Over the past two thousand years, no other female has appeared in as many works of art as the woman known as Mary, purported mother of Jesus, the Christian savior of the world. A timeless muse, she dominates thousands of paintings, frescoes, sculptures, figurines, mosaics, and icons. According to Christian teaching, Mary is the fully-human, yet virginal, mother of God; she is not a god herself.
Who Was Mary?
Mary is considered a Catholic saint, but to me, she has never really seemed like one, because she gets a higher billing than the others. In art, she often wears a crown and holds a scepter, and bears the title Queen of Heaven.
There doesn’t appear to be a convincing historical record of Mary’s existence. The Bible says that, two millennia ago, an angel showed up at the home of a teenage Israeli girl. The angel told the girl (Mary) that she would soon become pregnant and give birth to a baby boy, through the intercession of the Holy Spirit and without “knowing man.” The baby would be the son of God.
Mary receives scant mention in the New Testament. No matter. Once word got out that her son was the hoped-for Savior of the World, her status in history was cemented.
In the Old Testament, Jews are forbidden to worship false idols, and this tradition has been passed on to the Christian and Muslim faiths as well. However, some Christians — especially many in Orthodox and Roman Catholic sects — appear to violate this rule by praying to images/artwork of saints, especially Mary. We could debate whether or not the Faithful view these “idols” as God-like or simply representations, but the point is this: a cult of people around the world worship Mary, many expressing their devotion by kneeling before her statues or kissing icons of her likeness.
I traveled to Athens and Santorini in 2019, and ahead of the trip, read a memoir of American writer Patricia Storace’s year living in Greece. In Dinner with Persephone, Storace observes that while the official Church position is that Mary is not a goddess, in popular practice, she often functions as one.
And, unlike her son, Mary seems to show up on earth regularly, delivering messages from God and performing miracles. She is well-traveled, with shrines all over the world honoring her alleged visitations. Every year millions of pilgrims descend upon the numerous Marian sites. Among the most popular are the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico), Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima (Portugal), Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes (France), and Jasna Góra Monastery, which houses the icon painting of Our Lady of Częstochowa (Poland).
The Polish icon is one of many “Black Madonnas.” Some of these black virgins (and their infant sons) have dark skin due to smoke and age, but others may have been created this way to resemble the ethnicity of various locales’ worshipers or simply to show the Middle-Eastern provenance of the virgin and child. Mary’s appeal has bridged multiple cultural divides.
My Song for Mary
In my eyes, Mary is a mythical woman, yet I’ve been drawn to her as if she were not a myth. Many of the antique holy cards I collect bear Mary’s image. And I’ve visited churches housing two Black Madonnas, Our Lady of Rocamadour, in Southwest France, and Our Lady of Montserrat in Spain. Also, I found myself among the throngs of pilgrims bottling holy water and praying at the shrine of one of the “rock star” Marys, Our Lady of Lourdes.
At the end of my recent vacation to Greece, I had a quick-yet-impactful Marian experience in Athens. A taxi waited at the hotel to transport my group to the airport. But, instead of getting into the van, I waved at the driver and ran next-door to a tiny 16th-Century church, Agia Dynamis (“The Holy Power of the Virgin”), built over the ruins of an ancient temple to Hercules. The church is so small that it’s tucked beneath an overhang of the ultra-modern Electra Metropolis Hotel. Downtown workers and residents stop in to pay their respects at this wee chapel as they go about their daily business. I couldn’t help myself: like those Athenians, I went inside the church and kissed the silver icon of Mary inside the entrance. Then I hurried outside to the waiting taxi and began my journey home.
Greeks have a special title for Mary: Theotokos, which translates as the Mother of the God. But, think about this: it takes an unusually special virgin to give birth to a baby. And, if Mary is good enough to be God’s mother, then, in my opinion, she is certainly good enough to be God herself.
The name of my song for Mary is Theos, or God in Greek. ∗