Highly Favored One: Meditating on new images of Mary

In her exquisite new book Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art and Life, Judith Dupré meditates on a variety of images of Mary throughout history. The author considers, with the help of artists’ renderings of Mary, how the story of the simple young woman of Nazareth has influenced the Christian imagination.

Here we present from her new book a meditation on the Virgin’s meeting with the angel Gabriel in the Gospel of Luke and Dupré’s commentary on two contemporary portraits of Mary: one by Tanja Butler and one by John Nava.


—The Editors

Consider the space between Gabriel’s appearance and Mary’s eventual yes. We do not know if a moment, an hour or a day elapsed. More abstractly, we wonder what shape such an opening between an ethereal and a human being took. There is no way to describe the interaction between the two, but it was elastic and porous enough to capture the imaginations of royals, ordinaries and artists for 2,000 years. Being a practical yet remarkable girl, Mary had the composure to ask the angel, “How can this be?” A natural-enough question for a virgin. But those four words do not convey what must have been an extraordinary shock. The first shock was simply the appearance of Gabriel—an otherworldly angel with great beating wings appearing in an ordinary field on an ordinary day. As Mary came from devout Jewish stock, she would have heard stories upon stories about the miraculous appearances of angels. But that was in the distant mythic past, not now, not in Nazareth. Angels appeared to her mighty forefathers—Moses, Daniel, Elijah, not to impoverished young girls, certainly not to her.

How must she have felt when the angel appeared? We can imagine the sudden voiceless chill that claimed her body, accompanied by a surface tingling, a sensation that was almost heat, as the urge to flee raced through her. The aftershocks were scored to Gabriel’s words, sounds that slowly gained volume as she returned to the present moment: You, a virgin, living in the backwaters of Jerusalem, will become the Mother of God. Her body, before the penetration of these words: mindless, shuddering, vulnerable, pliant. Then, in a few minutes, after checking the earth with her toe, touching a tree, a rock, something to confirm that her world was still there, her thoughts kicked in—bumping, fractious thoughts—shouldering up to one other, shoving other thoughts aside, all of them racing toward understanding what this heavenly being was saying. She was no longer spellbound. The words shame, risk, reproach and scandal were forming in her head. In time, this moment would raise Mary from a handmaiden’s lowliness and would cause all ages to call her blessed, but for now, it was a blind leap into the unknown.

In the Book of Genesis, God asks Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” It’s a strange question because God, who created those first beings and every other living thing, has no need to make such an inquiry. The couple, beguiled by the serpent, has found fig leaves to cover their nakedness and hide from their Creator’s question. “Where are you?” Life’s pilgrimage is a daily answering of that question, for ourselves and for God. Discovering and naming where you are—the geographic, emotional and spiritual place that you occupy, right here, right now, honestly and nakedly—stirs up life’s force, tenderizes the heart and clarifies and concentrates thoughts. Answered candidly, it can coax the spirit out of hiding. There is much that will never be known about Mary, yet we know the most important thing about her: When confronted by God, she answered in the affirmative, allowing herself to become impregnated with spirit. Although she did not know where she was about to go, in that moment, full of grace, she said yes to the journey.

This intimate diptych (right) is constructed of two five-inch-square panels; the bottom panel provides the Annunciation’s historical narrative while the upper panel describes eternity, symbolized by the gold background. In the lower panel, the angel Gabriel, in street clothing ruffled by a breeze, and looking like a friendly salesman, announces God’s offer of redemption to humanity through Mary. She is poised just beyond the portal of the door of salvation, which had been closed since the fall of humanity, referred to in the upper panel by the withered tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now a ladder stretches between heaven and earth. Apple blossoms, spring crocuses and bursting pomegranates herald new life. Byzantine and medieval theologians likened the Incarnation to the image of the burning bush confronted by Moses: Like that miraculous bush, Mary contained God in her physical body but was not consumed by the divine flame. The contemporary Noguchi paper lamp, nearly hidden behind Mary, also evokes light and fragility.

Tanja Butler’s paintings are visual meditations on the intimacy of God’s love. With exuberance and disarming candor, her works combine elements of Latino and Russian folk art with the prismatic geometries explored in the Cubist and Suprematist movements. Her ecumenical approach weaves together the diverse artistic traditions of Western, Byzantine and Islamic art.

Artists through the centuries have tried to imagine how Mary received the news of her astonishing pregnancy. Rather than portraying apprehension at the angel’s arrival, John Nava paints her as a shy teenager with downcast eyes, yet aware of the implications of her consent (see image above center). Nava wanted to paint a non-European Madonna in the New World tradition of the soulful, dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe. His model was a 16-year-old girl of mixed Irish and Chinese heritage. By portraying Mary with features that could be seen in any number of places across the globe, the portrait was intended to engage the spiritual imagination of a wide swath of viewers.

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Angela O'Donnell
7 years ago
This is a wonderful piece and I'm very excited about the book! This is a topic I've also been obsessed with for years. As a poet, my way of engaging Mary has been to write a series of meditation poems about moments in her life, but especially about the Annunciation. I'd like to share one of them with you, a poem entitled "AND THE ANGEL LEFT HER ..." as this one corresponds to some of your thoughtful musings on this subject. I'll paste in the link to the poem on the CHRISTIAN CENTURY website.

Thank you for your work!

Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
Fordham University

Angela O'Donnell
7 years ago
And the Angel Left Her . . .

So there she stood alone amid a stillness
as loud as any earthquake she had heard,
the eaves creaking in the absence of wind,
the hiss and tick of radiators warming
the house along with a soon-coming sun.
Her hands touch her belly, swelling already
like dough cupped close in an earthen bowl.
She knows it won’t be long before she shows.
What to do with all this sudden silence?
Phone her boyfriend: Joseph, I have news!
Email St. Anne: Dear Mother, I’m afraid.
Drop to her knees, now weak with recognition
and kiss the space he filled a moment past
in answer to the question he had asked.

Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
(pub in CHRISTIAN CENTURY, Dec 4, 2009.
Forthcoming in my book of poems, SAINT SINATRA,
WordTech Press, 2011)
Leslie Rabbitt
7 years ago

This is an amazing and moving piece of art which at once captures the humility and extraordinary "ordinariness" of Mary.   The stance of Gabriel at the door perfectly communicates both the hope and hesitancy of our God Who endowed us with the free will to accept or reject Him as well as the inner emotion of Gabriel himself, who is addressing the woman who will (if she assents) become Queen of Angels.  Just beautiful and so lovingly captures the real.

7 years ago
I love the painting - but why is the angel shown with a male body? If angels are spirits, they do not usually have bodies. Which means they must have one they are given for an assignment. A man visiting a young Jewish girl would have been scandelous, just as pregnancy was. A woman, possibly mature in age, would not have been.

Legends are supposed to make sense. An angel with a male body does not.


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