At the beginning of our class on interpretations of the Virgin in the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Prof. Fulton Brown asked if we had finally arrived at "the Mary we've been waiting for," a mystical apparition who appears to the poor and humble in mysterious ways. I posit that the "popular" image of the Virgin, and in this case I mean popular image to describe the one often seen in contemporary culture, an image many of us had before this Fall, is drawn from these nineteenth century apparitions and their resulting dissemination: here, then, is the Mary we've been waiting for.
The question of "is this 'popular' religion" featured heavily in our earlier discussion, and, though I have no illusions of answering that question in its entirety here, I do think that there are things going on in these apparitions, and the responses to these apparitions, that mark a new emphasis within Marian devotion. This shift doesn't come out of nowhere: there are similarities in the accounts of the apparitions at Santa Gadea and Cubas. Here we encounter a mysterious figure witnessed by shepherds and other townsfolk; it is presented to us in a legal document. These fourteenth- and fifteenth-century apparitions borrowed much of their visual vocabulary from the liturgical and Scriptural sources upon which the Marian tradition is based. However, these public apparitions, in their public nature, are a shift from what we've seen before, and I believe we can see them as a bridge to the nineteenth-century apparitions in the Pyrenees and Iberia.
In the chapter from Ruth Harris's Lourdes, she approaches head-on this question of the "popularity" of the apparition at Lourdes. In reflecting on the vision's claim (via Bernadette) that "I am the Immaculate Conception," Harris attempts to tie the vision to both the older theological tradition and the more recent developments in Marian doctrine: "The words 'I am the Immaculate Conception' struck them as so monumental in significance that they were unwittingly heedless of the visionary's statements on other matters. In acting thus, they were neither willful nor consciously manipulative. Instead they filtered Bernadette's words through the sieve of their religious imagination, filled with the iconographic traditions of childhood teachings.... They chose to stay within the tradition they knew and venerated" (Harris, 82). Is this, then, the answer to our question regarding the popularity of the vision and how it fits with the tradition? Bernadette's vision does not have all of the usual scriptural iconography that we, as a class, have come to expect, but rather aspects of Marian devotion that seem a step or two removed. The Virgin appears as a young girl, dressed in the uniform of the local Children of Mary group. She appears to those praying the rosary and assumes the pose of the woman on the Miraculous Medal, another popular devotional object (Zimdars-Swartz, 55). She declares herself to be "The Immaculate Conception," a concept previously applied solely to Mary, but not one of the many names by which she was referred in the earlier tradition. The Marian vocabulary here is a sort of pidgin language: rather than running to the Psalms or language from the liturgy, the rosary, the miraculous medal, and a local church group provide Bernadette an iconography once removed from the tradition we've been studying. Given these departures, does Bernadette's vision only become "Our Lady of Lourdes," as Harris seems to argue, after the news is spread and the visions can be interpreted by those more steeped in Marian vocabulary?
According to L'ere Imperiale, a newspaper that covered the event (cited by Zimdars-Swartz in Encountering Mary) the massive crowds that gathered at the grotto on the last scheduled appearance had no problems labeling all of the characters in the encounter: "...for a rumor was circulating that Bernadette had predicted 'a revelation of the Virgin on that day....' Such was the conduct of the people... when Bernadette finally appeared and the cry was heard, 'There is the saint! There is the saint!'" (Zimdars-Swartz, 52). The spreading word about the apparition, through rumors and newspaper articles, seems to pin down the somewhat odd visions of Bernadette. The huge and immediate response to the event creates a new Marian iconography where the colors of the temple veil are replaced by white and blue (an image that stays with us to this day). A hagiography developed around Bernadette as well, as can be seen by the crowds calling her "the saint" and the stories of healings at the grotto (Zimdars-Swartz, 53).
Since word of the vision was not cloistered, not written by a religious and disseminated via ecclesiastical channels, one does get the sense that the ancient, Marian tradition is being referenced obliquely. The resulting surge in popularity of Our Lady of Lourdes and the pilgrimage site there helps explain why the Bernadette's vision of the Virgin, and the way that vision has been filtered and made sense of by her contemporaries, matches this image of the Virgin we've been waiting for. Notions of "popular religion" and the long, Marian tradition is obviously a huge topic and one that can't be treated nearly as fully as it deserves here. However, as our readings have taken us into the nineteenth-century and we see one of the world's most popular Marian shrines at its origin, we can begin to see the way interpretation of the Virgin has changed and how we came to understand her as so many of us did at the first meeting of the class.