Mary in medieval art: an expression of the Church's faith

Mary in medieval art: an expression of the Church's faith

Bishop Arthur Serratelli

In the early Middle Ages, artists would represent Mary in a way that many of us are unfamiliar with today. It was a tender representation of Mary and the Child, but with a distinct emphasis on theology. In France, Spain and Germany, from the 12th century until the Council of Trent, there were images of Mary called La Vierge Ouvrante.

La Vierge Ouvrante was a sculpture of the Blessed Mother that was more than just a statue.It was a piece of art. This statute of Mary would open up to reveal scenes from the history of salvation. One such statue, the 14th century Vierge Ouvrante from Cologne, represents the Virgin nursing the Christ Child holding a dove. When opened, the sculpture reveals scenes from Christ's infancy and the cross.


This type of Marian art articulates Mary's role in the economy of salvation. 'She was chosen to be the one from whom salvation in the very midst of the human race would be born for us, she was created by Christ before Christ was created in her' (St Augustine, Sermons).

As Theotokos, Mary gave flesh and blood to the Second Person of the Trinity. From her, the only-begotten Son of the Father assumed our human nature so that he could accom- plish our salvation by his life, death and resurrection.'In a unique way the face of the Son belongs to Mary. It was in her womb that Christ was formedÉ' (Pope John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 10).

From the lips of the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, Mary received her vocation as mother of Jesus. Because Mary said 'yes' to God when asked to bear his Son, God was able to use her as the Ark of the Covenant.She held within herself the very Presence of God. 'Being obedient, she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race' (St Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses). Mary reversed the sin of Eve and truly became 'the Mother of the living' (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 511).

The secret of Mary's life and dignity lies in the word she spoke to the angel. 'I am the handmaid of God.Be it done unto me according to thy word' (Lk 1:38).

This is the response each of us is called to make to God's plan for us. No angel visibly enters our life. Yet, the Lord has a plan for each of us. He calls each one of us by name. Our task is to learn how to listen, to perceive his call, to be courageous and, when all is said and done, to be found trustworthy servants who have used well the gifts given to us.

Today's world presents a serious challenge to being trustworthy servants of the Lord. Our culture proclaims that life is only worth living for its own sake. It encourages us not so much to give to others, but to take for ourselves everything we can get out of life.

Consumerism, selfishness and pleasure: this is the life that the world promotes. Today we need to return to the humble Virgin of Nazareth who opens us up, like those medieval statues of her, to God's plan for the world.

In Mary, we find the way to Christ, because we find the way to the obedience of faith. From the moment of the Annunciation to the Cross, Mary turned her whole life in the direction of the Eternal Son of God, who was her child. She remained united to her Son, 'unto the cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan É uniting herself with a maternal heart with His sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth. Finally, she was given by the same Christ Jesus dying on the cross as a mother to His disciple with these words: 'Woman, behold thy son' ' (Lumen Gentium, 58).


Like Mary, our Mother, we need to be Christ-centred. We need to recognise that our life with the talents we have, the family we share and even the sufferings we endure, is a gift of God. We need to gift all that we are and have, our very selves, back to God, saying, 'Be it done unto me according to thy Word.' For it is in the total gift of ourselves to God to the point of saying with Paul, 'It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me' (Gal 2:20) that God can use us, as he used Mary, to accomplish his saving work in our day.

Bishop Arthur Serratelli is the bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, USA, and is chairman of the American Bishops' Committee on Liturgy. The above article has been reprinted with the permission of 'The Beacon', the newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson in which Bishop Serratelli's article was first published.