Encountering the Blessed Virgin: Sacred Art Prompts Prayer
Blair Gordy Piras is a sacred artist from Louisiana. In 2017, she served as the first artist in residence at Franciscan University of Steubenville, her alma mater. Her art has been featured in exhibitions in the United States and Italy.
This month, Piras shared her perspective with the Register about why it is a privilege to portray Our Lady in her paintings.
“As an artist working for the Church today, I have had the privilege of depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary. I see each painting as an invitation to grow in a deeper relationship with Mary, to reflect on different historical moments in Mary’s life, and unpack the different titles and devotions we have to Our Lady,” Piras said.
She encourages the faithful to approach her art prayerfully, “to ponder a few of these images, examine the meaning behind them, and pray with each image, asking for Mary’s intercession. Artists of every age have sought to depict the profundity of the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and there is a wellspring of sacred art to turn to in prayer.”
“Mary stands as a guide for the Church on earth in pilgrimage to our heavenly home. May these images, and others, help us to contemplate the mysteries of the life and person of the Blessed Virgin Mary and aid us in asking for her intercession in our lives,” she added, going on to highlight three of her paintings, explaining the meaning behind each one.
Queen of Heaven was “inspired by Revelation 12; we see Mary radiant in heaven. She is ‘clothed with the sun’ (Revelation 12:1), wearing a mantle of deep blue, lined with gold silk; silk is a reflective material and reminds us of how Mary mirrors Jesus. Illustrative of the Scripture, the Blessed Mother is crowned with 12 stars, and the moon and the dragon are subdued beneath her feet. We see how Mary as mother takes part in the struggle against the powers of darkness. The work focuses on the Divine Motherhood of Mary, and we see beams of light radiating out from Christ within her womb.”
She continued, “Mary’s intercessory role for us is seen in the beams of light, representing grace, which cascade earthward over our Mother’s extended hand. She is both Mother of God and mother to all of us, interceding for us in heaven.”
Agnus Dei depicts Mary contemplating John the Baptist’s proclamation of Baby Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” Piras explained, “This painting was inspired by Renaissance images that depict John the Baptist recognizing Jesus as a toddler and alluding to Jesus’ future passion. We see a young John the Baptist, clothed in camel hair, holding a reed cross and a banner which reads, Ecce Agnus Dei (‘Behold the Lamb of God’), and looking up at and pointing to Jesus. Jesus sits upon his mother’s lap and meets the viewer’s gaze. In one hand, he holds a split pomegranate, which symbolizes his future passion, and extends a blessing with his other.”
“The garland that frames the figures includes lemons and oranges, symbolizing Mary’s purity, as well as apples to represent Mary as the New Eve,” she continued. “The draped garland forms an ‘M,’ and the intersection of the garland and the pointed archway behind it together form an ‘A.’ These two letters spell the A and M of Ave Maria. Mary’s heart is central in the composition, revealing the focus of the work: Mary pondering the Paschal Mystery in her heart.”
Sorrowful Mother, she said, “was an image I felt inspired to paint for its own sake. It was during a time of personal darkness that I desired to depict Our Lady of Sorrows; it was an image I myself needed to reflect on. I used high contrast and a dark setting to represent the darkness of suffering. The effect of the background seems as if smudged with fingerprints for those reaching out to God in their sorrow. Mary shows us the vulnerability of sharing suffering as she draws back her mantle to reveal her heart, pierced by seven swords and dripping with blood.”
“This visual recalls the prophecy of Simeon at the presentation of Jesus, ‘and a sword will pierce through your own soul also, that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed’ (Luke 2:35),” she added. “In a way, this theme is a portrait of empathy: Mary took on the sufferings of Christ, and through her immense empathy, she felt them as her own. Often, we feel alone in our suffering; we hide our pain and may be ashamed to share our woundedness with others, for fear of not being fully seen and loved in our vulnerable state. Having suffered deeply herself, Mary is empathetic to our sufferings. We are safe in her gaze.”
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