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Most highly favoured lady

19 December 2014

Images of the Blessed Virgin Mary are still the cause of controversy, but her status is part of a consistent Anglican tradition, says Serenhedd James

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WOMEN IN THE ARTS

Motherly love: Mother and Child, 1609-10, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Motherly love: Mother and Child, 1609-10, by Artemisia Gentileschi

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": "God-bearer".

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 Nazareth.

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 head.

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 years.

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 Caribbean extraction.

 

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 Virgin Mary.

When that the Eternal deigned to look
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.

These Mysteries profoundly shook
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): 978-1-85759-895-7.

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