How would you paint Mary? If you can do it well I applaud you. It is hard to find good Mary art, and especially hard to find good art depicting the biblical scene of the annunciation? The resumes are impressive–Raphael, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Botticelli–but the creative depictions leave me wanting more. The most typical have Mary dressed in robes of bright red and deep blue. Da Vinci, with typical flare, finishes off the outfit with a gold sash. Mary is often adorned with a halo, and her hand rests on a book, presumably the Hebrew Bible, where she is traditionally thought to be reading from Isaiah in which the prophet predicts a virgin that will conceive a child. The incredulous facts that Gabriel shows up at this very moment in Mary’s pious reading regiment, and that peasant Mary from a little backwater town in Galilee knew how to read to begin with are brushed aside by heavy handed artistic license.
The most popular paintings are also replete with symbols. The mariposa lily (mariposa has no relation to ‘Mary’–it is Spanish for butterfly) is often extended to Mary by the angel as a symbol of Mary’s purity. Above Mary a dove is sometimes depicted representing the impregnating Holy Spirit. In one depiction a ray of light emanates from the dove and lands on Mary’s ear, as if in the hearing of the annunciation itself a mysterious conception begins first in Mary’s external auditory canal.
Posture is important too. Gabriel sometimes hovers and towers above Mary, at other times the angel bows. Mary is usually startled by the announcement, and in most paintings her hands are raised, palms facing out, in a defensives posture of disbelief. In one painting by James Christensen, Mary, dressed in a simple white gown, is clutching against the back dirt wall of a little hovel with her legs folded underneath her listening in terror, the walls fade out around her.
It seems that every painting or sculpture of the annunciation that I see I find fault in. Some are too high church; some are too low church. Some make Mary too stained glass and ethereal; some make Mary too timid and pawn-ish. They all remind us that in myriad ways, Catholic, Protestant, and secular expressions of Mary have often disfigured this mother of the Christ child who is said to be “blessed among women.”
We shouldn’t blame the expressive artists or the well meaning theologians for their failed attempts. After all, what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Mary? Pale pastel blue? White alabaster statues? Titled head? A forced chaste appearance of perfection? Ceramic figurines? Car air-fresheners? Lawn ornaments? Cutesy religious book marks? Porcelain pendants? Hay strewn nativities? Is Mary more symbol to you than person?
When we think of Mary we might think of all these things, but we probably don’t think of the Council of Ephesus in 431 which declared that Mary was the Theotokos. It was widely accepted, in most places by 431 that Jesus was both fully divine, and fully human. But it was not widely accepted that you could mention the divine, when speaking of the human, or mention the human when speaking of the divine. Thus is was okay to say Jesus was God, and it was just as okay to say Mary was the mother of Jesus. What was not okay was to say that God was born of Mary, or Mary was the mother of God, for that mixed the two natures of Christ in one short sentence, and made folks wiggle in their pews. It was scandalous.
Before you shake your head, stop and think about it–it’s not a simple thing to say that Mary is the mother of God. It requires the suspension of all belief in everything we feel is correct, and orderly, and proper. We all recognize a huge, unfathomable gap between the human and the divine. The fact that the divine is not human is what gives us hope. To say that Mary is the mother of God is to breach the dam of separation and to muddy the waters.
Further, to suggest that the divine can be present as a nature alongside the human nature, and to be ineffably linked together in one person requires full ascent to the confession of Gabriel to Mary “For nothing is impossible with God.” Fred Craddock says that Gabriel’s confession is “the creed behind all other creeds. The church should recite it often,” says Craddock, “not only at the manger, not only at the empty tomb, but on any occasion for reflecting on its own life joy, and hope–for nothing is impossible with God.” But can’t even Gabriel’s confession be taken to the point of absurdity? Mary, the mother of the one from whom came forth the divine power which created heaven and earth?! And so a controversy erupted in the churches over what came to be known as the ‘communication of idioms.’ Can you really interchange the divine and the human in common speech–do the idioms communicate? The council of Ephesus said yes, and Mary became the ‘theotokos,’ that is a Greek word, it means “bearer of God.” In the western world the expression “mother of God” is more commonly used. It has come down to us as an orthodox confession. But it makes no difference how orthodox its label, we still wiggle around in our pews when we hear it.
It is so hard to think of Mary, let alone paint her–the fulcrum on which the divine and human swing on a hinge. The church has tried to help us. She is Mary, the mother of God. But what does that look like in charcoal, or acrylic, or water color? Who knows. The church has fought over this confession, and what it means, and what consideration is due Mary as a result? Do we paint her haloed, hand on Bible, with a gold sash? Or do we paint her white as wool, clutching a dirt wall trembling in fear? What does the church’s confession mean?
But the church was not the first to hear the angel say about the Christ child “and he will be called Son of God”, Mary was the first to hear it. Before all councils and confessions, before all controversies and orthodoxies, Mary was one day minding her business when Gabriel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary didn’t know what to think. Luke says she was “much perplexed.” That’s a kind way of saying she had no clue. Since when was a poor pubescent Jewish girl, likely without education, from a town with a poor reputation in a Roman occupied world favored? So Mary pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
The angel’s words “The Lord is with you” were prophetically loaded. They represented much more than a kind angelic greeting. This was language reserved in the sacred writings for those people chosen by God for a special purpose in salvation history. Did Mary know the significance? Did she understand the liturgy? Did she recognize Gabriel as an angel from God? Did Gabriel have wings sprouting from his back as all the paintings depict? Did Mary wonder if angels could make a mistake?
Zechariah knew. Zechariah and Elizabeth were the parents of John the Baptist, and before Gabriel made his grand announcement of Christ’s coming to Mary he first warmed up his vocals in announcing the birth of cousin John to Zechariah. Zechariah, the priest, was hysterical. It all happened so fast. Belonging to the priestly order of Abijah he was chosen by lot, as was the custom, to offer incense to the LORD in the sanctuary. What an honor! He dressed in his best, rehearsed the liturgy, purified himself, and found his way to the altar. That’s when Gabriel showed up. Zechariah lost it. He was terrified and fear overwhelmed him. This does not at all surprise us, for this is the established pattern. Angel comes to human with a divine message, and human becomes petrified with fear. The Hebrew Bible is replete with examples. Zechariah is one among many. Which makes it all the more strange, that such fearful paralysis didn’t befall Mary. James Christensen’s annunciation has Mary huddling against a dirt wall, but that is more than we know of her reaction. All we know is that Mary was “perplexed…and pondered.”
There are other dissimilarities between the two accounts. Zechariah is a credentialed priest. The only credential Mary has is her ‘virginity.’ Zechariah is performing a sacred religious duty, chosen by lot. Mary is hanging the clothes, or baking the bread, or, as da Vinci imagined, weaving on her loom. Zechariah’s annunciation happens in a place of great religious significance–the temple, to the right of the holy altar. Mary’s annunciation happens in an unnamed location in the despised town of Nazareth, a town that the scripture provides no evidence that God had any big plans for (there are no ‘Nazareth’ prophecies). Zechariah and Elizabeth, in their old age, unable to conceive, bring forth remembrances of the promises and miracles given to Abraham and Sarah. Mary has no scriptural precedent. Zechariah provides a fitting character for a chapter in God’s grand story. Mary, unless you count a mistranslated prophecy from Isaiah that was originally not intended for the distance messianic future, is not even worthy a mention in the appendix.
Yet one is overwhelmed by fear, and the other ponders the words of God deep in her heart. One disbelieves and is made mute as a result. The other believes and is admonished with these words, “Blessed is she who believes that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” One is the father of the one who must decrease. The other becomes the theotokos, the very mother of God.
Mary’s belief does not come without confusion. She does wonder how a virgin could be with child. Her confusion and concern underscore how important virginity was in her day. The Deuteronomistic Law said that any woman unable to provide proof of her virginity upon it being called into question would be brought out to the entrance of her father’s house and stoned to death by the men of the town. After the Holy Spirit “came upon her” Mary was a dead woman walking. All it took was one accusation from the lips of Joseph for Mary and her unborn child to meet a violent end. Perhaps this is why in Matthew’s gospel Joseph receives his own annunciation, which convinces him, in spite of the obvious, to quickly take Mary to be his wife. Perhaps this is why in Christensen’s painting Mary is clutching the wall of the hovel–not because she feared the angel as Zechariah did, or because she disbelieved the angels announcement, but rather because she did believe it, and she trembled at what the religious men of her town might do to her as a result.
The threat is what makes Mary’s response so remarkable among disciples, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.” Would we respond with such fidelity and faith if on the wings of an angel God brought to us a word of potential terror? It is what prompted Martin Luther to say that there are three miracles in Christ’s nativity: God became human, a virgin conceived, and Mary believed. Of the three miracles Luther held the last to be the greatest.
How do you paint Mary?
Maybe we don’t. Maybe we are too far into the temple, chosen by lot as we were, and too close to the altar. Maybe we are too busy with priestly things like finding funny sounding Greek words to settle religious controversies. Maybe we have too much precedent in scripture as the spiritual descendents of Abraham. Maybe when angels come fear overwhelms us. Is it possible that the church is more afraid in Advent than the town with the bad reputation? Is it possible that the a pubescent uneducated peasant girl finds it easier to suspend all belief. It’s hard to paint what you don’t know. And we seem to never know where the blessing of God will fall. Except that it’s usually in some place we don’t expect, and that often our first reaction is to put down our paint brushes and pick up stones.
It’s hopeless then, impossible! If the masters can’t paint her, and the church bickers about her significance, what true art can be made? Who will straighten this all out? Don’t worry, just let it alone. Someday, an unpredicted, unforeseen talent without a single credit to her young name, will remember Mary, put brush to canvas, and like her subject, against all odds, she will truly believe the mother of all creeds–nothing is impossible with God.