The God-Bearer

It has been said that to be a Johannite is to be a Marian – a devotee of Mary. I think this is true in several interesting ways.

There is an old tradition, grounded in Patristic sources, that St John the Evangelist and Mary, the mother of Jesus, led the community at Ephesus together. Among the ruins of Ephesus today, there remains a house remembered as the house of the Virgin Mary.

To connect our several Johns with our various Marys in a different way, many theologians consider John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin to be the final prophets of the Old Testament.

So, what I’d like to do in this short pondering is to approach Mary in a similar way to the way we approached John the Baptist in the Concepts course – by way of art as a means of entering into as aspect of Johannite tradition. This will wind its way into the Concepts course eventually.

Just as I did with the Baptist, I’m going to focus on one type of depiction of Mary. The variety of depictions of her is so vast, her titles so profuse and devotion to her so profound, that it’s almost impossible to try to encompass it all, so I’m not going to try. I’m just going to pick one type and one example of that type that, as it happens, I rather like.

One Mary’s many titles, one of the oldest, is Theotokos (Θεοτόκος), literally God-bearer. It’s more usually translated by the English term “Mother of God”. The accuracy of the term was a matter of significant dispute in the early church because it relies on a specific understanding of who and what Jesus was. But it finds it echoes in many examples of both Orthodox and Catholic art.

The feature image up top is “La Vierge au lys” (1899) by William Bouguereau (1825-1905). Bouguereau was considered a hack by his Impressionist contemporaries, but I think his luminous, hyper-realist work has aged rather well. The one I want to focus on is an earlier piece, “Madonna and Child” (1888).

Virgin Mary holding up baby Jesus
“Madonna and Child” (1888), William Bouguereau

Despite its slight flatness, I like this version because it’s more straightforward. As you can see, it depicts Mary as bearer of Jesus in both senses of that word in English – mother and carrier.

Madonna and Child is a classic theme in paintings and icons and they are almost always simple. Mary is seated. Jesus sits on her, she holds him. It’s almost a natural pose of a mother and her child, except that he is almost always facing outwards toward the viewer, toward the world. This isn’t that odd, mothers often hold children that way when they’re showing them off in some way. But while this is sort of that, it’s also something else.

Rejoice, you through whom joy shall shine forth. Rejoice, you whom the curse will vanish.
Rejoice, the Restoration of fallen Adam. Rejoice, the Redemption of the tears of Eve.
Rejoice, O Height beyond human logic. Rejoice, O depth invisible even to the eyes of Angels.
Rejoice, for you are the King’s throne. Rejoice, you bear Him, Who bears the universe.
Rejoice, O Star revealing the Sun. Rejoice, O Womb of divine Incarnation.
Rejoice, you through whom creation is renewed. Rejoice, you through whom the Creator is born a Babe.

The Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos

She is his mother in these pictures, but what you see so clearly in Bouguereau’s work is that she is also the Lord’s throne. This is, as Margaret Barker likes to say, temple talk. In the First Temple in Jerusalem, the Lord’s throne in the Holy of Holies is also Wisdom, who is also the Mother of the Lord – in the typically sliding semiology of Temple life.

Mary has a long connection to the Temple. There’s a tradition that she was one of the young women charged with weaving the temple veil that is drawn in front of the Holy of Holies.

Symbolically, depicting Mary as the Throne connects Jesus to the Royal Priesthood and to the First Temple. This parallels the Baptist acting as connection to Primordial Tradition. In both cases, his teaching is grounded and validated in deeper, older tradition, even though it was rejected by his immediate contemporaries in the Second Temple priesthood. The Theotokos and the Baptist connect to the past. The Evangelist and the Magdalene connect to the future. More on that next week.

The other parallel that occurs to me is that both of them characterise modes of surrender. The Baptist surrenders his prominence in favour of Jesus (this is possibility a Gospel fiction, rather than anything that happened, but let’s go with it).

You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

– John 3:28-30

Mary’s surrender is to God’s will that she become Mother to the Lord.

Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. […] For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

– Luke 1:26-38

This willing surrender to allow the ego and ultimately the self to drop into the background as Christ takes up the foreground is, I believe, a key aspect of a deep, spiritual path. I’ll say more in the context of the Johannite practice course.

In the meantime, enjoy the Bouguereau. You’re welcome.