Today the Episcopal Church celebrates the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin. Last week we provided background on this feast and some suggestions for celebration.
Marian devotion has been a part of Christian practice from the earliest days. As a consequence, there are thousands of images of Mary – receiving the news of the annunciation, holding the infant Jesus, weeping by the cross. She has been venerated in every generation and across many cultures; liturgical artists have paid her homage in icons, statues, altars, frescoes and more. For a small sample of Marian imagery, this Wikipedia gallery is worth a look.
As a mother myself, I expected that one of the traditional images of Mary holding the infant Christ would stand out to me today. But what stood out instead was something quite different: a small illustration from a 13th century English book of hours.
In this image, the Blessed Virgin Mary is taller than the Devil, stronger than the Devil, smiling as she fights the Devil – and she is winning.
The quality is not excellent because this image is a detail of a much larger manuscript page:
But the image stands out because it depicts Mary as active participant in the salvation of the world – which, when you think about it, is exactly what she was.
This image is straight out of the Anglican tradition. It comes from the De Brailes Hours, the earliest surviving English book of hours, created in the early 1200’s. It is believed to have been made for an English laywoman whose portrait is included in the book in four places. William De Brailes, the scribe and illustrator who created it, worked near Oxford from 1238 to 1252. More images from the book and further details about the creator are available here.
Why does this image of St. Mary the Virgin speak to me with such resonance? Most likely because I want to read myself into its likeness.
So many images of the Blessed Virgin Mary have her holding the infant Christ and smiling beatifically. The days when I held my babies and felt blessed are behind me. I now raise a tween and a teen, which means each day I fight the powers of evil both within myself and in the world around me.
I pray for wisdom to know the good and courage to do it as my husband and I make decisions that shape our children’s lives. I pray for my children to be safe from all evil, even though I know that is impossible. And I pray that as they grow from infants to adults, my children will take up the struggle to discern and do what is right.
It is good for me to see the most Holy Mother of God take on the Unholy One. It is good to remember that – with her active assistance – Christ has already won the victory.
A Prayer for Today
O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son; Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
What image of the Blessed Virgin Mary speaks to you?