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§ 81. Pictures of the Virgin Mary.


De Rossi: Imagines selectae Deiparae Virginis (Rome, 1863); Marriott: Catacombs (Lond. 1870, pp. 1–63); Martigny: Dict. sub "Vierge;" KRAUS: Die christl. Kunst (Leipz. 1873, p. 105); Northcote and Brownlow: Roma Sotter. (2nd ed. Lond. 1879, Pt. II. p. 133 sqq.); Withrow: Catacombs (N.Y. 1874, p. 30, 5 sqq.); Schultze: Die Marienbilder der altchristl. Kunst, and Die Katacomben (Leipz. 1882, p. 150 sqq.); Von Lehner: Die Marienverehrung in den 3 ersten Jahrh. (Stuttgart, 1881, p. 282 sqq.).


It was formerly supposed that no picture of the Virgin existed before the Council of Ephesus (431), which condemned Nestorius and sanctioned the theotokos, thereby giving solemn sanction and a strong impetus to the cultus of Mary. But several pictures are now traced, with a high degree of probability, to the third, if not the second century. From the first five centuries nearly fifty representations of Mary have so far been brought to the notice of scholars, most of them in connection with the infant Saviour.

The oldest is a fragmentary wall-picture in the cemetery of Priscilla: it presents Mary wearing a tunic and cloak, in sitting posture, and holding at her breast the child, who turns his face round to the beholder. Near her stands a young and beardless man (probably Joseph) clothed in the pallium, holding a book-roll in one hand, pointing to the star above with the other, and looking upon the mother and child with the expression of joy; between and above the figures is the star of Bethlehem; the whole represents the happiness of a family without the supernatural adornments of dogmatic reflection.513513    See the picture in De Rossi, Plate iv., Northcote and Brownlow, Plate xx (II. 140), and in Schultze, Katak., p. 151. De Rossi (" Bulletino, " 1865, 23, as quoted by N. and B.) declares it either coëval with the first Christian art, or little removed from it, either of the age of the Flavii or of Trajan and Hadrian, or at the very latest, of the first Antonines. "On the roof of this tomb there was figured in fine stucco the Good Shepherd between two sheep, and some other subject, now nearly defaced." De Rossi supports his view of the high antiquity of this Madonna by the superior, almost classical style of art, and by the fact that the catacomb of Priscilla, the mother of Pudens, is one of the oldest. But J. H. Parker, an experienced antiquary, assigns this picture to a.d. 523. The young man is, according to De Rossi, Isaiah or some other prophet; but Marriott and Schultze refer him to Joseph, which is more probable, although the later tradition of the Greek church derived from the Apocryphal Gospels and strengthened by the idea of the perpetual virginity, represents him as an old man with several children from a previous marriage (the brethren of Jesus, changed into cousins by Jerome and the Latin church). Northcote and Brownlow (II. 141) remark: "St. Joseph certainly appears in some of the sarcophagi; and in the most ancient of them as a young and beardless man, generally clad in a tunic. In the mosaics of St. Mary Major’s, which are of the fifth century, and in which he appears four or five times, he is shown of nature age, if not old; and from that time forward this became the more common mode of representing him."13 In the same cemetery of Priscilla there are other frescos, representing (according to De Rossi and Garrucci) the annunciation by the angel, the adoration of the Magi, and the finding of the Lord in the temple. The adoration of the Magi (two or four, afterwards three) is a favorite part of the pictures of the holy family. In the oldest picture of that kind in the cemetery of SS. Peter and Marcellinus, Mary sits on a chair, holding the babe in her lap, and receiving the homage of two Magi, one on each side, presenting their gifts on a plate.514514    See Plate xx. in N. and B. II 140. Schultze (p. 153) traces this picture to the beginning of the third century.14 In later pictures the manger, the ox and the ass, and the miraculous star are added to the scene.

The frequent pictures of a lady in praying attitude, with uplifted or outstretched arms (Orans or Orante), especially when found in company with the Good Shepherd, are explained by Roman Catholic archaeologists to mean the church or the blessed Virgin, or both combined, praying for sinners.515515    According to the usual Roman Catholic interpretation of the apocalyptic vision of the woman clothed with the sun, and bringing forth a man-child (12:1, 5). Cardinal Newman reasons inconclusively in a letter to Dr. Pusey on his Eirenicon (p. 62): "I do not deny that, under the image of the woman, the church is signified; but ... the holy apostle would not have spoken of the church under this particular image unless there had existed a blessed Virgin Mary, who was exalted on high, and the object of veneration of all the faithful." When accompanied by the Good Shepherd the Orans is supposed by Northcote and Brownlow (II. 137) to represent Mar y a., ; the new Eve, as the Shepherd is the new Adam. It must be admitted that the parallel between Mary and Eve is as old as Irenaeus, and contains the fruitful germ of Mariolatry, but in those pictures no such contrast is presented.15 But figures of praying men as well as women are abundant in the catacombs, and often represent the person buried in the adjacent tomb, whose names are sometimes given. No Ora pro nobis, no Ave Maria, no Theotokos or Deipara appears there. The pictures of the Orans are like those of other women, and show no traces of Mariolatry. Nearly all the representations in the catacombs keep within the limits of the gospel history. But after the fourth century, and in the degeneracy of art, Mary was pictured in elaborate mosaics, and on gilded glasses, as the crowned queen of heaven, seated on a throne, in bejewelled purple robes, and with a nimbus of glory, worshipped by angels and saints.

The noblest pictures of Mary, in ancient and modern times, endeavor to set forth that peculiar union of virgin purity and motherly tenderness which distinguish "the Wedded Maid and Virgin Mother" from ordinary women, and exert such a powerful charm upon the imagination and feelings of Christendom. No excesses of Mariolatry, sinful as they are, should blind us to the restraining and elevating effect of contemplating, with devout reverence,


"The ideal of all womanhood,

So mild, so merciful, so strong, so good,

So patient, peaceful, loyal, loving, pure."



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