Modern Images of Mary, The Versatile Saint

By:  Heather Abraham

According to the International Marian Research Institute, eighty percent of all Catholic shrines are dedicated to the Virgin Mary and are among the most desired pilgrimage destinations in the world.  In fact, Marian shrines receive more annual pilgrims than any other religious figure.  Although a dominant figure in Catholicism, Mary’s appeal transcends theological differences, as Mary’s devoted pilgrims hail from all Christian denominations and the many branches of Islam.  Yes, I said Islam.   Mary, who plays an important but not extensive role in the New Testament, has a much more prominent position in the sacred text of Islam.   This article, however, is not about Mary in Islam; that subject I will save for a future posting.  Today, I intend to explore the Mary of the people—Mary as she appears in lived religion.  Most specifically how Mary’s image is utilized by her followers in artistic, new, and unique ways.

More popular than ever before, Mary has become Christianity’s most versatile, utilized, and venerated figure.  Most intriguingly, Mary’s image has become main-stream and is found in the most unusual of places.   Images of Mary are often depicted on t-shirts, purses, murals, wallets, yard art, jewelry, graffiti, and on the bodies of her devoted followers.  Tattoo images of Mary range from small devotionals to enormous masterpieces— covering an entire human back.  To illustrate Mary’s versatility, I will acquaint you with two recent encounters I had in my hometown of Atlanta—one of the most religiously diverse cities in the south.

During a recent shopping trip to my local farmers market I encountered what, for many, may seem strange but which demonstrates perfectly how effortlessly Mary’s image shifts from sacred space and into the mundane world to commune with those who venerate her.  While paying for my groceries, I noticed an image of Mary, as the Virgin of Guadalupe, gracing a common scale which stood about 4 feet in height.  Leaving my husband at the register, I wandered over to investigate and to take some pictures.  Above and below Mary’s image were the words “Get Your Daily Inspirational Message” in English and Spanish.  For a fee of 25 cents, customers could weigh themselves and be rewarded with an inspiring message from the Virgin Mother.  No judgmental weigh-in here!  As I delightedly snapped pictures, I caught the attention of the store security who warned that pictures were forbidden in the store by order of management.  I quickly explained my interest to the perplexed security guard who was concerned that I was stealing secrets for the competition until I showed him that I only had pictures of the Mary scale on my camera.  Although he was obviously confused, he finally acquiesced agreeing that “the Virgin is good” and walked away muttering to another employee that I was loco.   Being the nerd that I am, I sat nearby with my patient husband and observed how a few customers interacted with the scale.  I didn’t have to wait long before three teen girls approached the scale and one by one stepped up, blessing themselves first, and received their weigh in and inspirational message for the day.

The most humorously delightful chanced upon image of Mary that I have ever encountered occurred on a hot summer day as I was driving on Peachtree Street.  Sitting at a red light, I noticed a large pick-up truck pull up on my right.  Not one to be impressed with cars (I drive a 23 year old Volvo) I was drawn to the beauty of the pearl white truck which glowed in the sun—highly polished and chromed out.  After proceeding through the light the truck pulled in front of me and thus revealed the amazing mural airbrushed on the tail-gate.  Picture this:  center-right of the tail-gate was an image of Mary, again in the form of the Virgin of Guadalupe, floating a few feet off the ground and surrounded by an indigo sky.  In front of her was a man kneeling in supplication, hands together in prayer beseeching Mary for a boon.  Now comes the best and most creative part—above this kneeling man’s head was a bubble like the ones used in comic books.  In the bubble was an image of the exact truck that the “real” man was driving.  I was blown away at the artistry of the images and the message they conveyed.  Unfortunately, I did not have my camera and my cell was lost in the black hole I call a purse.  Sadly, I have been looking for the truck ever since.  Although I don’t possess a physical photo of the vehicle, I can still conjure up the image in my mind’s eye and delight in the iconic representation which was so devotedly created in honor and veneration of this versatile Saint.

For those devoted to her, Mary is a compelling figure who provides solace, reassurance and hope.   Mary is also an elusive figure impossible to simply define, for she has played many roles in the lives of those who have bowed their heads in request or supplication.  Leonard Boff, In The Maternal Face of God: The Feminine and Its Religious Expressions, argues that Mary’s persona changes to meet the needs of her devotees. He writes, “Each new generation finds itself in Mary, projecting its dreams, its sociocultural ideals, upon her.  In her, each new generation discovers the revelatory path of the feminine archetype that crowd our unconscious.” (251)  Mary is the most human of historical and scriptural figures; welcoming the masses and participating in the daily lives of her followers who embrace her as one who has experienced and transcended human fragility.  It maybe that those who venerate Mary do so because they feel she somehow “lives” in the world with or around them and is not a distant figure, too aloof to take part in their everyday world.

This leads me to the question of the day:  Although these images are not indicative of the “standard” understanding of religious art, they obviously play a crucial role for modern day Marian devotees.  Why does Mary’s image lend itself to such displays of art and do these examples represent a new wave of early 21st century religious art?

P.S. If any Religion Nerd reader finds my elusive truck, please snap a picture for me and send it to the editor along with any other unique representations of Mary.

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