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Paintings of the Virgin Mary

7th April 2021

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Declan Henry

The term ‘Our Lady’ is most frequently used by Catholics when referring to Mary, mother of Jesus. Our Lady features a handful of times in the gospels but her personality traits, background and life are given little mention – although her patience is sometimes referenced. When Jesus was twelve, he went missing for three days in Jerusalem before being found in The Temple. Our Lady scolded him but he answered her by saying, ‘How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke: 2.49). Christians have always wanted to know more about this remarkable woman whom they regard as their divine mother. Curiosity prevails as to why God singled her out as special over everybody else, and what she really looked like.

The Louvre Museum in Paris exhibits over sixty paintings of Our Lady. These capture her as both a young woman and as middle-aged, and sometimes thin or carrying a little excessive weight. Some show her as incredibly beautiful while others portray her as ordinary-looking. She is sometimes shown without a head covering and wearing different coloured clothing to the traditional blue cloak she is often depicted in. Key moments are captured, including the annunciation, nativity and crucifixion. There are also several paintings of Our Lady holding the baby Jesus and two breastfeeding him.

Other paintings concentrate on special occasions in her life, including The Purification of the Virgin by Guido Reni (1575) which is based on the Bible’s statement that forty days after giving birth, Our Lady was purified at the temple in accordance with Jewish law. The Visitation painted by Sebastiano Luciani (1519) shows her visiting her cousin Elizabeth. Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, painted in 1452, shows Our Lady with Saint John the Baptist (Jesus’ cousin) and an angel in a cave where they are kneeling to adore the infant Jesus, who in turn raises his hand to bless them. Another well-known painting is The Tears of St Peter by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1647) which shows him crying in her presence after the crucifixion. 

The paintings in The Louvre were painted between the 1400 and 1600s during ‘The Renaissance’ period, a time when artists first began styling their subjects on real people. Artists painting Our Lady would have based her appearance on models they hired and paid for, although certain facial features would have been changed in order to create a desired sense of reverence and nobleness. These paintings were commissioned by the Catholic Church and would once have taken pride of place in various churches in Italy and France before finding a new home in The Louvre. Although delightful to view, the images only make assumptions about her character.

Apart from the Gospels, the only other Christian text where Our Lady is mentioned is in the New Testament ‘apocrypha’ which appeared in the third and fourth century. Concerns about their authenticity have remained throughout millennia although initially they were claimed to be the hidden work of either St Paul or St James. Others scholars have dismissed the apocrypha as fiction because it is a collection of oral stories written several centuries after the crucifixion. The Catholic Church and other Christian faiths do not consider the apocrypha part of the Bible, hence Christians generally know little about it.  But whether these writings are true or not, they provide some interesting information that isn’t revealed elsewhere. Here is it said that Our Lady was a descendent of David and her parents were named Anne and Joachim. The feast day of her nativity is the eighth of September. When she was six months old, she could walk seven steps. When she was aged three, Our Lady was taken to the temple and upon entering she danced. While at the temple, it is said that she was fed by a heavenly messenger, and any miracles occurring at that time were always attributed to her. Our Lady married Joseph when she was twelve. He was much older than her and had been married before and had two sons. He was conscious of the age gap but they loved each other deeply.  Our Lady gave birth to Jesus when she was sixteen.

Even the apocrypha has its limitations because it appears little was written about her in between the nativity and the crucifixion. Except for Jesus appearing to her after the crucifixion, we are told nothing about how she spent the remainder of her life after his death.  Fiction has been used to fill in missing gaps, for example, Colm Tóibín’s 2013 novella, The Last Testament of Mary, showed Our Lady as an elderly woman looking back on her life, living her final years in exile in Ephesus (Turkey) in a state of fear about getting captured and killed by the Roman authorities.

The only other religious source that places Our Lady in high esteem is found in Islam. Muslims show great reverence to her and believe that she was chosen among all women. She is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an where she is regarded as the model of piety because of her sincerity towards God and mankind. ‘O Mary! God has chosen you and purified you and again he has chosen you above all women of all nations of the worlds’ (3.42). Indeed, God did choose Our Lady over all others and perhaps this is why she remains so mysterious. However, this has never interrupted the respect and love billions have shown her throughout time. Therefore, it wouldn’t be fictional to say that Christians and non-Christians will continue to hold her in high standing as they have done for centuries.

 

As a writer, I try to incorporate both sides of humanity into my writing, having learned that life is far from grim and that there is enough kindness, compassion, love and humour to overcome life’s obstacles, regardless of how much misery, abuse, or injustice exists.
Written by Declan Henry

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