I always felt curiously distant from the figure of Mary. I always sensed that there is so much there and yet, I could never connect to it emotionally.
The foil to Eve, vessel of Love, suffering mother. I wanted to love her, I wanted to feel her, I wanted to feel drawn to the mystery of Marian devotion. But I felt alienated by the vision of the feminine that she seemed to project: the pure, immaculate, virginal, submissive, obedient, quietly suffering.
Most days, I feel like the opposite of every single one of those qualities.
It’s exactly the kind of feminine archetype I don’t really relate to — the kind of person about whom people say, “oh, she’s really nice” as if yielding compliance and non-offensiveness are her primary attributes. The kind of woman who fades into the background, whose worth lies only in her utility to the patriarchal narrative.
Will Mary, with the white halo on her head, be accepting of my chaos, my non-virginity, my rejection of Victorian purity, my failure to suffer quietly (I like to kick and scream)? Am I not more a daughter of Eve, the one who says “yes” to darkness and temptation?
If so, how can I make peace with Mary, let alone love her? How can I fully reconcile with an otherwise masculine-dominated vision of Christianity?
Earlier, I was reading a Camille Paglia interview, in which she contrasted the pagan floridness of Mediterranean Catholicism with the country club-politeness and blandness of what is seen in a lot of churches nowadays. Then it clicked with me.
Through most of the images I’d seen in my life, I only encountered “country club” versions of Mary — squeaky-clean, wholesome, Doris Day. Nothing dark or mysterious or dangerous about her. No edge, no drama, no intrigue.
We form relationships with symbols, realms of the subconscious and the spiritual, through images. I have been sorely deprived of interesting images of Mary.
Then I set out to explore, looking at very different visual representations of Mary. Indeed, artists and poets throughout the ages have imagined her in strikingly diverse ways. Through these images, we can reconsider our own ideas of womanhood, weaving together different threads of Jungian symbols.
This is why we have art, yes? So that we can re-order what we know and how we know it through active seeing. (And I’d be remiss not to mention, if you’re interested in active seeing, check out the book I recently reviewed for the National Book Review.)
Now, let’s get to it.
- Mary in White
This is very near the only image of Mary I grew up with. I had a small statuette of her in my room growing up, and saw aesthetically similar statues in the churches I grew up in in Korea and suburban California.
Mary has pale skin, blandly pretty features, clad in flowy, fluid lines of white and sky blue.
I’ll come out and say it, because I think this is what Paglia was alluding to: she’s the Episcopalian country club Mary and does absolutely nothing for me. Very serviceable, polite, nice. She is kind and inviting without edges. Beautiful without any hint of threatening sexuality. She is stripped of any hint of Mediterranean pageantry; she’s been “protestant-ized”.
Oh, of course, there’s the serpent she is crushing under her foot. The serpent that lured Eve, the precursor to Original Sin. The snake under the foot always grossed me out when I was a child, but only slightly, because it’s so easy to miss! You can barely see it. In these statuettes, the snakes are thin, anemic, rarely truly menacing. They’re the most toothless representations of the Evil that she is symbolically crushing.
She can overcome only an already weak and limp enemy. This is barely the tough, scrappy young woman who got off a donkey in a faraway land and gave birth in a dirty manger. This is not the mater dolorosa who stood by her bleeding, slowly dying son.
If this country club Mary saw anything like that, she might politely turn away, ask for her smelling salts, and mutter something like, “oh, goodness, how unseemly!”
- Black Madonna, Einsiedeln Abbey
Now we’re talking. Behold Schwartzmuttergottes (Black Mother of God).
She is the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, said to be 500-600 years old, and she lives in Switzerland.
This is not the same Mary as above. Carved of wood and painted a gleaming black, she is resplendently clad in stiff, imposing regal attire. There is none of the gentle, pastel-colored fluidity of Country Club Mary’s dress. She wields a majestic scepter, and golden rods of light and unfurling waves of cloud shoot out and explode from behind her. The curves and lines here look Greco-Roman to me, and carry the exuberant energy of that ancient, pagan era.
Her facial features are slightly harder to discern, but we can see enough to say that she isn’t exactly in a “my dear, why don’t you come over for a nice cup of tea and crumpets?” kind of a mood. She is queenly, slightly forboding, the smooth darkness of her face hard and pearl-like. Her blackness harkens to a kind of pre-cosmic source-energy.
Gazing upon the Black Madonna, we think of the other Indo-European mirror, the Hindu goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil forces, whose name is synonymous with the color black.
- Viridissima Virga
We have here not a picture, but a poem, which was written for a chant.
O Viridissima Virga (O Greenest Rod)
O branch of freshest green,
O hail! Within the windy gusts of saints
upon a quest you swayed and sprouted forth.
When it was time, you blossomed in your boughs—
“Hail, hail!” you heard, for in you seeped the sunlight’s warmth
like balsam’s sweet perfume.
For in you bloomed
so beautiful a flow’r, whose fragrance wakened
all the spices from their dried-out stupor.
They all appeared in full viridity.
Then rained the heavens dew upon the grass
and all the earth was cheered,
for from her womb she brought forth fruit
and for the birds up in the sky
have nests in her.
Then was prepared that food for humankind,
the greatest joy of feasts!
O Virgin sweet, in you can ne’er fail any joy.
All this Eve chose to scorn.
But now, let praise ring forth unto the Highest!
Here, it gets really interesting. In this song, composed by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), witchy polymath and Doctor of the Church, Mary is not white, not black, but freaking green.
Hildegard was an accomplished botanist and natural historian. She didn’t quite get the ascetic early Christian memo about turning one’s eye away from the physical world in pursuit of the heavenly kingdom. No, she has her sights fixed on the sensorily-rich fertility principle, imagining Mary as a kind of Aphrodite.
I love this fulsome, pagan bounty of nature in this poem. Mary “seeped the sunlight’s warmth / like balsam’s sweet perfume.” A flower bloomed in her, waking the “spices” that appear in “full viridity”. Worship of Mary is a celebration, a softening into the cycle of nature, a vibrant catalogue of color and movement.
By the way (this is the kind of stuff that makes me explode with nerdy delight), I love the punny potential of the title, ‘viridissima virga’.
‘Virga’ means ‘stem’, or ‘rod’ (teeheehee, ‘rod’ — I am so twelve years old forever), but of course it is a single letter away from ‘virgo’, meaning ‘virgin’. (Ohhhhhh!) ‘Viridissima’ is a fancy Latin word for ‘very green’, but change one letter again and we have ‘virilissima’, which means, well, ‘very virile’.
So much that is suggestive and sexy in this poem: branch that “swayed and sprouted forth”; heavens raining “dew upon the grass,” and “from her womb she brought forth fruit.”
Nope, there is none of the solemn meekness of a scriptural Mary. Instead, the Mother of God is the luxuriant queen of generativity, the creative center of a blooming, exultant earthly garden. (Aha, garden! Like the one once inhabited by Eve. So we circle back to Genesis.)
Simone Grace Seol is a writer, hypnotist and seminary drop-out based in Korea and California. She has contributed to the Huffington Post and the National Book Review, and has earned degrees from Wellesley College and Columbia University. You can find her writing on culture and metaphysics at http://simonegrace.me.