There was a lively and fascinating discussion about portrayals of Mary a few weeks ago after Steven Graydanus’ post The Many Faces of Mary and after my response, Even More Faces of Mary. It’s been a wonderful revelation to see how Mary is depicted in different cultures at different times—both in miraculous visions and as she appears through the lens of different cultural sensibilities. This variation is, of course, a feature and not a bug: the mother of us all is going to look different to different people, because we need her in different ways.
One image that stays with me was not actually intended as an image of Mary at all—but if it were, it would be my favorite. Rather than post it, I’m going to link to it, because it is a disturbing image at first, and may not be suitable for children or the easily distressed:
A Japanese woman tenderly bathes her daughter, who was deformed in utero by mercury poisoning. Look at the face of the mother. As a mother myself, and as a daughter, and as a helpless, contorted child of Eve, this image says so much about Mother Mary—how we need her, and how she treats us.
Images like this can sometimes be as enlightening as traditional religious imagery, at least for some people. Several commenters in my “Even More Faces” post made the point that the heartily despised new statue in the new L.A. cathedral doesn’t look like Mary, because it didn’t have the easily-identifiable signs of either humble virgin or exalted queen.
I wasn’t actually crazy about that particular statue in itself, although it seemed okay to me. What I liked about it was that it made me think about Mary in a slightly new way—a way which is often harder to access in more traditional imagery, which can be clouded in a haze of overly familiar symbology. It’s debatable whether or not that this unfamliarity made the image inappropriate as a feature in the sanctuary of the church—but I believe that, for private devotions, we can only benefit by looking for Mary everywhere in art, whether the artist had her in mind or not.
Just as Mary is larger and more profound than any one culture or century, she is larger than a single set of traditional religious symbols. Like any good mother, she is ready and eager to come to us through any means she can. We used to joke that my mother’s mother had a helicopter parked in her backyard. If anyone was sick or sad, lonely or in distress, she’d drop what she was doing, fire up the helicopter, and be at your side in no time.
I like to think that Mary is not too dainty to hop into a helicopter if we need her—or to hold us tenderly, seeing past our deformed souls and into the small part of us that is worthy of her care.