EARLIER this year, the minister and wardens of a parish church
sold a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Christ-child,
Mary, Queen of Heaven, by the German painter Franz
Ittenbach, because they believed that it was "theologically
inappropriate" (News, 26 September).
It seems, from the church's enthusiasm to be rid of this "Roman
Catholic item", that the spirit of iconoclasm is alive and well in
the Church of England.
And yet there is a huge amount of common ground in the official
ecumenical statements of the Church of England and the Roman
Catholic Church on what each professes about the place of the
Virgin Mary in the life of the Church, and the implications of that
place for Christian belief.
This common ground was the subject of the Anglican-Roman
Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) document of 2004,
Mary: Grace and hope in Christ, which sought to dispel
misunderstandings of the kind that occurred.
The compilers of the ARCIC document were at pains to emphasise
that, in affirming the teaching of the Councils of Ephesus and
Chalcedon, in 431 and 451 respectively, the Anglican and Roman
Catholic Churches both affirmed that Mary was "Theotokos":
This emphasis was nothing new. The compilers of the Church of
England's Thirty-Nine Articles noted the honour given to the Mother
of God by the Church Fathers. They specifically embraced, and
received, the teachings of the Council of Ephesus "with great
reverence" in their commentary Reformatio Legum
Ecclesiasticarum, when they sought to qualify Article XXI: "On
the Authority of General Councils". As recently as 1997, the House
of Bishops, in its response to the papal encyclical Ut Unum
Sint, stated: "Anglicans acclaim Mary as Theotokos."
THE Church of England's understanding today about Mary - and
with it that which was professed by Lancelot Andrewes, Thomas Ken,
Jeremy Taylor, John Keble, and Edward Bouverie Pusey, to name but a
few - goes back to that third-century title "God-bearer".
As the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches also treat the same
conciliar teaching as the bedrock of their understanding about the
part played by the Virgin in salvation history, her title
Theotokos should be a point of lasting unity between, and
within, the Churches.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the ubiquitous Christmastide
scene of Mary holding the baby Jesus is one of the most endearing
and enduring images of the Christian faith which the world knows.
Such images are celebrated in a new book, Picturing Mary:
Woman, mother, idea, to which the historian Miri Rubin has
contributed, among others.
Artists in their several generations - many of them fervent
believers, and many not - have sought to convey truths about the
nature of God through this simple and most human of interactions: a
child being held by his mother.
As the Church has grown and expanded, different cultures have
adopted the image. The traditional European image is of a Caucasian
woman dandling her son on her knee - some distance from a more
naturalistic rendering of a young mother at her home in
In England, the image cherished above all was, and is once more,
that of Our Lady of Walsingham. Its particular teaching of what it
is to be God-bearer lies in its gestures. With one hand, the Virgin
holds the child Jesus, while she points to him with the other.
Mary, as God-bearer, acts as a lens through which a Christian may
perceive profound truths about the nature of her divine son.
Elsewhere, we find images that take on the characteristics of
other ethnicities. And if Christ is for all, then so is his mother.
Occasionally, God surprises us by turning the whole thing on its
The Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden, now in urban north-west
London, but then in dense, bandit-ridden woodland, was famous
before the Reformation for its image of a Black Madonna - probably
blackened by the smoke of votive candles over hundreds of
A new image was set up in 1972, and pilgrimage has been
restored. Today, the Black Madonna of Willesden - holding up Christ
for all to see - watches over Fr Andrew Hammond CMP as he ministers
to a parish made up, for the most part, of people of African and
OF COURSE, in the vagaries of the life of the Church of England,
not all have taken so kindly to this gentle image. Those who have
doubted the possibility of God's using images as a means of
teaching divine truths have raised the cry of "Idolatry!"
One of these was Ernest Barnes, Bishop of Birmingham from 1924
to 1953. In his diocese, he forbade eucharistic reservation, the
use of holy water, statues, and a whole host of things that he
thought could be put to only "superstitious uses".
By and large he was ignored by Catholic-minded clergy, who were
at least as stubborn as he was zealous - most famously, perhaps,
Alec Vidler, at All Saints', Small Heath. And when the Bishop
instructed Robert Vacy Lyle, of Stirchley, to remove from his
church, among other things, "a female figure with a child", the
Church Times was indignant in its support of Fr Lyle's
refusal (News, 5 July 1929).
Hilaire Belloc rebutted Barnes's position with poetry, in his
"Ballade of Illegal Ornaments: For Christmas and the Opening Year
of 1935". Citing the hypothetical case of an apocryphal Dr Leigh,
Belloc -himself a staunch Roman Catholic - championed those who
sought to retain the images of the Virgin and Child in their
churches in a poem that was at once satirical and profound.
The late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, as Duchess of York,
approved of Belloc's view. "The right feeling of anger is in it,"
she wrote to Duff Cooper, "and it made me want to cry. . . it is
wonderful to be able to know the fundamental things, and to write
about them so beautifully."
The ballade form demands that the final four-line envoi
be addressed to a prince. The prince of Belloc's ending is Christ
himself: the Prince of Peace - incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the
When that the Eternal deigned to
On us poor folk to make us free
He chose a Maiden, whom He took
From Nazareth in Galilee;
Since when the Islands of the Sea,
The Field, the City, and the Wild
Proclaim aloud triumphantly
A Female Figure with a Child.
The Reverend Doctor Leigh, D.D.,
Who therefore stuck into a Nook
(Or Niche) of his Incumbency
An Image filled with majesty
To represent the Undefiled,
The Universal Mother - She -
A Female Figure with a Child.
His Bishop, having read a book
Which proved as plain as plain could be
That all the Mutts had been mistook
Who talked about a Trinity
Wrote off at once to Doctor Leigh
In manner very far from mild,
And said: "Remove them instantly!
A Female Figure with a Child!"
Prince Jesus, in mine Agony,
Permit me, broken and defiled,
Through blurred and glazing eyes to see
A Female Figure with a Child.
Picturing Mary: Woman, mother idea by Timothy Verdon,
Melissa R. Katz, Amy G. Remensnyder, Miri Rubin is published by
Scala at £29.95 (CT Bookshop £27):