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The Past Her Prelude: Marian Imagery in the Old Testament | Sandra Miesel
St. Augustine said that "the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the
Old is fulfilled in the New." Like other Church Fathers he distinguished
between the outer "literal" and the inner "spiritual"
meaning of Holy Scripture. And like the others, he often preferred spirit to
The categories into which various Fathers divided the spiritual sense need not
concern us here, only their zealous attempts to read the figurative meanings of
the Bible. They saw the New Testament foreshadowed in the Old through several
devices. Types are persons, things, or events taken as historical
(Adam is a Type of Christ); prophecies
are predictions (the Messiah will be born of a virgin); and allegories are poetic comparisons, not limited to strict
personifications (Holy Wisdom is a gracious woman). Our discussion will move
freely across all these categories.
The Fathers saw every part of the Scriptures as linked to every other part.
They believed that God had encoded patterns of similarities and contrasts into
his Word to produce flashes of illumination. Making cross-comparisons rounds
out our picture of what Salvation is--and is not. For instance, innocent,
devout Abel is a Type of Christ while jealous, murderous Cain his Antitype.
Mary entered this web of associations early, when St. Justin Martyr (d. 165)
contrasted her obedience with Eve's disobedience immediately after referring to
Christ's symbolic titles in prophecy. His insight was repeated a generation
later by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. ca. 200): "What the virgin Eve had
bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith." Thus Mary came
to be called the New Eve and the Latin pun Eva/Ave for the reversal entered
Eve is the mother of all according to the flesh, but Mary according to the
spirit. As universal spiritual mother and first Christian, Mary is also a Type
of the Church, a parallel first noted by St. Irenaeus. Therefore, the same
Biblical imagery used for the Church can also apply to Mary: she is the living
Ark of the Covenant, the ultimate Temple, the new Jerusalem, and the perfected
Israel as Bride of God.
These Old Testament prefigurations are brought forward into the Book of
Revelation and amplify the Woman Clothed in the Sun (Rev 12:12), the
"great sign" manifested immediately after the scene of the Ark in the
celestial Temple. The pregnant Woman's body carries the Messiah as the Ark once
held the Divinely sent Tablets of the Law, Aaron's rod that flowered, and a pot
of manna Moreover, she is also the mother of all Christians. But this Woman
flees from the threatening Satanic Dragon, unlike Eve who fatally lingered when
the Serpent spoke.
The Woman does not, however,
grapple directly with the Dragon, though some Marian devotees wish it were
otherwise. Direct engagement with the Foe is left to other Marian Types.
Deborah rallies the Israelite army (Jgs 4:4-16), Jael smashes the head of an
enemy general (Jgs 4:17-22), Judith beheads Holofernes (Jdt 13), and Esther
maneuvers Haman onto the gallows (Est 7), in each case saving their people from
Besides the typology of specific characters, Messianic Psalm 45 has been
traditionally taken to represent Christ as the king with Mary as the queen who
stands beside him adorned "in gold of Ophir". This Psalm is often
quoted in the liturgy, including texts of Marian feasts such as the Assumption.
There it refers to Our Lady's entrance into heaven and justifies showing her
enthroned beside her Son.
The queen in the Psalm is the king's bride but the normal structure of a
Semitic court gave the king's mother far more power than any wife. This
situation, demonstrated by the relationship between Solomon and his mother
Bathsheba (1 Kgs 2:12-25) does fit Mary, so Bathsheba was used as a Type of
Mary. In the incident shown, however, Bathsheba's intercession gets the
petitioner executed. The only other queen mothers shown in action, idolatrous
Maacah (1 Kgs 15: 18) and murderous Athalia (2 Kgs 11), could be called
Antitypes of Mary.
The Old Testament also gives many poetic images for Mary that have proven
important in art and prayer. These cluster around several themes that
illustrate doctrines. Her Divine Maternity is the ground of everything else,
shown in metaphors for fruitfulness and containment. As a Virgin Mother, Mary
is unpenetrated, an impossibility miraculously possible. As a unique partner in
Redemption, she is a passage, source, or signal. As a perfectly sinless being,
things beautiful and unblemished reflect her.
Some of the imagery preceded the dogmas. The Immaculate Conception and
Assumption were only defined in modern times while Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix
are still commonly believed without dogmatic definition.
Although these images developed more quickly in the East than the West, this
essay is limited to European examples. The anonymous eighth or ninth century
Latin poem Ave Maris Stella,
which would enter the Breviary, is an early Western example that builds on
Patristic insights. It begins:
Ave maris stella, Hail,Star of the Sea,
Star of the Sea, mistaken for the Hebrew meaning of the name Mary, and Gate of
Heaven, paralleling Jacob's ladder to heaven (Gn 28: 10-12, 16-17), later
became invocations in the Litany of Loreto.
Dei Mater alma, Loving Mother of God,
Atque semper Virgo, And ever-Virgin,
Felix coeli porta. Happy gate of heaven.
Sumens illud Ave Receiving that "Ave"
Gabrielis ore, From Gabriel's mouth,
Funda nos in pace, Secure us in peace,
Mutans Hevae nomen. Changing Eve's name.
In the West during the first millennium, the Madonna and Child motif was meant
to defend the Incarnation. Only towards the end of that period does it become a
devotional object in its own right as Mary herself loomed larger in European
By the year 1000, a new style of Madonna emerged, first in southern France,
that came to be called the Majesty of Mary. Enthroned as a queen, the Mother
presents to the world her Child who holds a book. This is also the visual
formula for another Litany title,
Seat of Wisdom. With her lap doubling for her womb, Mary is the living throne
of the New Solomon. (Good examples from the twelfth century are carved above
entrances to Notre-Dame of Chartres and Notre-Dame of Paris.)
Relying on earlier collections of Patristic ideas, such as the Glossa
ordinaria, typological thinking dominated
Biblical interpretation in the High Middle Ages. It shaped art from Austria to
England. Major cycles of images survive in the glass of Canterbury cathedral
and the Verdun altar, a masterpiece of enameled gold. In these works Mary
appears in Gospel scenes matched with Old Testament parallels such as the
Annunciation of Jesus paired with the Annunciations of Issac and Samson.
One striking new motif that originated in twelfth century France was the Tree
of Jesse, taken from Isaiah's prophecy of the lineage of the Messiah: "A
shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall
blossom" (Is 11:1). The tree sprouts from the lions of David's father
Jesse bearing the ancestors of Christ. As time went on, Mary received more
emphasis to appear in a flower atop the Tree holding Jesus, the final fruit.
As devotion to Our Lady blossomed in medieval times, so did the range of Marian
typologies. Honorius of Autun (d. 1152) expounded a set of images that soon
turned up on the new Gothic cathedrals of France. The most complete expression
of Honorius' ideas was carved around the Mary-portal at Notre-Dame of Laon in
the thirteenth century.
These stone reliefs at Laon depict prefigurations of Mary's virginal
conception: Gideon's fleece, wet by dew when the ground stayed dry and vice
versa (Jgs 6: 36-38); Moses' Burning Bush unconsumed by its fire (Ex 3:1-14);
Daniel miraculously fed by the prophet Habakkuk while sealed in the lions' den
(Dn 14: 28-42); the Ark of the Covenant, a womb-equivalent, which contained
Aaron's flowering rod (Num 17:1-11); Ezekiel's Shut Gate that only the Lord may
enter (Ez 44:2); the Stone Not Cut by Hands (Dn 2:34-35); and the Three Young
Men in the Fiery Furnace, unharmed by flame (Dn 3)
The Laon reliefs also show Daniel killing a dragon worshipped by the
Babylonians (Dn 14: 23-27), a fate the Eden Serpent will share thanks to Mary
(Gn 3:15), and Balaam's prophecy of the Messiah's lineage, "a star shall
rise out of Jacob" (Num 24:17) that was joined to Mary's title Star of the
Sea to make her the guiding star of mankind.
Medieval books of typologies were extremely popular as aids to meditation among
the literate. Two famous examples (both available in modern replica editions)
are the illustrated Biblia pauperum
(Poor Men's Bible) and the Speculum humanae salvationis (Mirror of Human Salvation) from the late thirteenth
and early fourteenth centuries respectively. Originally hand-copied, these
works got into print in the fifteenth century carrying woodblock illustrations.
The Biblia consists of carefully
structured sets of one New Testament event flanked by two Old Testament
comparisons tied together with four prophecies and captions. For example, the
Coronation of the Virgin is matched to the enthronements of Bathsheba and
The Speculum shows one Biblical
or legendary scene with three separate parallels from the Old Testament or
secular history, plus explanations. The comparisons themselves can function as
commentaries as when the Birth of Mary is paired with the Tree of Jesse (her
lineage), the Shut Gate (her virginity), and the Temple of Solomon (God's
presence in her)
Meanwhile, a new repertoire of Marian symbols was developing from the thought
of the Mellifluous Doctor, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1153). Thanks to his four
volumes of sermons of the Song of Songs, Mary came to be showered with fresh and even sensuous metaphors.
Although the Song of Songs--which
ostensibly celebrates Solomon's love for his Bride the Shulamitess--continued
to be read in the traditional way as an allegory of Christ's love for the
Church or God's love for the human soul, it now had lovely Marian connotations.
As in Psalm 45, the Lover is Christ and the Bride Mary. Erotic language is
spiritualized to signify total contemplative union between God and his most
perfect creature. "I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him: and I will
not let him go . . . ." (SoS 3:4)
Comparing the Virgin to flowers, gardens, foodstuffs, spices, perfumes, gems,
and precious metals mentioned in the Song of Songs is lush but fitting. Seeing her as she who comes
forth "as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible
as an army set in array" (SoS 6:9) has the cosmic flavor of the
Apocalyptic Woman (Rv 12:1)
But modern sensibility flinches at calling the Blessed Mother a grape (uva) or cluster of grapes (botrus) as in SoS 7:7 although the milk of her breasts
"sweeter than wine" was transformed into the Sacred Blood of her Son
and thence into the Eucharist. Neither are we comfortable seeing her as a
marriage bed (thalamus) or couch
(triclinum) as in SoS 1:15
although her womb was the chamber in which God's romance with the human race
was consummated. Yet these shocking epithets were used in a late medieval
Missal from Evreux, France.
The Cantica canticorum, a book of
woodblock images made in the Netherlands before 1465 spread daring metaphors to
a wider audience. For instance, "A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, he
shall abide between my breasts" (SoS 1:12) is quite an audacious image to
apply to Our Lord and Our Lady. Surprisingly, it is taken to mean the Sorrowful
Mother clasping the dead body of her Son.
This style of similitude reaches a lovely peak in a Book of Hours printed in
Paris in 1505. The figure of the pre-existent Immaculata stands praying beneath
the gaze of God who says: "Thou are fair, my love, and there is not a spot
in thee." (SoS 4:7) She is surrounded by her symbols which are mostly from
the Song of Songs (marked *):
"bright as the sun,"* "fair as the moon,"* "gate of
heaven," "exalted cedar" (Sir 24:17), "planted rose"
(Sir 39:13), well of living water,"* "enclosed garden,"*
"city of God," "sealed fountain,"* "spotless
mirror" (Wis 7:26), "tower of David,* "lily among thorns,"*
"precious olive (Sir 24:19), "star of the sea."
Such poetry survived the Council of Trent's purifications to influence the
beautifully mysterious titles in the Litany of Loreto, the official Litany of the Blessed Virgin (1575).
Notice that nearly all are metaphors for Mary's sinless body--her lap, womb,
vagina, and neck (by extension signifying her whole figure). These phrases are:
Mirror of Justice:
As "unspotted mirror of God's majesty, and the image of his goodness (Wis
7:26) Mary would necessarily reflect Divine justice.
And so it was. We used to learn our Marian theology
through symbols. They shaped our art and inspired our prayer. Surely the time
has come to reclaim that heritage, to reconstruct a culture described by art
historian Emile Male in which "everything in the world admired by man is
only a reflection of the Virgin's beauty."
Seat of Wisdom: She is the living
throne of Christ who is Divine Wisdom.
Cause of Our Joy: She is the
means through which the Joy of the Redeemer came into the world.
Spiritual Vessel, Vessel of Honor, Singular Vessel of Devotion: "Vessel" can stand for body, Mary's body
being uniquely graced for "containing" Christ. Possible allusion to a
virtuous High Priest as "a vessel of beaten gold, studded with precious
stones" (Sir 50:9) because Mary offers Christ to us.
Mystical Rose: This is an ancient
symbol of love, beauty, and femininity, Our Lady's favorite flower. cf: (Sir
Tower of David, Tower of Ivory:
These citadels are both well-guarded (SoS 4:4) and splendid (SoS 7:4) images of
the Bride's beauty.
House of Gold: Solomon's Temple
was richly adorned with gold.
Ark of the Covenant: Mary is the
blessed resting place of God.
Gate of Heaven: Through the
Incarnation in her virgin body, the Shut Gate (Ez 44:2) and the Jacob's Gate of
Heaven (Gn 28:17) are opened to us.
Morning Star: Mary signals the
coming dawn of Salvation (Sir. 50:6 and SoS 6:9).
A version of this article originally appeared in
Canticle magazine in 2004.
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by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary" | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Mary, Matchless in Grace | John Saward
Mary | The Introduction to Mary in the Middle Ages | by Luigi Gambero
Mary | Dr. James Hitchcock
Mary in Feminist
Theology: Mother of God or Domesticated Goddess? | Fr. Manfred Hauke
Assumed Into Mother's
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Sandra Miesel is the co-author of the best selling The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing
the Errors in The Da Vinci Code. She holds masters degrees
in biochemistry and medieval history from the University of Illinois.
Since 1983, she has written hundreds of articles for the Catholic press,
chiefly on history, art, and hagiography. She regularly appears in Crisis
magazine and is a columnist for the diocesan paper of Norwich, Connecticut.
Sandra has spoken at religious and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN,
and given numerous radio interviews. Outside the Catholic sphere, she has also written, analyzed, and edited
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