Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sight as Experience

The more Marian material we’re exposed to, the more I’m struck by the necessity of the visual in understanding Mary and her role in both the divine and terrestrial scheme of things. The incarnation, her containment of the uncontainable, absolutely needs to be viewed through an earthly medium, to make what can’t be comprehended comprehensible. Therefore it seems appropriate that throughout his homilies, Amadeus of Lausanne describes Mary through the mediums of art and music- the (subjectively, I suppose) highest forms of comprehensible man-made beauty. Amadeus breaks down Mary into comprehensible forms: she is described as a compilation of items and sensations that human beings can grasp, like jewels, vegetation, light and color. She becomes almost a-‘Pandora’s Box’, containing all the virtues and beauties of the world, instead of its evils. Amadeus’ graphic descriptions of common objects or sensations preserve Mary’s humanity and make her relatable.

We discussed in class on Monday how Amadeus chose to collect liturgical imagery, particularly from the Song of Songs, in order to produce an image of and open a dialogue with the Virgin Mary. Although most of the passages taken word for word from the Song of Songs are used to facilitate a dialogue between Mary and God (for example, Jesus’ words to his mother at her Assumption- You are all lovely, and there is no spot in you), Amadeus additionally makes use of images from the Song of Songs when describing the physical appearance of the Virgin, most strikingly in Homily II, which (at least for me) contains among the most powerful and provocative imagery that we’ve encountered thus far.

The majority of Homily II is spent enumerating the various physical perfections of the Virgin. Of particular interest to me were his descriptions of the color and decoration of her covering and crown. Each color represents a certain quality or virtue present in the Virgin, and which- in keeping with the tradition of the Virgin as a model for the Cistercians provided by Bernard, who we know influenced Amadeus’s writing- can be said to provide a kind of road map for Christians as a whole. His choice to specifically emphasize color and jewelry is taken directly from the Song of Songs, in which the Bride’s physical features are described in such terms:

            Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels,
Thy neck with chains of gold.
We will make thee borders of gold
With studs of silver.

His first, and possibly lengthiest, color analysis comes after the description of her ascension ‘in pure whiteness’. Amadeus goes on and on about the various interpretations of the color white: it is the ‘adornment of beauty and honor, of righteousness and holiness’; it represents innocence and purity, the brightness of eternal light, dawn rising, and the beauty of the moon. These are all tropes that we’ve seen before: innocent and pure because of her virginity, source of eternal light because of her role in salvation, dawn rising because of her role as the ‘New Eve’. He lists these off consecutively, as if trying to overload the reader/listener with as many images of Mary’s purity as possible; covering all ground, to ensure that at least one of them is going to stick.

[A side note: I found his lengthy and emphatic insistence on the value of the color white interesting. As Professor Fulton mentioned in class on Monday, members of the Cistercian order wore un-dyed white habits. At a few points in his explanation of white, he dropped a few lines that seemed to me a subtle plug for the Cistercian order. He writes at one point “They shall walk with me in white for they are worthy”, which seemed to me almost as direct as St. Bernard’s chastisement of ‘haughty virgins’. Thus, not only do they resemble the Virgin by their humility and virginity as St. Bernard wrote, but in their ‘righteous and holy’ appearance as well. I’m probably reading too much into this- but once I got started on Amadeus’ metaphors, it was hard to keep my imagination in check…]

More overwhelming and beautiful than his praise of her ascension in whiteness is his description of the ‘covering which she made for herself’ and her diadem. Her garments are with ‘every precious stone’ of all the primary colors. Just like in the analysis of ‘white’, the symbolism of each color of her garment is described by lists of tangible or recognizably earthly things or phenomena: green as an olive, laurel, or rainbow; red like King’s purple or dyed scarlet cloth; black like a still heaven at midnight. Thus Mary is a compilation of the earthly, the material. She is simultaneously both: earthly in that the colors she adorns herself with resemble scenes from nature or commonplace objects, and heavenly in that she inextricably unites all of them into one unit. 

Amadeus continues this pattern when he describes the beauty of Mary’s diadem:

‘The crown is red with roses, white with lilies, pale with violets, green with laurels, heavy with palms, rich in oil, filled with every fruit, packed with every sweetness.’

Once again, he mixes the visual sensation of color with recognizable and traditionally Marian items, such as flowers, fruits, and oils. We can see Mary and her heavenly crown in the things around us and become as intimately familiar with Mary and her appearance as she is with the Lord.   

I was raised Jewish, so my main exposure to the Virgin Mary came from different devotional images I’ve seen. And while it’s practically impossible to walk through a museum without seeing- and being impressed by- a Madonna with Child or an Annunciation scene, the images that impressed upon me most, and which initially aroused my interest in Mary, were the monumental stained glass windows in Medieval Cathedrals. Reading Amadeus’ vivid description of the Virgin’s appearance and clothing, I felt almost as if I were standing in front of Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière, in Chartres, fully lit up by the sun. (I've attached an image of the window below), Many of the same elements that Amadeus writes about are found in the glass: the Virgin wears a diadem on her head, resplendent in jewel tones, and surrounded by angels. Light is the essential element and what lends the work its breathtaking beauty.  Much like Doubting Thomas, we have to see her majesty in order to truly experience the Virgin Mary.



  1. This is really interesting, and not something I had thought about before. As you point out, all the mentions of color are there, both in the writing of Amadeus and in the devotional art, but we don't even remark them--kind of like missing the individual trees to look at the forest. I would love to hear from someone more art-historian-y than I about medieval theories of color (if such things exist) and what each represented; it seems like just the sort of attribute that scholars at this time would have loved to interpret.

    There's also the idea that color is uniting (in that everyone recognizes it [well, except the colorblind! Apologies, guys]) but also subjective (because no one can really know if we all see colors the same way). Perhaps not what artists and theologians always have in mind when they pick certain attributes for representation, but also an intriguing possibility for representing physically a kind of paradox that embodies one of the mysteries of the world (and, by extension, of faith).

  2. Beautifully observed! Yes, to understand Mary we need the visual--precisely because she is the one who (according to the doctrine of the Incarnation) made God visible to humanity. This is a fundamental premise of Christian art, particularly as developed in the East in the course of the controversies over icons, but it plays out in the West as well: by becoming incarnate, God becomes visible, touchable, smellable, hearable, tasteable. It is also a fundamental premise of Christian scriptural interpretation that the material, creaturely things mentioned in scripture (like jewelry and colors) are visible signs of an invisible reality. These two premises come together, as you show, in describing Mary.

    By the by, I think that you are absolutely right about Amadeus' emphasis on Mary's "whiteness"! In fact, the Song says nothing about the bride's being "white," this is Amadeus' reading as far as I can tell.


  3. mcs, Just some scattered notes: I think you nailed it with: “The incarnation . . . needs to be viewed [or otherwise apprehended by the senses] through an earthly medium, to make what can’t be comprehended comprehensible.” This seems like a key to understanding much of Marian doctrine, expression, and devotional practice, and it shows us how these inform one another.

    Why, specifically, must the incarnation be *seen* (or heard, for that matter)? What makes it something that cannot be really understood by reason or even narrative transmission alone? Why, “like doubting Thomas,” must we see Mary to comprehend her? Why in these authors?

    There is a lot in your Mary/Pandora comparison. Mary would be an “anti-Pandora’s box” or a curative for all of the ills loosed on the world by another woman. Surely this has been used in the past to explain Mary.

    Also, I don’t think you were reading too much in to the statement of the Virgin’s affiliation with white-habited Cistercians. The way you present it seems convincing to me.

  4. As evocative imagery about Mary calls to my mind images of Mary, the image that is pervasive for me is not the beautiful, vivid stained glass depictions of Mary or all of the paintings I have seen, but rather Michelangelo’s Pieta in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Though perhaps it is because seeing it in person was a meaningful moment for me, and Michelangelo’s talent as a sculptor is beyond compare, I think there is more to it than that. The white marble, to me, conveys something that the colors do not. White is still often associate with all of the imagery that Amadeus uses as he extols the Virgin’s beauty—purity, innocence, light—and while I see all of these things, there is something more. I have been trying to figure out, and I think perhaps the white marble, at once cold and distant, and, under such a talented hand, soft and alive is, like the light of the sun, both immeasurably far, and also present and life-giving--just as Mary is the Mother of God, the container of the uncontainable, but also the Mother of the Church who champions people’s prayers to God. On this white canvas, the other colors can be painted to capture the glory, beauty, and importance of Mary.