As the beautiful painting above demonstrates, this subject of Catholic art, quite popular from the Medieval through the Early Modern period, transmits a potent visual catechism on the Christian teaching pertaining to Mercy. While devotion to the Blessed Virgin is of course spiritedly displayed in her loving protection spanning the faithful, there is much this image instructs us about the Church as a whole, and what it denotes to belong to it.
First of all, much is signified about the Church itself. Mary has long symbolized the Church as Mother of all believers: we were, after all, given to the Blessed Virgin as her children by the Lord Himself while He perished on the Cross. Under this consideration, the warm mantle Mary extends about her children is emblematic of the embrace the world-spanning Ecclesial body should exude throughout the globe and throughout time. Under the maternal embrace of Mary’s mantle, the faithful should encounter love and a spirit of adoption, no matter what physical building they enter across the planet.
Secondly, that Mary is much grander than most figures in these paintings, and the fact an infinite expanse cascades behind her cloak, evokes Mary as the great Queen of Heaven. As her celestial frame swathes all within her cape, from her position on high, she shields the weary believers from the slings and arrows of this life. Here, the Church Triumphant in Heaven is expressed, those who intercede even now for us in this age of pilgrimage. Indeed, it is telling that, in the picture above, the only creatures to match Mary in stature are two hulking Saints who flank the Blessed Virgin, reaching out to the weary in this vale of tears.
Finally, and most importantly, these representations of Our Holy Mother bespeak a copious wealth of insight into the meaning of membership in the Church. Notice: in all these Icons, whether adorned with Kings and Queens, Popes and Bishops, Monks and Nuns, or a whole host of laity, every soul present beneath the cloak of Mary, bends their knee. All, no matter their stature, huddle humbly like Children, snuggled close to one another and with the Virgin Mother herself. Perhaps no other painting conveys this sense better than this:
Beyond bending their knees, their faces incorporated collectively into one amalgamated mass, these great men, though they retain their headwear, are naked (or at least “lightly clothed” to the extreme) under the mantle of Mary. Indeed, they look cold somehow, the colors of the paint seemingly seconds away from shivering. The concept, of course, is this: though we may embody different roles and offices in this life (what the differing head coverings represent), underneath we are as naked and poor as the day we were born, and without the protection of Mary and the Church she signifies and exemplifies, we would die of exposure when turned out to the world.
It is this paradoxical holding of two extremes—the power of mere hats but the nakedness of the mere individuals who wear them—that addresses me so profoundly here in the middle of Lent.
Here we devote an entire month plus to fasting, almsgiving and prayer, and yet our daily lives--subsumed as they are in the hats we must wear--go on as usual. Jesus instructs us to fast for an interior reason, and not for the respect of others—to wash our face and anoint our head. I know people are fond of posting their Ashes on Social Media each Ash Wednesday, while others with equal gusto castigate those who do so, but as good intentioned as it is, the latter practice goes back to a much more basic Protestant objection to the ashes. I heard it plenty growing up—does not publically wearing ashes go against the grain of what Our Lord protested against when he admonished those who fast outwardly?
We must remember that the ceremony of ashes came about in cultures where nearly everyone was Catholic. You did not need to remind anyone you were fasting—the great majority of everyone you knew did the same. What the ashes reminded everyone of was something akin to this picture—everyone will be dust someday soon, from the lowest pauper to the highest prince.
Underneath the diadems and miters, we are all naked, we are all ash. If it was not for the Church, if it was not for the prayers of the Mother of God and the Saints, if it was not for Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and was resurrected so that all this could exist to shelter us, we would perish, and return to the dust from which we came.
In Lent, we learn to kneel, we learn that we are fundamentally naked, we learn that we are in this boat together, huddled children imploring our Mother to protect us from the relentless storm. We do this while we wear our various hats, realizing that what we wear is not who we fundamentally are, but who we have been asked to be at the good pleasure of Our Lord and his Mother, the Church.
But we are not only our nakedness—we are the children of this loving mother, who wraps us in Her mantle and protects us. But we can only fit under the mantle if we bend our knee, and while there is a vast amount of room under her cloak, we can only fit in next to her if we are willing to sidle up, side-by-side, with our brothers and sisters underneath.
Virgin of Mercy, pray for us this Lent!