The Mediecal Millennium: Objects of Desire

Lecture 25. The Cult of the Virgin Mary:


Forsyth, Ilene, The Throne of Wisdom, Princeton, 1972
read especially the Introduction and chapter I (Character) and II (Function)

  How do we know what Christ looked like? How do we know what the Virgin Mary looked like? Here we encounter the role of Saint Luke--the physician and the most sensitive observer of the Gospel writers--"an artist with words". The tradition developed in Byzantine thought that he was a painter and that he painted a picture of the Virgin. He became the patron saint of painters. Tradition holds that Luke painted a half-length portrait from life of the Virgin holding her child in her arms on the Mountain of Jerusalem--and that he gave the portrait to Theophilus to whom he had dedicated the Acts of the Apostles. Eudokia, wife of Emperor Theodosius II (408-50), acquired the picture when she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The picture was placed in a sanctuary near the banks of the Bospherus in Constantinople and it gained the designation "Hodegetria"--one who points the way. The monastery was known as Hodegon. One tradition insists that this icon made its way to the West during the Crusades.

Whereas for the Body of Christ, we arranged our ideas and the experience of looking around the four levels of reading: (1) historical, (2) allegorical, (3) tropological and (4) anagogical--for the images of the Virgin Mary I will keep to a more literal-minded typological approach:

  1. The Throne of Wisdom--Sedes sapientiae
  2. The Hodegetria and its Gothic derivatives
  3. Narrative
  4. Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin
  5. Triumph of the Virgin Mary

1. The Throne of Wisdom - Sedes sapientiae .
The throne of Wisdon is sometimes called the Maiestas. The type exists in considerable numbers. There is a tension between the small size (averag. about 73 cm--two and a half feet) and the monumental concept. The Mother becomes a cathedra or seat for the Logos incarnate. The throne is associated with wisdom or the throne of Soloman. Christ's humanity and divinity are simultaneously apparent. Such sculptures were endowed by medieval imagination with the power to speak, weep, lactate, deter invadors. The images are generally made of wood and were made in a range of areas including France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and as far east as Hungary and Poland. What are the origins of the image? The first datable Throne of Wisdom is mid-tenth century. It was probably derived from the theory of establishing the legitimacy of kings and emperors as revived in Carolingian times--based on Solomanic typology. Their appearance testifies to a diminished fear of idols. It is clear that this type was not just a representation--but it was intended as a stand-in or proxy--mediation between two worlds.

The character of the image reflects a grim fixity. It is hieratic, iconic. The Material, wood, was employed for a practical purpose--mobility. The images were intended to be carried about. The earliest images were often sheathed in a skin of silver or gold with gems and intaglios. The figures were intended as a bridge mechanism from "reality" to "abstraction." Relics were often enclosed in a cavity of the sculpture. By the eleventh century, painted wooden images became common.

Iconography: Mary is depicted as a regal, mature figure; Christ is also depicted as a mature figure--He may be seated on Mary's left knee or somewhat obliquely on her lap "and looking straight before him as though he had his neck in a vice he turned his eyes neither to the right nor to the left as if he had been a statue" (description of Constantine by Ammianus Marcellinus). This is a royal image of Christ enthroned with Mary who was a symbol of the church. He is head of the institution she personifies. Christ must be understood as the Logos incarnate and the Virgin is the Theotokos or god-bearer. As the bearer of incarnate wisdom (logos) she is the Throne of Wisdom; the throne of Soloman, as it were, holding in her lap the New Testament counterpart to the wise king of the Old Testament. Christ is priest as well as king.

This iconographic form dominated the tympana of the second half of the twelfth century. For example, the south portal at Chartres, or Notre Dame de Ste Anne

Function: We have textual references to a gold image of the Virgin and Child in the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand that was fashioned as a reliquary to hold and honor relics of the Virgin. The relics would have to be locks of hair, drops of milk, pieces of clothing or ornaments. It is clear that some statues were reliquaries and some were not. However, the function was not just to house relics. These sculptures were mobile images--they could be placed on altars or taken in procession to the crypt. They could be carried in procession outside the church--especially in raising funds for various reasons including church construction. Also, they could be used in liturgical dramas--especially for the Epiphany.

2. The Hodegetria and its Gothic Derivatives
As an example for our discussion, we can look at the figure of the standing Virgins in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Note, also, the Gothic trumeaux of Notre-Dame, the south transept and Amiens, the west facade (south portal).

3. Narrative

We have looked at this in connection with the scenes of the nativity and Crucifixion. There are two special scenes for the Virgin Mary, the Dormition and the Assumption, that are of special interest.

4. Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin
Dormition means falling asleep--as when Paul refers to deceased Christians as those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. This conveys faith in the resurrection--particularly appropriate for the Virgin owing to the belief in her physical assumption into heaven--a belief in existence already by the fifth century where it is found in a written source known as the Transitus Mariae--the passing of Mary that provided satisfaction for the believer's yearning to know what happened to Mary. The account is as follows: Mary's death is foretold by an angel; the Apostles gather to assist Mary and to receive her blessing; Christ comes and takes Mary's soul into heaven; her body is carried by the Apostles to the valley of Josaphat for burial; the Apostles keep vigil at the grave; after a short or long period there is an assumption of Mary's body into Paradise.

As a liturgical feast the Dormition was celebrated as early as the end of the sixth century--at that time Emperor Maurice (582-602) determined that the feast should be celebrated on August 15 throughout the Empire. At that time there was a basilica in Gethsemane that claimed to enshrine the tomb of the Virgin. Dormition and glorification of the Virgin's body became a popular theme in Byzantine sermons. The feast was adopted in the West during the seventh century. Note the Virgin Portal at Amiens Cathedral

Assumption -- The theme develops from the belief in the essential similarity of Christ and the Virgin. Circumstances of birth are the same. Scriptural basis of the Assumption comes in the Apocalyptic vision of the woman clothed in sun with the moon under her feet and her head wreathed with 12 stars. This was the Church in ultimate victory--but it was also Mary.

5. Triumph of the Virgin Mary
We may first consider the concept of The Universal significance in the Song of Songs. The period of the pontificate of Innocent II (1139-1143) becomes noteworthy as the champion of the reform-minded group who favored the principles of the freedom of the Church. Innocent was opposed by an anti-pope, Anacletus II. Forced to flee Rome, his position was championed by Bernard of Clairvaux in the Council of Etampes. (September, 1130). Innocent's greatest monument was the rebuilt basilica of S. Maria in Trastevere in Rome.