Thousands of icons, paintings, sculptures and statues have attempted to represent Mary during the past two millennia. What nearly all of these images have in common — in spite of the great diversity of styles reflecting so many different epochs and religious sensibilities — is a profound sense of reverence for this woman and for her unique role in the history of our salvation.
But most images of Mary are not realistic. This does not mean that these Marian images are not photographic likenesses, which of course they’re not. By “realistic,” I mean they rarely depict Mary in ways that reveal the depth of her humanity. Or, as one artist says, “the extraordinary in the ordinary.”
Mary was a woman who suffered. She was suspected of adultery and forced to give birth in a stable far from her home. Her infant child’s life was threatened by an evil king, forcing her family into exile, and even after a somewhat stable childhood, her son gave up his foster father’s business (carpentry) to assume the life of an itinerant preacher and healer. He became deeply controversial, although not in a typical socio-political way, and after only three years in the public’s eye, he was arrested, tortured and sentenced to a most cruel form of capital punishment.
Throughout all of this, his mother suffered in silence. Never giving up on her son, Mary stood with him at the foot of the cross. And when his body was finally released in preparation for burial, we can imagine this sorrowing mother holding him in her arms for the last time, her heart overflowing with grief, compassion and forgiveness for those who had wronged her son so grievously.
From the earliest days of Christian history, Jesus’ gift of His mother to John, the disciple whom he loved (cf. Jn 19:25–27), has been interpreted as a gift to all who follow Jesus. For most of us, the idea that Mary is our mother is consoling. In Church teaching, it means that we have a powerful advocate especially in time of trouble. Among Mary’s many titles we can find hope, comfort, guidance, healing — and anything else we long for when we are lost, lonely or in need of God’s mercy.
At the same time, for those of us who grew up in conflict with our mothers, the idea of Mary as the perfect embodiment of motherhood can be difficult. It can even create psychological distance between Mary and us. This makes the challenge of visualizing Mary even more difficult.
Of course, no earthly mothers are perfect (just as all fathers leave something to be desired). Christian spirituality calls us to look beyond the human frailty and imperfection of these parental images to the fullest possible ideal. God is not a father in the human sense. God takes the idea of fatherhood to its limits and transforms it.
The same is true of Mary. Although she was fully human, she was not limited the way other mothers are. Free from the burden of sin, Mary is able to give herself completely to her children (us) without losing any of her individuality or independence. She remains a strong woman who knows who she is, what she believes, and what she is called to do.
A “realistic” image of Mary would reveal her strength, her humility, her capacity for suffering with others, her closeness to us and her eagerness to support, rather than interfere with, each of her children. Images of Mary that reflect her queenly virtues, her purity, her place of honor among all the angels and saints in heaven, and her perfect motherhood all have their place in Christian iconography. They are invaluable resources for appreciating the breadth and depth of Marian devotion.
But in the brokenness of today’s world, we need more images of Mary that reveal her humanity and her closeness to us. These should in no way contradict what we believe about the Mother of God. On the contrary, more “realistic” images can help us to grow in our understanding of Mary’s unique role in the history of our salvation and in our own personal histories.
Mary, our mother, this Holy Week we come to you in the hope that you will comfort, inspire and assist us in our daily struggles to be authentic women and men made in God’s image. Help us to overcome our brokenness and to see in you the very best that we can be.