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.
24 thoughts on ““Tricolor Mary: Encountering Three Faces of the Divine Feminine” by Simone Grace Seol”
I love this post. I had a somewhat similar journey with the Virgin Mary, not paying her much mind for the same reasons until she came barreling into a novel I was writing and managed to upstage my feisty Celtic Magdalen aka Maeve who thought she had the corner on wild and outrageous. You might also enjoy the late Patricia Monaghan’s, Mary, a Life in Verse. Here is Maeve’s first glimpse of the woman she came to know as “Ma!”
Short and a little stout, she wore widow’s weeds, her head was bent, her face in shadow under her mantle. She looked like any old peasant woman from any time. Part of me wanted to turn and run before she spoke, before I had to know that she was missing teeth and her breath reeked of garlic. Then she lifted her head and looked at me, and a fragrant breeze sprang from nowhere, and the last of the sun’s light sought her.
Have you ever seen a lone tree in a field hollowed out and half-destroyed by lightning? That is the nearest I can come to describing her face. She looked as if some force had torn through her. She was god blasted or blessed. I had a strong impression that she was partly here in her yard holding the onions and partly somewhere else altogether where eternity pulled at her like a strong river current.
And she was his mother. There could be no doubt of that. She had his night sky eyes, but they lacked his intensity and focus. Even as she looked at me, her gaze seemed to wander and dream. Wherever she had gone, whatever strange realms she had inhabited, she was not all the way back.
What stunning imagery! Thank you for sharing. I think about how often I’d abdicated the opportunity to envision her on my own terms.
Love this post. Love the image and the poem and your interpretations! The Greek Panagia (She Who Is All Holy) never became so stripped of her power as the white Madonna did. But of course we must integrate Eve and the Snake back into the picture as well!
Thank you so much. Now I am envisioning what a two-portraits-in-one would look like… one half Mary, one half Eve, same woman.
I had such a moving experience chanting to the Dark Madonna with a group of women on Jennifer Berezan’s tour to Malta in 2004. It was in a cathedral on Gozo, just as we got off the ferry. Changed my life. Propelled me on to Turkey (2011) and Crete (with Carol Christ in 2015). Now She resides in my heart always.
You have me now thirsting for those images! Thank you.
Thanks for your post Simone and the music you shared. I once spent a lot of time listening to albums by SEQUENTIA and loved the chants dearly. I moved on from there to Eastern spirituality, and I’m still working with Tao and Zen as my beloved path very happily. Like Nature, Tao is considered the Great Mother.
Thank you for appreciating. I like to think that all great spiritual traditions meet.
Wonderful post. I think it is so important to flesh out mother Mary because like it or not she is our divine image. Because she is associated with Christianity many of us absorb her through osmosis. I was not brought up Catholic but I remember being enthralled by this loving divine image as a child – the “perfect mother.” As an adolescent I developed a passion for Mary Magdalene, a result, no doubt of my own passionate nature. At mid-life having left Christianity behind I re-discovered Mary with the Serpent, and not knowing the story perceived her to be standing on the serpent because she was “grounded” in this powerful wisdom keeper of the Earth! Somewhere along the way I missed that she could be green though I have fallen in love with her black and brown (Native American – Guadalupe) faces.! Today,I love Mary because she has so many different aspects to her, and because once when I was about 8 I stayed with my Italian grandmother who gave me a statue of Mary to light up the night when I was afraid of the dark…
I am so glad to know that other people have also drawn inspiration from different images of her and that they went out looking for a more ‘passionate’ vision of the feminine! I also love black and brown face of Mary. Thank you.
Fabulous post. Thank you!
Thank you for reading :)
Each image of Mary mentioned here brings back memories. I wonder if she hates it as much as I do when someone says I’m “nice” – always with a certain sense of disbelief for some reason! Mary and I kind of drifted apart as I left the “country club” scene. But my favourite picture of her is a wood-cut in which she is sitting on the ground next to the manger with Jesus laying there, wide awake and looking mischievous. Mary has her chin in her hand, looks bemused, and perhaps thinking “What now?” They both look pleasantly surprised somehow.
Realistically, Mary was a peasant girl in an occupied Country. She must have been tough, clever, strong mentally and physically. She consults no one else even in the church’s story about Jesus conception, but makes her own decisions. I see her as someone to be reckoned with, practical, devoted to her family. No fool, or dreamer, or fearful girl, I see her as a suitable auntie to John the Baptizer and the one who taught Jesus to go beyond the law even if it meant offending religious officialdom.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Barbara, You really should read Patricia Monaghan’s “Mary, A LIfe in Verse,” because that’s the Mary portrayed there.
YES!!! I love the powerful vision of Mary that you put forth! And hate that her image has been so whitewashed and rendered passive and weak over the centuries. Thank you for the reminders.
Growing up Protestant, Mary was never a significant presence in my life. But as a pagan, I have loved learning about her pre-Christian precursors: Tonanzin as the goddess who was transformed by Christianity into the Virgin of Guadelupe; Isis, who often shows up as the Italian Black Madonna; Demeter/Persephone in the Greek Orthodox religion; etc. What Mary lacks for me is female sexuality. Without it there is no understanding of the Goddess’ wholeness, which affirms our female wholeness. I’m just saying what Carol said in shorthand: Mary would need to reincorporate Eve, Mother of All Living, and the serpent in order to affirm us as women.
LikeLiked by 1 person
“Mary would need to reincorporate Eve, Mother of All Living, and the serpent in order to affirm us as women.” <– A-freaking-men!!
I have to agree and empathize with this post and all the comments – certainly Mary in her aspects as the Magdalene and the Black Madonna returned me to my Christian and cultural roots, allowing me to claim all aspects of that troubled heritage in ways that enhanced me as a more compassionate being. I too am a feminist and pagan who used to disdain the little “White Mary” as poorly executed kitsch. The crushing of the serpent hurts my heart no matter how I look at it – as a beautiful animal or as a profound ancient symbol of feminine grace and power. And yet I cannot forget how many of these very images sit on mantles, night stands and vanity tables all around the world meaning something extraordinary to thousands of women past, present and future who do not look at this statue with the “sophisticated” critiquing eyes of privilege. To her the little plaster statue is the portal to a shining, awe-inspiring, immensely comforting divinity most of us can barely grasp. They KNOW with all their hearts and souls that this is only the palest of representations of the greater living presence, and to them the snake represents all that causes them suffering – poverty, injustice, loss… We can reject that interpretation for ourselves, but not for them. I keep one of those “white Mary’s” on my own altar now as a reminder to stay humble, that there are mysteries of faith I am not privy to. She reminds me I too am white, unable to change the color of my skin, stuck with all its accompanying sobriquets, slanders and stereotypes and that the only one who can trample those particular bitter enemies of authenticity underfoot is me.
“The crushing of the serpent hurts my heart no matter how I look at it.”
So cruel and mean!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I have revisited this post several times and am always astonished to see he Black Madonna of Einsiedeln Abbey partly because I am working on a book where she is included in one of the poems. There is an entire book about one woman’s worldwide search for Black Madonnas: “Longing for Darkness” by China Galland. Perhaps you are familiar with it.
A joy to read!