The Holiness and Humanity of Mary

Story by Erin Hallissy

Whether in stained glass windows or Carrara marble, in soaring melodies or the spare lines of poems, the saintliness and humanity of the Virgin Mary have been memorialized over the past 2,000 years. Her image - as queen or mother, triumphant or humble, rejoicing or grieving - can be found on small icons and huge frescoes, in the strains of the Ave Maria or in Dante's "Paradiso."

"Western civilization itself bears her stamp: the greatest works of art in the history of the world - Europe's Gothic cathedrals - rose in her honor; Michelangelo exalted her in marble; Leonardo captured her in paint; Schubert immortalized her in song; and artists both great and various have made Madonna and Child a permanent possession of the normal heart," writes John Martin in Roses, Fountains, and Gold: The Virgin Mary in History, Art, and Apparition.

Before its founding in 1863, San Francisco Archbishop Joseph Alemany named Saint Mary's College for Mary of the Immaculate Conception, a dogma proclaimed in 1854 by Pope Pius IX. Because of the College's connection to the Virgin Mary, Dr. Anna Novakov, chair of the Saint Mary's art department, was inspired to develop an all-day symposium focusing on women, spirituality, and the arts to address Mary in the Catholic imagination.

"One of the major themes of Western art is the image of Mary," Novakov says. "She's the embodiment of this combination of the human and the divine."

Many great depictions of Mary come from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance when the cult of the Virgin was at its height. Starting in the 1300s in private chapels, an interesting theme surfaced: the birth of Mary in the life cycle depictions of the Virgin Mary. The story of her birth to Saint Anne does not appear in the New Testament but only in apocryphal literature.

Costanza Dopfel, chair of Modern Languages, said the story of Mary's birth was especially relevant to Renaissance women, who were expected to bear many children but feared childbirth because of high rates of death, miscarriage and infant mortality.

"Anne gave them hope: she gave birth late in life in a wealthy household, within a town," Dopfel says. "She was not a virgin and her baby was delivered by a midwife. Her experience was every middle- and upper-class woman's experience."

In chapel frescoes and on birthing trays brought to women after childbirth, the elements of the Virgin's birth were presented in very structured terms with most of the same elements. In most of the scenes, Saint Anne is in bed having just given birth to Mary. Servants are there with a bowl of water to bathe the baby, and the scene is usually festive.

"The physical presence of servant girls and midwives in the paintings, and the absolute absence of men, stress the communality between Saint Anne's experience and that of Renaissance women, comforting and reassuring them through the dangerous and often deadly process of giving birth," Dopfel says.

A more common theme throughout the Western world has been the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Astronomy Professor Ronald Olowin noted that astronomical depictions are common in many paintings and sculptures of Mary throughout time, and that remains true with Assumption scenes which often took inspiration from the text of Revelation: "A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars."

Many Assumption paintings show Mary being lifted to Heaven on a waxing crescent moon, although in some she's standing on a full, unblemished moon - a symbol of purity and a sign of Mary's immaculate nature. Many artists painted 12 stars around her head, and some painted a serpent under her feet. Cherubs assist or praise her as she either looks heavenward, or prayerfully bows her head.

Galileo, who was able to observe the moon through a telescope, concluded that it had hills and valleys, and inspired his friend, Lodovico Cardi, known as Cigoli, to paint an Assumption scene in the Pauline Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. He painted it with Galileo's accurate scientific depiction of the moon with its craters, which upended centuries of belief that celestial objects were not marred by imperfection. The fresco, originally known as the "Immaculata," was renamed "The Assumption of the Virgin," Olowin says, because the Vatican decided it could not be named for the Immaculate Conception due to the "Maculate" blemishes on the moon.

But even though the moon is not perfect in the "Immaculata," the art carries the same message proclaimed by Mary herself in the Magnificat, and expressed by artists throughout more than two millennia: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; My spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant, and from this day all generations will call me blessed."


Mary: A Sacramental Community

Art Chair Anna Novakov had long thought about presenting a symposium on the ways that artists, whether they work with paints, words or music, present images of Saint Mary.

"It's really important, since we're a school dedicated to Mary, to investigate some of these ideas,'' Novakov says. That led to an all-day event in November - "A Sacramental Community: Women, Spirituality and the Arts."

Sister Mary Rose Bumpus, a renowned theologian and assistant professor of Christian Spirituality at Seattle University, was the keynote speaker. Sixteen other speakers, many from the faculty of Saint Mary's, explored topics ranging from paintings of representations of Mary herself to exploring spirituality in the poems of Emily Dickinson and Anne Sexton and even in the patterns of Hawaiian quilts.

The day also featured a recital of the music of Hildegard of Bingen, who lived from 1098 to 1179, and organ music by 20th-century French composer Jeanne Demessieux. Art installations appeared around campus, and the day ended with a meditative dance and liturgy.

About 250 people attended, and about 50 art students helped with promotional materials and with introducing speakers.

"I couldn't have hoped for anything more," Novakov says of the first art-related symposium at SMC. "There were a lot of good presentations. We were trying to create an umbrella that, while focused on Catholicism and Mary, would relate to feminine ideas about spirituality."