Mother Mary comes to me… whisper words of wisdom

-Frank Pagani

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Mary the Virgin Mother of God has been depicted through Marian Art since the birth of Christ. As Madonna found her way into the fabric of Christian art history through many different forms, Her art became the focus of much criticism along with all other Christian art. Whether in the sanctuary, near or on the alter or on church property found much criticism. We will look at the controversy of the Madonna and Child depictions through the ages beginning chronologically with the early Christian church, the church of the middle ages with Martin Luther and John Calvin with the Protestant Reformation and finally with the modern Christian faith today. Although the church as a whole believes in the same God the Father, Christ and Holy Spirit, the view of Mary as the Mother of Christ and her importance has changed and divided through the ages.

In 431 The First Council of Ephesus declared that Mary was and is the Virgin Mother of God. Being that the theology was and is that God, Christ and the Holy Spirit are all one in being with the Father, it only made sense to the early church to declare that Mary is without doubt the Mother of God. Prior to the Council of Ephesus, Mary was rarely mentioned in church teachings. She was compared and contrasted to Eve on occasion for Her purity unlike Eve who bears the original, original sin. In the Gospel according to James (in the Apocrypha), the perpetual virginity and purity of Mary is confirmed. This was accepted by the Eastern and Western Christian churches and became tradition and a teaching after the Council of Ephesus.

St. Gregory of Tours began teaching and asserting his belief in the “bodily assumption of Mary” in the late 4th century. This was one of the last pivotal changes in theology regarding Mary as the Virgin Mother of God until the middle ages where her image would become altered. This unified church would become disrupted, altered and as some Catholic scholars would say, “scared”.

Martin Luther led the Protestant Reformation and set into motion the process that would divide the faith on so many topics including the meaning of Mary. Luther was born into a simple in 1483 in Germany. His father was a miner and his mother was a devout Christian who openly professed her faith to her family and friends. Through his mother, Martin fell in love with God, the Church, learning and preaching.  His life would not always be so picturesque after he set into motion a reformation that would alter the face of Christianity for eternity. On October 31st, 1517, Luther affixed “The Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. They listed statements against the practice of selling indulgences, which had become a custom in the Roman Catholic Church to raise funds (specifically for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica).

Through this, Martin Luther single handily set the corner stone of the Protestant Reformation. His 95 reasons why the church was wrong for selling forgiveness led to the questioning of the role of Mary in the church. Luther said, “Mary is the highest woman” and that “we can never honor her enough”; however, he questioned how much of a prominent figure she should be. John Calvin, a prolific Protestant reformer said, “it can not be denied that God in choosing and destining Mary to be the Mother of His Son, granted her the highest honor.” Between the two of these men of reform and the mentioned quotes it could be assumed or suggested that they would agree with the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on Mary’s role in the faith; however, their reforming powers would begin to lead their followers to question Her importance.

Reformers rejected the Immaculate Conception theology along with the Assumption of the bodily Mary that was proposed by Saint Gregory of Tours. The reformers did not believe that Mary was worthy or holy enough to have an assumption through the gates of heaven. Reformers did accept her perpetual virginity and realized that She was selected through the fabric of history by God Himself before that history was even wrote.

During the Protestant reformation the Roman Catholic Church led a counter reformation, which, was opened and debated in the Council of Trent. The council debated topics such as religious art and the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the faith. His holiness, Pope Paul III touched on several things that the reformers objected in the Bull of Indiction. This lengthy quote is worth noting since it summarizes and presents the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on Mary and ‘idol worship’:

“Moreover, that the images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints, are to be had and retained particularly in temples, and that due honor and veneration are to be given them; not that and divinity, or virtue, is believed to be in them, on account of which they are to be worshipped; or that anything is to be asked of the; or, that trust is to be reposed in images, as was of old done by the Gentiles who places their hope in idols; but because that honor which is shown in them is referred to the prototypes which these images represent; in such wise that by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head, and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ; and we venerate the saints, whose similitude they bear; as, by the decrees of Councils, and especially of the second Synod of Nicaea, has been defined against the opponents of images.”

The middle ages divided Christianity on many different topics but strengthened the goal of Christians to know, understand and love Christ more. This momentum begun by Martin Luther is still apparent in the church of today. The effort of Protestants to symbolically place Mary on the back burner of theology shows how much attention the Virgin Mother receives. Until recently, the Protestant church practiced this theology regularly.

In the summer of 2004, Christian History and Biography, which is affiliated with Protestant Christianity Today devoted and entire section and several pages to Mary. A Christian Protestant magazine with an entire page devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary shows a great shift in the Protestant church’s stance on the value and the necessary amount of respect needed.

Professor Dr. Beverly Roberts Gaventa of the Princeton Theological Seminary (a Presbyterian institution) has said this in regards to Mary: “What happens in the story is that Mary is chosen entirely by God’s own initiative. This is what Protestants emphasize as God’s divine Grace, God’s initiative.”

Madonna, Mary, The Virgin Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, the Blessed Mother Mary or whatever you choose to title Her as, has gone through a transition over the years. The progression of history shows that people take different views of her and her role within the church; however, she has never lost spotlight. Whether it is in controversy or praise Her presence in conversation is never lost. Early church doctrine showed a high presence of respect towards her position, which lasted through till the renaissance where figures like Martin Luther and John Calvin questioned her divinity and ultimate place. With the Protestant reformers and Pope Paul III the church divided and separated due to such irreconcilable differences like art in worship, specifically Marian art. Today we see a resurgence of theologians questioning the current teaching of Mary across the Christian faith. Time proves that She will be a topic of discussion for many years to come.


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