Medieval Marys for the Modern Day

I've spent the past few years researching female medieval contemplatives, many of whom were really into embodied religious experiences. A few months into reading visions full of queens with dresses made of eyes and monks partying in the wound in Jesus's side, though, I realized that I needed to spend a lot more time studying 13th-15th century art and architecture if I were going to have any hope of understanding where these images came from and what they might mean.

(Note for the Protestants: the correct answer to 'Whence these images?' is not just 'THE BIBLE!' I realize this goes against everything you [and I] were taught growing up, but the medievals were mad into hermeneutics and non-literal interpretations of the Scriptures. Plus, the relative scarcity of 'literacy + texts to read' vs. 'buildings + flat surfaces on which to paint' means that even the most complicated theological concepts were regularly depicted in visual form. Images taken directly from Revelations still show up all over the place - like this cheery 15th c. painting I found in Venice's Gallerie dell’Accademia - but this is definitely a situation where Sola Scriptura ain't gonna cut it.)

skeletons fighting
(Yes, I took this photo primarily because it reminded me of the fighting skeletons scene from Army of Darkness. No, I am not sorry.)

The relevance of this all is that I've been researching the Meditationes Vitae Christi lately, which encourages its readers to place themselves at the scene of various moments in Christ's life and - at times - to imagine those moments from Mary's perspective. With that in mind, I've been going through the photos I've taken of 13th-15th c. depictions of Mary and Jesus, and I've been struck by how relatable most of them are.

Here, for instance, is a sculpture that made me burst out laughing the first time I saw it, because it looked so much like I felt after the birth of my own child:

tired Mary

"Holy crap, I did it: I made a human being in my own body, and now it is out here in the world! I'm so tired. Why can't I sleep? Is the tiny human sleeping? Too tired to move head. Can check with hand instead. Still here."

And so, on this seventh day of Christmas and last day of 2018, I give you not seven swans a-swimming but rather seven totally relatable (and sometimes hilarious) images of Mary with the Christ baby...and one bonus non-relatable Mary.

We'll start with Non-Relatable Mary, so you can see how strikingly different from it the other depictions are:

judging Mary

This Mary woke up before you did and ran five miles. Then she made rose-crowns and a nutritious lunch for all the girls in the neighborhood. And then she interceded for everyone. In the world. She isn't going to say anything - she hardly needs to - but she knows that you've been drinking caffeinated coffee even though you're breastfeeding and that you still buy regular peanut butter even though Sienna's mom asked everyone in daycare to please buy sunflower spread because Sienna is allergic. She's also perfectly aware that you think baby Jesus's torso is weirdly elongated, but that's because it's a mandala that represents Christ's all-encompassing salvific power, thank you very much. And did you need an alphabet scroll so little Cale can learn his letters? Because Jesus wrote the most adorable acknowledgement of his divinity just this morning that you're more than welcome to borrow.

(BTW, that elegantly extended middle finger is clearly aimed at the mandala haters who have enough time to write alarmed posts about the dangers of New Age fads but not enough time to research the imagery of their own religion.)

Relatable Mary #1: Babies are Boring

bored Mary 1
This Mary has done everything she can think of three times already this morning, and toddler Jesus is still going. She is looking you straight in the eye and thinking: "I already gave him his own live bird, and now he wants my rose, too. That freaking rose is the symbol of my perpetual virginity, but you just KNOW he's going to put it in his mouth. He puts everything in his mouth right now. I'm totally going to let him do it, too, because I am so tired and bored, and I just don't care anymore. If it keeps him quiet for five minutes, he can go ahead and gnaw on the sign of my everlasting purity."

Relatable Mary #2: Where The Heck Did This Baby Come From?
confused Mary

This Mary may have a gold crown and some stylish clothes, but the look on her face as she holds her child at arm's length and stares in his face in mild disbelief is timeless.

Relatable Mary #3: Jesus Wants NumNums NOW!


I apologize for this use of the word 'NumNums', but a friend's child insisted on calling her breasts that - loudly, and in public - for a very long time, and he was usually tugging at her shirt exactly like this when he was yelling for them.

Relatable Mary #4: Piggy-Toes!

Mary tickling Jesus

This Mary is a Very New Mom - note her shy smile and slightly stiff stance - but she's playing 'This Little Piggy Went to Market' like a champ, and baby Jesus is loving every minute of it.

Relatable Mary #5: Can I Please Have Just ONE MINUTE To Myself?

bored Mary 2
This Mary has fed and changed Jesus and made efficient use of all the swaddling material to hand, and now she is going to sit by herself to ponder things in her heart for one restful moment IF IT FREAKING KILLS HER. If the ox and the ass can't keep an eye on their Savior for five hot seconds, why are they in the stable in the first place? (Sorry, Mary, but that woman peeking through the screen behind you is totally about to come over to 'remind' you that swaddled babies need to sleep flat on their backs and not on their sides. Like you wouldn't have put Jesus on his back if there was an angel's sneeze of a chance that he would fall asleep like that.)

Relatable Mary #6: Don't You Wish Your Mama Were Hot Like Mine

Ok, so this Mary may be less relatable and more Kardashian, but check out that cat-eye and baby Jesus's fantastic afro! (I know that half of it is supposed to be his halo, but the visual effect remains.) Also, this is finally a Mary who knows how to hold a baby when it's nursing, even if she is sporting a jeweled crown and ermine as casual day-wear.

Relatable Mary #7: Cuddle Time with Books!

cuddlemonkey Jesus

I saved this one for last because it's probably my favorite. This Mary doesn't care that Jesus is probably topping 70 lbs - he's the cutest and smartest and sweetest baby in the whole world. And Jesus clearly thinks that Mary is the smartest and nicest and snuggliest mommy in the whole world. And now they're going to read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy all in one volume, start to finish, just like God intended.

*Endnote for the Nerdy:
I would, of course, provide detailed information about the provenance of each of these pieces of art, but I didn't get savvy to the fact that I needed to take photos not just of the piece but also of the identifying information placard for quite some time, so I'm just going to tell you where I found them.

  1. Skeletons: Gallerie dell'Academia, Venice
  2. Tired Mary: MET Cloisters, NYC
  3. Non-Relatable and Bored Mary: museum in Volterra, Italy whose name I did not think to record but could definitely find for you if we were there together
    4)Surprised Mary: MET Cloisters, NYC
  4. NumNums Mary: Scriptorium in Avranches, France (but part of a permanent collection from the Cluny, Paris)
  5. Piggy-Toes Mary: medieval collection at the MET, NYC
  6. Needs Time to Self Mary: the Heiliger Grab, Konstanz, Germany
  7. Kardashian Mary: MET Cloisters, NYC
  8. StoryTime Mary: medieval collection at the MET, NYC
Author image

Christina Van Dyke

scholar, mother, and proud owner of the largest couch in creation
  • here and there
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