The image of Mary is central to Contemporary Christian art. She is the womb and beginning of the Christian church in Sacred Art . She houses the full revelation and miraculous mysteries brought forth in Jesus Christ. Here are four examples to consider for May; the month named for Mary, icons by Mary Jane Miller.
Mary of Three Hands
In eighth-century Syria when the iconoclast heresy was raging. St. John Damascene, a court official of the caliphate of Damascus, wrote three treatises against the said heresy, and in so doing incurred the wrath of the iconoclast emperor, Leo the Isaurian. The emperor sent a letter to the caliph along with a forged document, accusing St. John of plotting against the caliph. The caliph had his right hand cut off St. John Damascus’s right hand as a punishment for his slanderous words. St. John took his severed hand and, with fervent prayer before the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, begged her for healing. His prayer was heard, and his hand was miraculously reattached, with only a fine red line remaining to attest to the miracle. In gratitude for this miracle, a silver image of the severed hand was affixed to the icon and named, “Of Three Hands”.
In this image, the month named for Mary reminds me we all need help and all things are possible if we pray. Why would Mary have three hands? Why the extra one? Meditation on the miraculous power of Mary. The capacity for icons to depict what is spiritually transformative for the viewer is central to their value.
Mary’s Prayer Shawl
Within the Hebrew tradition of the distinguished wealthy rabbis and scholars, only grown men wore prayer shawls. It was sometimes called a “faith” in Hebrew, which means “little tent.” What transforms a piece of cloth into a talith are the tzitzit, the fringes on its four corners. The Torah instructs the rabbis and scholars to wear these fringes on the corners of their garments as a way of remembering and doing all God’s commandments. The use of the prayer shawl in this icon is named for Mary and is quite intentional.
Mary has extended her Talith and enfolded therein is our Lord Jesus Christ. The prayer shawl reminds us she also does what God commands of her. I want to bring attention to Mary being a woman who in this case stands as a priest, scholar, and rabbi offering us her son, the Teacher. He sits in the little tent, to preach to us. The benediction which is normally said before putting on any prayer shawl is: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to wrap ourselves in the fringed garment.” I have named for Mary a new prayer with new meaning and prophetic quality. A woman has fulfilled the prophecy in this small bit of cloth of great significance.
Named for Mary is the Eucharist
Mary extends one hand to us as an invitation and with the other, she offers the Eucharistic host and chalice. She is the mother of contemplation and interiorly houses divine life and understanding of Christ. Christ is and has always been an offering to us named for Mary. Mary is the mother and the house where God resides. The liturgy of the Eucharist is the center of Christian life and the body of Mary is a perfect metaphor for housing that center.
She is the metaphysical church experienced through stillness and meditation. Christians find peace and come to rest in her and the liturgy. She is saying, “Take this in remembrance of me and feed on it in your heart”. In her, we take refuge through what she offers, and with hope we find the wisdom of Christ.
Here, God’s voice is located and named for Mary through the Eucharist to feed on it through our daily life and practice. She is blue, the color of the cosmos. The Eucharist she offers is beyond our earthly understanding and cannot be contained except through prayer and contemplation.
Virgin of Guadalupe
Living in Mexico, I am often asked why I never attempted to paint the Virgin of Guadalupe; I always said she is not an Icon but an apparition and the image is not of the Byzantine style. The Virgin of Guadalupe is named after Mary and portrayed in her apparition as a mother. Logically, her image is included in our collection named for Mary.
Guadalupe is the patron saint of the Americas. The official Catholic accounts state that on the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego saw an apparition of a young girl at the Hill of Tepeyac, near Mexico City. Speaking to him in Nahuatl, the girl asked him to build a church on that site in her honor; Juan Diego recognized the girl as the Virgin named Mary, even though she wore a black bow beneath her breast, a symbol worn by Aztec women who were pregnant.
Fray Juan Diego told his story to the Spanish Archbishop of Mexico City, who instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill and ask the “lady” for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. The first sign was the Virgin healing Juan’s uncle. The second was his peasant cloak or tilma extended holding Castilian roses he had collected growing on the barren hilltop. These roses are not native to Mexico.