Saturday, October 3, 2015

Mary, Queen of the Angels

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,
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.


  1. I've always found the role of the angels fascinating, in no small part because they're all over the place in early and medieval thought, yet rarely discussed in detail by academic commentators. One answer to the question you pose of why angels are so often associated with Mary is, I think, hinted at by an earlier portion of your post. You note the notion of Dante and Theodore that Mary saw Gabriel in his true form, thanks to her purity, and I wonder if we might see this as reflective of Mary's status as one who has managed to transcend the angelic hierarchy to unite with God at the highest possible level (something which we also see in Dante). Angels are, by their nature, "higher" than humanity on the scale of things, and it seems in many medieval accounts that our interactions with them are shaped by the fact that we operate on a lower level of being than them. How can we even perceive that which is so far beyond us? However, the Incarnation indicates an ultimately more exalted place for humanity (cf. 1 Cor 6:3 "Know ye not that we shall judge angels?"), and Mary represents the pinnacle of human perfection. Thus, Mary can see Gabriel as he truly is precisely because she has surpassed him, reached that higher, more intimate level with God that all of us ultimately aim towards through Christ.

  2. Yes! Why is it that Mary is so often and so closely associated with angels? I would follow on dyingst's suggestion to think more about the way in which Mary is so often said to have been exalted *above* the angels. No angel ever gave birth to God! Lots to think about here with what pseudo-Dionysius says about angels, too. RLFB

  3. Drawing on the comments of dyingst and RLBF, I am curious about the relationship between Mary and the angels. If she has become the example of the highest human who is higher than the angels, I’m still not necessarily convinced that we have a good reason as to why they show up so much in these texts. I guess my line of thinking would be that if it were the authors’ intention to solely emphasize Mary’s status as perfect human (or something like that) and that she has a status higher than the angels, why is it that she is still depicting on relying on them? The most obvious example would be the Annunciation. Why is it that Mary would need to have any sort of an interaction with an angel to know what was happening? What I am wondering if is there is something to be spoken for Mary’s relationship with angels if she has become closer to God already by her function as the bearer of God. If this class system in which angels are on a lower plane than Mary is as big of a theological feature as it seems to be, I am wondering why Mary’s interactions with angels have to be so excessive.


    1. I don't think it's so much that Mary relies on the angels; rather, she commands them, due to her special place in the hierarchy of creation (whether she is aware of that place or not).

      Angels are beings of pure reason. They have free will [1] but no base passions to interfere with the pursuit of virtue. [2] Before Mary, angels were the closest beings in creation to God: humans only ever encountered the weakest of them (at least in a Dionysian understanding of the angelic hierarchy), presumably because the highest orders - cherubim, seraphim, and ophanim or thrones - are all too busy experiencing the beatific vision of God to be distracted by earthly affairs. [3] Most medieval writers seem to think they were created before the world was made or at the same time, so they would naturally occupy the 'highest spot' before humanity came around, and again after the Fall.

      As far as Mary's "need" for angels is concerned, I think this simply proceeds from the fact that no matter how perfect, she is still a human being. Presumably she had a guardian angel; when she died, although she was personally escorted to heaven by Christ, she was also helped along by angels, just like everyone else. More associations pop up when we look at typological interpretations of Mary: for example, if Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, and the old Ark of the Covenant was adorned with two golden cherubim, what is more natural than that she should be always accompanied by angels? Their frequent occurrence in Christian literature, though, can be explained in a similar vein to that of Mary's frequent appearances. Mary's proximity to God makes her a model for everyone else: she is the absolute best a human being can ever aspire to be, so if you try to imitate her and still fall short of the mark, there's a good chance you still ended up being pretty saintly. Angels work the same way. Monks, especially, are thought of and encouraged to be like angels: they reject or are immune to the passions of the flesh, they sing unceasingly the praises of God, and they help other humans on their way towards heaven. If imitating the Mother of God was too much of a challenge, maybe imitating the bodiless multitude of God's immortal, invisible servants might be more manageable (at least for an aspiring medieval Christian).
      [1] At least presumably - Germanos and Andrew of Crete seem to imply Gabriel *could* have disobeyed God's order to announce the Incarnation to Mary, even if he didn't.

      [2] I mean, generally - Lucifer clearly contradicts this trend, as well as the grigori/nephilim from the Enochian tradition, but I'm not sure exactly how closely Christians associate/d these groups with angels like Michael and Gabriel.

      [3] When Faust asks Mephistopheles how he got out of Hell, Mephistopheles replies: "Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of not tormented with ten thousand hells in being deprived in everlasting bliss?" (Doctor Faustus, 3.76-80)