Artists of the Counter-Reformation bring home the Church's complex and difficult teachings on the Virgin Mary.
On the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this series of articles looks at how the Church responded to this turbulent age by finding an artistic voice to proclaim Truth through Beauty. Each column looks at how works of art were designed to confront a challenge raised by the Reformation with the soothing and persuasive voice of art. You can find more in this series, here.
It’s hard to imagine anyone contrary to the Virgin Mary, and even the leaders of the Protestant Reformation treated the Blessed Virgin with deferential respect. That Mary was “God Bearer” as declared in 431 at the Council of Ephesus was borne out by Scripture, and thus Martin Luther described her as the “highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ … She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified.”
The Protestants, however, tended to view Mary’s role as a passive one. A vessel, made to receive God and then to be placed on a shelf for admiration and emulation, while the Catholics saw Mary as constantly active on our behalf. Her fiat had grown in Catholic teaching beyond a submissive yielding to divine will, into an active trust in and cooperation with God and intercession for others. In developing her thought regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Church anchored her life in two supernatural events, not explicitly found in Scripture, and therefore suspect for Protestants. One event was her Immaculate Conception — that she was conceived in the womb of her mother without the stain of original sin — and the other her bodily assumption into Heaven.
Although only recently defined as dogmas, these devotions have existed for centuries, developing through the years from the understanding of the early Church. In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV had included the Immaculate Conception in the liturgical calendar and dedicated his Sistine chapel to her Assumption. In this era, Marian imagery was evolving away from icons and into the more action-packed world of Renaissance narrative. Mary was often compared to Eve, whose sinful action had helped bring about the Fall; therefore Mary, through her active obedience, would help implement Redemption.
Although the Immaculate Conception reflected Mary as the heroic figure prepared at the beginning of time for her tremendous undertaking, art struggled to keep up with this heady, non-narrative concept, employing the likes of Leonardo da Vinci to delve into this complex theology in his Virgin of the Rocks. Michelangelo even took a crack at the subject in the Sistine chapel, by placing the Creation of Woman as the central panel of the ceiling; he underscored Mary as the New Eve, a theological notion dating back to the Church Fathers that was given its finest modern expression 300 years later by Blessed John Henry Newman.