Thursday, October 29, 2015

Mater Dolorosa - Oct. 29

Our readings and discussion this past class focused on Mary’s suffering at the cross as seen through medieval writers. These readings are not all chronologically later in history than the previous readings we have read, instead their relationship to each other is their understanding of Mary, particularly Mary’s suffering. Anselm of Canterbury discusses the importance of Mary as someone one can meditate on to understand God, and her importance as a redeemer, but not a redeemer in quite the same way as our earlier readings discussed.  The Stabat Mater hymn exhorts the singers to feel the passion of Mary at the crucifixion. The Meditation on the Lamentation of the Blessed Virgin by “Bernard”, and “The Passion of the Lord Jesus” by John of Caulibus are particularly interesting in their use of imagery, and vision in particular on conceptualizing the crucifixion. Although some these readings contemplate Mary broadly, the focus is on the crucifixion for the majority. They are a step away from our discussions of the births of Mary and Christ, and the holy bliss of those moments. These readings take a significant step towards an empathic understanding of Mary and Christ through observing her suffering.
Anselm of Canterbury was the earliest text we read for this discussion. Anselm was first abbot at Bec in France, before eventually becoming the archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of William II after the Norman conquest of Britain.  In his prayer to Mary, Anselm frequently contemplates Mary’s importance as the mother of God:

“All nature is created by God and God is born of Mary.
God who made all things made himself of Mary”[1]


            “Lord, son of my lady,
Lady, mother of my Lord”[2]

Mary’s importance as the birth giver of God relates to her redeemer quality that in previous readings was shown through Mary-Eve parallels, but in Anselm’s writing is lacking. Mary is still shown as a redeemer, as the woman who “re-established”, and “brought forth him by whom all are saved”, but I was struck that Eve was not mentioned, as this appeared so common among our previous readings.[3] The connections that Anselm makes are between Mary and God, instead of Mary and Eve. This emphasizes through Mary we understand God rather than that we understand our redemption through a Mary-Eve relationship. At the end of his prayer, Anselm wishes that he might eternally sing “Blessed be the Lord, for ever. Amen.” However, Anselm does this through his venerating, loving, and serving “both” Mary and God. [4]
Stabat Mater is a 13th century Latin hum meaning “the Mother is standing” referring to Mary standing at the cross at Christ’s crucifixion. This hymn is quite clear in its emotional plea to feel the transcendent passion of Mary:

“Fairest maid of all creation,
Queen of hope and consolation.
Let me feel your grief sublime”
            “Mary, fount of love’s devotion
            Let me share with true emotion
            All the sorrow you endured”

These stanzas, among others in the hymn present Mary as a kind of conduit whereby the singer contemplates the suffering of Christ. Mary presents a person who the singer and listener can emulate. Maybe Mary is a better person through whom to imagine the crucifixion than Christ, as it seems you might be guilty of hubris in saying that one could imagine God’s suffering, but then again part of what is special about Christ is his human nature.
            Both the Meditation on the Lamentation of the Blessed Virgin by “Bernard” – generally believed not to be Bernard of Clairvaux–, and “The Passion of the Lord Jesus” by John of Caulibus give extended imagined scenes at the cross from varied perspectives. The details are not so much false as elaborations of what could have been. In terms of perspective, both authors write in a way that the reader will at times be looking at the Virgin Mary, and other times be looking through her eyes. In John of Caulibus the author invites the reader to meditate on Mary’s suffering through a visual way: “Do you see how many times she died this day?”[5] The reader cannot literally see the crucifixion, but the imaginative exercise is a tool that the author uses as an attempt to get the reader to do more than just read over the words. “Bernard” at times takes this visual experience further by writing from the perspective of Mary so that the reader is seeing with her eyes:

“I looked at him, struck by fists, beaten with blows, crowned with thorns, spat upon and made the reproach of men, all my innards were stirred, my spirit failed, and there was in me neither sense, nor voice, nor sound. With me there were my sisters and many other women, weeping over him as though their only child.”[6]

The use of Mary in this way emphasizes her as both a role model, but also as a prism in which to view God. She is a role model in her devotion to Christ, but she is not the only one standing by God at the crucifixion. However, she is the only one who can view God perfectly. In a previous reading in this course by the real Bernard of Clairvaux we noticed how it is only Mary who can see God clearly. The faux “Bernard” and John of Caulibus appear to treat Mary in this context by viewing the crucifixion from the Virgin’s perspective rather than one of Disciples of Christ who although venerable, do not possess the same clear vision of God as Mary does. All of these reading, not just "Bernard" and John of Caulibus, showed a side of Mary capable of great suffering in contrast to her holiness, perfect, humbleness, etc. This gave the impression of a person much more relatable to the reader as although one can attempt to imitate Mary's perfection, you cannot hope to attain it, however one can certainly empathize with another's suffering. 


[1] Anselm of Canterbury, The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm, New York: Penguin Books, 1973, 120.
[2] Anselm of Canterbury, 124.
[3] Anselm of Canterbury, 121.
[4] Anselm of Canterbury, 126.
[5] John of Caulibus, Meditations on the Life of Christ, Asheville: Pegasus Press, 1999, 258.
[6] “Bernard,Texts of the Passion: Latin Devotional Literature and Medieval Society, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996, 169.


  1. Very nice summary of the main images and themes from each of our four texts. Could you build further on your observation at the end, about how these images were intended to work? You suggest: "This gave the impression of a person much more relatable to the reader as although one can attempt to imitate Mary's perfection, you cannot hope to attain it, however one can certainly empathize with another's suffering." But as we talked about in class, the way in which we, modern viewers, might expect to relate to Mary as a fellow human being is not necessarily the same way in which medieval viewers were taught to see her. Could you talk about some of these differences, to help us see what the medieval texts are doing that we might not otherwise expect? RLFB

  2. I think the difference you point out between Anselm's Mary-God language and the Mary-Eve language of our other sources is interesting and deserving of further examination. Is the story of our redemption just not as important to Anselm (at least here)? Is he doing a fundamentally different sort of thing?

    I'd suggest that the vision language you also highlight points to this. Anselm and the other authors want us to see. You note that this can't be a literal seeing, but I wonder if that's the case. Medievals had a different notion of vision and seeing than we do, and it's possible that these visions they describe precisely are a literal sort of seeing, with the eyes of the mind rather than of the body.