The Blessed Virgin Mary in history

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“The Visitation,” circa 1445, was created by Luca della Robbia. Photo: CNS, courtesy US National Gallery of Art

The Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary celebrated on September 8 follows by nine months the Feast of her Immaculate Conception celebrated on December 8.

On the vigil of the Nativity of the Our Lady in 1565, the bells of the churches of Malta rang out to mark the raising of the Great Siege of Malta and the deliverance of the Knights and people of Malta from a powerful Islamic seaborne invading force opposed to Christianity.

Sicily and Italy would be its next target if Malta fell.

The threat of a further seaborne invasion of Christian Europe was finally negated in the historic battle of Lepanto in 1571, later immortalised in GK Chesterton’s stirring ballad of that name.

Mary as inspiration to Christendom

A land-based invasion 112 years later culminated in the Siege of Vienna in 1683, when Polish cavalry and their allies routed the superior forces of the Ottoman Turks in a further historical battle which removed the threat to Christendom for centuries to come.

A painting by an unknown artist of the Battle of Lepanto, which took place on 7 October 1571, hangs in Saint Pauls Church in Antwerp. Photo: ©sedmak/123RF.COM

All the forces involved in the defence of Christian culture in 1565, 1571 and 1683 fought under the inspiration of the Blessed Virgin Mary under various titles – Our Lady of Philerme at Malta, Our Lady of the Rosary at Lepanto and Queen of Poland at Vienna, the latter a title awarded in 1655 after the heroic defence of Jasna Göra against the raiding army of the Swedish Deluge.

So also in the twentieth century: at the Miracle on the Vistula in 1920 when a Polish Army and the Polish people dedicated to Mary defeated the Red Army of Trotsky on its seemingly unstoppable march to Paris at the Battle of Warsaw.   So also in 1989 when a nuclear-armed Soviet Empire was dispersed by the solidarity of a nation itself still in chains.

The spiritual leader of the Poles was Pope John Paul II who openly declared his consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary in accordance with the writings of St Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716), a highly gifted orator and one of the greatest apostles of Marian devotion.

A painting by Rick Ortega in honour of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St Juan Diego is pictured at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Mary is perhaps the most popular figure in art for the last two millennia apart, perhaps, from her Son Jesus. Photo: CNS, courtesy Archdiocese of Los Angeles

‘I am the Immaculate Conception’

For her part, Mary identified herself as the Immaculate Conception in an appearance to St Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes on March 25, 1858, four years after Pope Pius IX on 8 December 1854 had solemnly proclaimed this as a dogma to be believed by all Catholics and some 28 years after Mary herself gave the Miraculous Medal which celebrates the Immaculate Conception as a gift to the world through St Catherine Labouré.

Between 13 May and 13 October 1917, Mary appeared to three children at Fatima in Portugal and on 13 October 1917 occasioned a demonstration, predicted in advance, in which the sun appeared to dance in the presence of tens of thousands of spectators (estimated at 70,000) including journalists and other media, many of whom had been sceptics.

In the encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Queenship of Mary on 11 October 1954 at the conclusion of a Marian year established to commemorate the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception one hundred years earlier in 1854.

Pope Pius XII is pictured at the Vatican in a file photo dated 15 March 1949. The post-war pontiff proclaimed the Queenship of Mary in 1954. Photo: CNS

Feared by satan

An antique print from 1899 of Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). Photo: ©candyman/123RF.COM

The encyclical refers with approval to artistic depictions of Mary as “ruling not only over nature and its powers but also over the machinations of Satan”.

The encyclical continued:

“Iconography, in representing the royal dignity of the Blessed Mary Virgin, has ever been enriched with works of highest artistic value and greatest beauty …. [para 12]

Perhaps the greatest of Russian novelists of the 19th Century, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) posed a question on the lips of the central character in the ironically named novel The Idiot, published in 1869, when Prince Myschkin asks:

“Can Beauty save the world?”

The mission of truth, beauty and goodness

A statue of Alexander Solzhenitsyn stands at the Riussian far-eastern port of Valdivostok. Photo: ©liakoltyrina/123RF.COM

One hundred years later another great Russian author and litterateur famously revisited that question and suggested an answer relevant to his own and our times and to the future.  In 1970 in an address given in Stockholm marking the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) referred to his great predecessor’s question and answered it from the perspective of an artist and creative writer facing a culture in decay:

“There is however a particular feature in the very essence of beauty – a characteristic trait of art itself.

“The persuasiveness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable, it prevails even over a resisting heart…

“A true work of art carries its verification within itself …

“So perhaps the old trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply the decorous and antiquated formula it seemed to us at the time of our self-confident materialistic youth.

“If the tips of these three trees do converge, as thinkers used to claim, and if the all too obvious and overly straight sprouts of Truth and Goodness have been crushed, cut down or not permitted to grow, then perhaps, the whimsical, unpredictable and ever surprising shoots of Beauty will force their way through and soar up to that very spot, thereby     fulfilling the task of all three.

“And then no slip of the tongue but a prophecy would be contained in Dostoevsky’s words: “Beauty will save the world…”.

“Could not then art and literature in a very real way offer succour to the modern world?”

Where Beauty is personified in a person such as the Blessed Virgin Mary, the encounter with humankind presents as beyond argument or challenge.

The ‘divine music of Mary’

Cardinal John Henry Newman, the British Anglican priest who in 1845 entered the Roman Catholic Church, was canonised in October 2019. It was of Mary that Newman wrote she “charmed every true heart that came near her.” (CNS photo/courtesy of the Catholic Church of England and Wales)

So Cardinal Saint John Henry Newman in his recently-republished Meditations on the Litany of Loreto writes:

“There was a divine music in all [Mary] said and did – in her mien, her air, her deportment, that charmed every true heart that came near her.

“Her innocence, her humility and modesty, her simplicity, sincerity, and truthfulness, her unselfishness, her unaffected interest in everyone who came to her, her purity – it was these qualities which made her so loveable; and were we to see her now, neither our first thought nor our second thought would be, what she could do for us with her Son (though she can do so much) but our first thought would be, ‘Oh how beautiful’ and our second thought would be, ‘Oh what ugly hateful creatures are we!'”

The power of ideas to shape culture are central themes in the writings of great contemporaries such as the columnist and author Ross Douthart (The Decadent Society) and the Italian Catholic philosopher and political thinker Augusto del Noce (1910-1989), author of The Crisis of Modernity, The Problem of Atheism and The Age of Secularisation.

Perhaps it would be interesting and fruitful if, among contending ideas in our time in the public square, there was promoted through art and literature the ideal of Beauty and its embodiment in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Chalk art of Mary greets worshippers on 14 August 2021 for vespers on the eve of the feast of the Assumption at the Basilica of the US National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. No figure has ever inspired more artistic outpourings – from the humble to the profound – celebrating her unique role in God’s plan for salvation and the world. Photo: CNS, Kevin J. Parks, Catholic Review

As Solzhenitsyn observed:

“The persuasiveness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable, it prevails even over a resisting heart…”

The future of the culture of the West may well be as black as persuasively argued by Augusto del Noce and Ross Douthart.  But perhaps their reading of the present and the future may to some extent discount the continuing role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in world history.

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