I was brought up in a household where attitudes to God and church were quite negative. My Nanna, however, was deeply religious, and I can still remember sitting in her dining room as a very young child staring up in awe at a painting of ‘The Last Supper.’ I was completely mesmerised, there was something haunting about that painting that left a lifelong impression. Art became a passion very early on in life, and whenever I came into contact with images of a religious nature emotions stirred. I was spellbound by divine mystery. The most profound feelings were engendered when I met with images of Mother Mary and the infant Jesus.
Mary is known by many names: Mary, Miriam, Maria, Mother Mary, the Virgin Mary, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutheran traditions Mary is referred to as ‘Mother of God’ or ‘Theotokos’ – ‘Bearer of God.’ Across all the major Christian traditions, beliefs and devotional practice surrounding Mary are diverse. In some traditions Mary plays a minimal role, while in others, such as the Catholic, she is the Queen of Heaven and Mother of the Church. Whilst travelling through Europe and some parts of Britain, it is hard to ignore the deep reverence held for Mary. I found myself drawn to her presence in churches, chapels, and convents. Despite not following any form of organised religion, I lit candles, kissed her icons, and prayed to her for miracles.
All religions testify to miracles, and miracles of the Madonna abound in great numbers. The word miracle is derived from the old Latin word miraculum meaning ‘something wonderful.’ There are many varying religious and scientific definitions of ‘miracle.’ Hume defines it as “a violation of the laws of nature…a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” (1748) Journalist Tim Stafford in his book Miracles: A Journalist Looks at Modern-Day Experiences of God’s Power asserts that ‘a miracle should be reserved for events that are surprising and revelatory.’ For me these definitions are restrictive, I believe that a miracle can essentially be whatever you want it to be. If the word simply means ‘something wonderful’ then there is much that can be considered a miracle. One does not have to be religious to believe in miracles. I have faith that miracles can and do happen.
While touring Crete recently with Carol Christ, we visited the Paliani Convent not far out of Heraklion. Paliani is one of the oldest convents still in use on Crete and dates back to the first Byzantine period–it was mentioned as old in A.D 668. The convent has a long history of various occupations, invasions, and destruction. Paliani is best known for its miracle-working Madonna and the sacred or holy Myrtle Tree which is said to be over 1000 years old. Inside the trunk of the tree is believed to be the icon of Panagia Myrtiotissa, Virgin Mary of Myrtle. Legend has it that the Panagia was removed from the tree a number of times, yet somehow the icon kept making its way back to the tree, eventually becoming enclosed in the tree as it grew. Many offerings hang from its branches, as the story of the re-appearing Panagia is considered miraculous. Interestingly, the worship of Holy Myrtle is not a Christian tradition, but rather is a survival of much older pagan practices: the worship of sacred trees was also a significant practice in ancient Minoan traditions.
Despite its tumultuous history, the convent is a sanctuary of serenity. We made our silent vigils lighting candles and praying to the dark Madonna in the chapel. We sat under the dense canopy of the Holy Myrtle tree and listened to one of Carol’s moving stories. Laughter soon followed as one of the nuns gathered with us and told her own stories in Greek and sang to the tree–all the while coveting a beautiful young goddess from our group and attempting to convince her to join the nunnery. We tied coloured ribbons on the branches of the tree and prayed for miracles. A semi-circle was formed around the tree and with joined hands we sang ‘The tree shall be well, the tree shall be well, all manner of things shall be well,’ replacing ‘tree’ with each of our names in turn.
An invitation to take refreshments with the Mother Superior was a blessing. The motherly love and affection the nuns displayed for Carol was touching. As I returned to the bus armed with trinkets and souvenirs of Mother Mary and the Holy Myrtle and turned to look one last time at the majestic beauty of the place, I was overcome with feelings of love, peace and gratitude. Thoughts of the miracle I prayed for came to mind. We were told that if our prayers came to pass, a letter to the nuns with a gift to the Panagia would be welcomed; they had already received many letters and gifts testifying that miracles had occurred.
My latest painting ‘Παναγία’ (Panagia – pronounced pan-a-yee-ah), the feminine form of the ‘All-Holy,’ is inspired by my visit to the Paliani convent. For me Mary represents the Divine Mother and the Divine Feminine. For some she is the feminine face of God. She reminds me that even within the confines of patriarchy–and within traditions we may be ideologically opposed to–‘She’ is present. By painting her image I feel that I am contributing to the re-awakening of the Divine Feminine in all aspects of life and across all traditions. I also set out to capture a mother’s deep love for her child, while at the same time acknowledging mothers who have lost a child, those who are not able to have or are yet to have children, and all those who have lost their mothers. The tree with its roots descending deep into the earth, and the Panagia emerging from its trunk not only represents the Holy Myrtle, but is symbolic of the tree of life itself. This painting is a reminder that miracles can happen. I know, because mine is still unfolding.
Jassy Watson, who lives on the sub-tropical coast of Queensland Australia, is a mother of four, a passionate organic gardener, an artist, and a student of ancient history and religion at Macquarie University, Sydney. She runs a small business Goddesses Garden to keep women’s sacred circles, art, music and gardening practices alive. In the photo of her, Jassy is standing under the Sacred Myrtle Tree of Paliani. Ribbons and amulets on the tree represent prayers and gratitude.