Mary and the angels seem to have had a special relationship since the earliest Christian texts. Both are noted for their exemplary chastity; both are widely venerated for their intercessory abilities; both are models of the ideal servant of God. As early as the sixth-century Akathist hymn, Mary is known as the Queen of the Heavenly Hosts. The earliest apocryphal text we read this week, the Protoevangelion of James, also shows a profound connection between Mary and the angels. Angels, named or unnamed, show up every few paragraphs: they instruct Mary's parents, attend Mary during her childhood in the temple, and assist her before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.
Even at this early date of composition, this association is much more than a simple narrative device. But - in the immortal words of our professor - so what? Angels are awesome and venerable; Mary is awesome and venerable. Does it really make a difference that the two are so often associated?
Well, yes - in this case the total is greater than the sum of its (already great) parts.
It is certainly no idle association, in any case. As we saw this week, angels are everywhere in the Protoevangelion and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Mary and the angels had a close relationship even in canonical scripture. God delivered His commands to the Israelites from between the two golden cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant, one of the most important artefacts of the Old Testament (and one which was incidentally housed, like young Mary, in the Temple in Jerusalem). For early Christians, like those who might have read the Protoevangelion, Mary was the New Ark of the Covenant, the 'container' or 'focus' of God's earthly presence; being surrounded by angels would have thus been a natural result of this role. Even the New Testament contains important examples of this relationship. In both the Protoevangelion and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, angels play a central role up to and during the Nativity of Jesus: it is an angel who reveals the child's true parentage to Joseph, tells him to name the child Emmanuel, and warns him of the danger the child will face at the hands of Herod, and it is an angel (or numerous angels) that the shepherds see at Christ's birth and from whom they receive the good news. The most important angel episode in the New Testament, however, is perhaps that of the Annunciation, when Gabriel - one of the few named Biblical angels - delivers the good news of the Incarnation to Mary in person.
Medieval authors seem to never run out of things to say about this one miraculous meeting. It takes on further meaning and nuance as centuries pass, though certain themes remain the same. Theodore the Studite, an eighth-century Byzantine saint, says that Mary was the only human to ever see Gabriel's true form, thanks to her perfect purity. (Five hundred years later, Dante will say almost the same thing as he finally stands in Mary's presence before God.) Even Jacobus de Voragine devotes an entire chapter to this event on the Feast of the Annunciation, despite condensing it to little over a sentence in the selections we read this week. This is undoubtedly one of the most popular episodes of Marian interaction with angels, populating mosaics, icons, and illuminations for centuries afterwards.
The Annunciation's portrayal in art shows some of interesting implications for later understanding of this relationship. Byzantine churches were often decorated with scenes from the so-called Feast Cycle, including many events described in these apocryphal texts - the Nativity, for example, as well as Mary's Presentation to the Temple and the assumption of her body to Heaven at the Dormition. The location of these scenes could vary from church to church, but Annunciation scenes in particular were often used to decorate the spandrels of the apse, as in this example from the Cappella Palatina in Palermo:
|Source: Christopher Wood, "Sicily, Palermo, Capella [sic] Palatina, Apse." 2010, Digital Image. Available from: Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/australiansstudyingabroad/5138011394. |
Check out the full resolution version of this photo - a lot of details are hard to see at this size, including at least four Marys!
Above the central arch, Gabriel is on the left; Mary and the dove of the Holy Spirit are on the right. This scene was thus immortalized right above the altar where the Eucharist was celebrated during Mass. What happened at the Annunciation? Mary accepted God's plan, and the Word was made Flesh. What happens during the Eucharist? The Bread and Wine really become Christ's body (at least according to the doctrine of transubstantiation). Just as the angels of the Protoevangelion supported Mary's status as the only woman worthy to be the new Holy of Holies, the angelic salutation depicted here continuously realizes the miracle that takes place below the mosaic itself.
This reflects a deep text-image association, but not always according to strictly canonical versions of this event. In the Gospels, Luke gives us the most information about the Annunciation, but unlike this week's apocryphal readings, he never mentions what Mary was doing at the time. The Protoevangelion does. (Nor is this text-image relationship evident only in images of the Annunciation: above the smaller apse to the right of Mary, for example, is a depiction of the Nativity, but it's set in the cave.) The fact that Mary is shown in the middle of weaving the temple veil - the liminal boundary that separates God from the material world, just as she is the gate through which God enters it - adds another layer of Mariological meaning to these nearly-ubiquitous depictions. What's more, we can see in these depictions that the same phenomena continued to take place in the context of Marian devotion even with a great deal of spatial and temporal separation. Why was the association of Mary with angels so popular and so long-lived? What about this relationship appealed to such a wide audience? There's undoubtedly a great deal more evidence to consider for this question, but with so much material to choose from, we'll have to do plenty more research in order to explore it.
-- F. S.