Our novice Sr Lucy writes…
Last weekend I set out to paint an image of Our Lady and the Child Jesus that has been dear to me ever since my uncle gave me a copy of it for Christmas some years ago. The figures are simple and familiar; Mary clothed in blue, holding baby Jesus close to her. One of the reasons I am so fond of it is that it blends some of the hallmarks of iconography with a certain natural tenderness. At first glance it appears to be a simple composition, but it actually conveys several important messages through symbols frequently used in Christian art. These signs are intended to deepen our faith and devotion when pondered, so let’s spend some time looking at different aspects of the painting more closely.
We can start by looking at Mary’s clothes. We’re so used to seeing Our Lady clothed in blue that we take it for granted, but in medieval times blue was used to represent purity and virginity – in fact, blue used to be a common colour for brides to wear on their wedding day – so we can safely assume that the blue of Mary’s garments speaks to us of her virginity. Yet, notice how the blue of her mantle wraps around the Infant Jesus as she caresses his head. He is surrounded by her tender presence in a way which is evocative of nine months he spent surrounded by the protection of her womb. Mary is unquestionably being shown to us here as Jesus’ Mother. Through her mantle, then, the painting honours Our Lady’s unique role as the Virgin Mother who conceived God in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). This outstanding honour is underscored by the gold edging of her gown and mantle; gold being, of course, a sign of royal status. Although a lowly creature like us, Mary’s consent to God’s plan of salvation has raised her above the angels, and we honour her as the Queen of Heaven. It is worth noting that blue, the colour of the sky, also is customarily used in art to indicate people who are in some way ‘heavenly’.
These are spectacular titles! Virgin Mother, Queen of Heaven, Mother of God… someone who has received such titles from God may well stand tall and erect, exhibiting their honours in a stately pose. But what does the painting show us? Mary’s head is bent towards her Child, her face in profile, perhaps about to kiss his head, while her right hand strokes his head with exquisite tenderness. Far from appearing proud and imperial, she is completely absorbed in blissful love for Jesus. Although she is by far the larger of the two figures, her body language encourages us to attend to the focus of her gaze. The maternal gentleness we see in Mary attracts us to her, but her posture makes us aware that our journey must not end with her; we must follow her example in being completely devoted to her divine Son. “Do whatever He tells you,” she tells us, as she said at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:5).
And so we turn to the Child, so comfortable in His Mother’s embrace. He is undoubtedly her Son from the love and ease we see between them; and He is undoubtedly an Infant: little, in need of the nurturing of a Mother. And yet this baby is dressed in royal splendour, His red and gold robes reminding us irresistibly of kings and emperors. Yes, He is Mary’s Son, but He is also the Son of God, the King of all Creation. He has become a human Child, and yet His tiny right hand is raised in blessing, as a King might greet his subjects. He is a Baby, too small to stand without Mary’s support; but in his left hand we see a scroll of the Scriptures, a further sign of His divinity – for He is Himself the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14).
It was only after I had finished the painting that I noticed another curious feature of the positioning of the scroll, which Jesus is holding over Mary’s heart. At first this may seem to be purely incidental, but the words of St Augustine convinced me that this is no coincidence, for he writes: “Mary, full of grace, first conceived Jesus in her heart before she conceived him in her womb” (Discourses, 215, 4). Here indeed is a marvel to be contemplated. While Mary’s role as the Mother of God is unique and unrepeatable, she shows us that we too can bear God in a very real way, whatever our circumstances. When we prayerfully read the Bible and keep the commandments in faith, hope, and love, we too are carrying the Word of God in our hearts. Mary’s conception of Jesus in her heart prepared her to receive Him in her womb and, analogously, when we keep God’s Word and treasure Him in our hearts, it prepares and disposes us to receive Him sacramentally in the Eucharist.
While Mary’s gaze is given completely to Her Son, Jesus instead looks out of the painting to each of us. His right hand, while raised in greeting or blessing, also seems to be reaching out to welcome us in. He is beckoning us to follow Him, offering us a place under His Mother’s mantle. Although He is a Child in this picture, the royal red of His cloak can also be seen as a foreshadowing of the blood to be shed during His Passion, for it was on the Cross that He expanded Mary’s vocation as Mother to include all humanity as her children (John 19:26-27). Jesus gives her to us so that we can share in her guidance, comfort, protection, and teaching. When we take our place under the shelter of her mantle, her tender embrace is with us throughout all our difficulties, and her loving example will lead us unfailingly to God.