picture the Dutch artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans painted for the oratory of the Order Knights of St. John the Baptist in Haarlem, of which the artist was the famulus et pictor; the painting is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. George shows the extended holy family, with St Anne and Joachim, Joseph, Mary and Jesus, St. Elizabeth with the infant John the Baptist, Mary Cleopas, Mary Salome as well as other children and husbands. The scene is set in a “temple” where the altar supports a group of sculptures depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac —an allusion to the Passion of Christ—, suggesting the purpose of this first experience of Jesus’ socialization: as future Savior, the Son of Mary must have known from the inside the human race for which he would offer his life.
TIMOTHY VERDON (FROM L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO, 04.01.2013)