This is a synopsis of an hour-long visual presentation for the 2nd Sunday in Advent. Using paintings from the great masters, Rudolf Steiner’s motifs and my interpretations, I explore this intriguing theme – the complementary natures of the two portrayals of Mary, wisdom in one, innocence in the other, through colour, gesture and motif.
Almost every Advent and Christmastide for the past 25 years, I spend time working with the Mary of the Gospels. I contemplate artworks in painting, text, verse and music – and there are hundreds, maybe thousands of different ways she is portrayed – and try to live into the mystery and enchantment that surrounds her, still, over 2000 years since her brief but illuminating moment in our cultural history. I read a little, many times over, returning to many of the same texts year after year. I ponder the words in my heart. And then I try to paint or draw something out of this experience.
It is like an ongoing research project.
Although my chosen theme is Mary, it is impossible, of course, to speak of Mary without the Christ child. They are like two parts of an image of wholeness, a gesture I have drawn on when painting them together. But it is she who holds my attention: her gesture, her soul mood, her grace and how she responds to the momentous event that she finds herself central to, and where her life path takes her.
Yet there are two different Marys described in the Gospels, at the beginning of the Matthews and Luke Gospels, two different narratives. Historians and theologians usually put this down to different perspectives from different writers on the same, single event. It is a rare person who questions this and looks deeper to try to unravel the mystery. Some theologians have tried; Rudolf Steiner provides spiritual insights on the matter, which you can research for yourself. Try starting here.
The artists, the great masters, who seem most often to understand the strange truth in their souls: that there were two Madonnas (and the word ‘Madonna’ often refers to both mother and child). And through portrayals of them through the centuries since the earliest images, we can see that the Marys have also changed in their meaning for us since she was first in the world. Mary herself has been on a journey over the ages.
The image of Mary lives and has lived in the hearts of many people, holding a venerated place in some Christian traditions, such as the Orthodox Church and the cult of the Virgin in western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. She is an image that seems to inspire, a mystery of her own alongside the mystery of the Christ figure.
And yet, as the poet Novalis says, not one person can fully reveal this mystery of her as is held in our own souls. And this is perhaps the essence of Mary: she is a soul picture, one most readily revealed through the two-dimensional surface of painting, a medium which comes closest to disclosing the hidden life of the soul, not just the human soul but the World or Universal soul. In the Madonna motif, something of the spiritual reality of pure love, the deepest and most pure feeling that the human heart can hold, is expressed.
Below I look at some of the definitive moods and gestures that have best expressed this profound love.
Mary as Theotokos
The earliest pictures of Mary appear in the Byzantine era in what’s now called the Orthodox church, often showing Mary often enthroned with the Christ child either standing in front of her or sitting in her lap, gazing out. Such representations of the Virgin and Child stress the kingly nature of both Mary and the Child, shown not as a helpless baby but fully conscious being blessing all people. And here, Mary is Theotokos, mother of God, not the young virgin of later times.
Most important in these early ikons is the gesture. There are two predominant styles in the Orthodox church: the Hodegetria, the one who shows the way, and the Eleousa gesture of tenderness or loving-kindness. In the former, we follow the line of Mary’s hand as she points to Him as The Way and as the one she loves as he raises his hand in blessing. In the latter, the Child and mother embrace each other, cheek to cheek, as if they will never let each other go. Such intensity and immediacy of love! Note the Child’s arm around her neck with his hand against her cheek, yet the sombre eyes of Mary, as though she is burdened already, perhaps, by foreknowledge.
You can also find these two archetypal gestures in the medieval art of the Western church but in western medieval art, the styles are usually more loosely interpreted.
By the early Renaissance, the pure gold spiritual backgrounds of the ikons begins to give way to the ensouled blue of the earthly world. The Madonna is very much in the earthly world now, but the kingly gesture of the Hodegetria and the loving tenderness of the Eleousa can be still seen in many portrayals, such as in these two contrasting paintings by Botticelli. On the left, Mary is being crowned as the Queen of Heaven, mother of wisdom and the Child has his hand on the holy book, though he looks tenderly at his mother. On the right, the loving tenderness is more direct, the two absorbed in their won world, as only a mother and child can be, with the young John the Baptist looking on, and the book is not open,
Also at this time, we see the halos, those symbols of the pure light of the spirit, and the gold backgrounds of medieval images begin to disappear, as Christians relationship to the soul/spiritual world changes, with more focus on the ensouled qualities of the Madonna rather than her spiritual and the artists reflect this. Some artists find other means to depict the spiritual significance of the Mother and Child. Sometimes you now see the light embodied in the Child himself, as in the famous Raphael Sistine Madonna or in the dramatic Adoration of the Shepherds by the master of chiaroscuro, Rembrandt.
The mystery of the two Marys
Though this is a really the briefest glance, we see at least two distinctly differing representations of Mary through art history. There is the Queen of Heaven seated on her throne, the vessel of spiritual wisdom, inheritor of the seed of King Solomon, son of the messianic line of David. This is the Mary of Matthew, visited by the wise magi following the star of wisdom, fleeing the rage of the murderous King Herod, living in exile in Egypt until quietly recalled to Nazareth where she moves away from the historical eye for many years.
Then there is the gentle Mary of loving kindness, wrapped in a dream of heaven with her Son, visited by angels and shepherds yet untouched by worldly events. This is the Luke Mary, pondering all in her heart, the one more familiar to us today from the traditional story of ‘no room at the inn’. Her Son is descended from Nathan, also a son of David, but a priest, not a king.
Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual insights
Steiner unfolds the secrets of this deep mystery of the Nativities as manifesting two very different streams that distinguish the path of humanity: that of wisdom and experience, the kingly stream, and that of untouched purity and sacrifice, the priestly stream, coming together to create the perfect vessel for the Christ, who embodies both human streams but transforms and transcends them. That is the story that begins with the baptism in the Jordan, at Epiphany and is still being told today.
Steiner’s training sketches for the soul
Rudolf Steiner gave a series of motifs to the artists to renew the art of painting. These were usually rough sketches of nature moods and human themes. There is a 7 and 9 series of nature moods called the training sketches ( I have worked extensively with one of them here). Sometimes people wonder what it is they are training. It’s not technique, nor are they supposed to be copied literally. And they are not answers to what sunrises and trees and spiritual beings should look like. They are a training for the soul, for the ordering of the soul.
What does this mean? They are meant to lead the painter towards an inward experience of that motif. They are not about the symbolic content of the motif but the inward experience of its reality. This can lead to developing a sensitivity of soul that opens up the way to true moral and spiritual experiences. The artist can then make visible traces of her soul experiences in the cosmos, by learning to unite herself with the inner essence of colours, their moods, gestures and dynamic interactions. Then the artist can reveal through painting such spiritual realities she has become sensitive to from behind the veil separating the physical world from the hidden world of spirit.
My visual research
Drawing on these inspirations over the years, I have created many paintings and sketches of the two Marys, often free interpretations of the Steiner motifs but also drawing on the gestures and styles of Christian art of the past, especially the ikons. Each work tries to express the essence of Mary, set within the context of her portrayal and destiny. Several of the more finished works can be seen here, but below is a sample of a Luke Mary and a Matthew Mary portrayal ensouled in our inner life.
For me, the language and gesture of the soul world is colour. Colour is the language of nature’s soul, the speech and gesture of the soul of the universe. By experiencing the living essence of life in the flow of colour we come, one might say, out of our own form and share the cosmic life. By experiencing the life of colour, we can participate in this life.
Art works upon the human soul
The purpose of this visual presentation was not to say you need to be an artist to read the soul of nature and cosmos. There are many ways to transcend the measure of one’s own stature, as Steiner puts it. Rather, I wanted to draw attention to the position of art for the future, as a potential soul/spiritual experience that can lead us behind the veil of the physical world, to make visible, as Paul Klee said, what is invisible.
Art can work upon the human soul to awaken in it a deep feeling for the spirit that moves behind it. The wonderful tool of the training sketches, which bring a kind of order to the soul, can be the starting point on this path.
But you don’t need to be an artist for this to happen. Anyone can learn to behold art, especially the visual arts, in such a way that you allow them to speak to you. Think of how music and drama can take hold of us without having to understand them conceptually. In a more subtle way, so can painting to this. Rather than trying to analyse content, ask yourself: How do the qualities of colour, mood, and gestures speak to you?
In an earlier post, I have outlined one approach I recommend for learning to ‘behold’ art. Find a print or online image of a Mary painting that particularly appeals to you, and contemplate it a little each day. Be open to how she speaks to you.
So the motif of Mary herself: What can she tell us? The Nathan Mary seems to hark to the far past, to our origins in a pre-fall state when innocence had not been lost, whereas the Solomon Mary brings with her the history of all human wisdom and suffering: it is she who bears the consequences of the Mary destiny beyond the death and resurrection of her Son. But it is the Nathan Mary who also points to the far future of the human being who has transcended the ‘sins’ of earthly existence.
Bock, E. (1997). The Childhood of Jesus: The Unknown Years. Floris.
Bock, E. (2003). Threefold Mary. Steiner Books.
Steiner, R (1910) ‘The creative world of colour’, lecture V. Ways to a New Style in Architecture, https://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA286/English/APC1927/19140726p02.html
Steiner, R. (2001). According to Luke: The Gospel of Compassion and Love Revealed:
a Cycle of Ten Lectures. Steiner Books.
Williams, R. (2002). Ponder These Things: praying with icons of the Virgin. Canterbury Press.
Featured image: Agiosoritissa, 7th C, ©Wikimedia Commons