An intricate piece of devotional art at the Walters Art Museum captured my imagination this last weekend. This particular piece is carved from ivory, and is an example of a type of medieval art known as a Vierge Ouvrante, or a Virgin that Opens. Here she is closed:
This is an image of Mary, seated and robed in glory, holding on her lap not the baby Jesus, but Christ Regnant, also seated and robed in glory, with his right hand lifted in blessing and his left hand holding the orb of the world in place on his knee. The four-lobed aureole that frames him also encloses a chalice on his right and the tablets of the Ten Commandments on his left, signifying the New Covenant in his blood and the Mosaic covenant of the Law. Mary’s chair rests on a base that shows an unusual Nativity scene: Mary reclining on her childbed, Joseph bending over her in concern, while behind/above them (and probably impossible to see in this picture – it was very hard to see in the museum) is the Child and the animals that attended his birth.
This vierge ouvrante opens down the center line that you can see in the picture above. The entire seated figure of Mary opens, from the top of her head to the hem of her robe. Inside is concealed an ensemble of images that suggests the ornate retable of a high altar:
Let us read it as we would a retable, then: beginning in the center, at the top, we see Christ in Glory, flanked by angels at the top of the two sidepieces. These images are somewhat separated from the more connected ensemble below, and might be considered framing elements.
Continuing down the center, we see the traditional image of Christ as the Lamb that was Slain, the Agnus Dei, above a Crucifixion scene with Mary & John at the foot of the cross, additionally attended (says the Gothic Ivories inventory description) by women representing the Church and the Synagogue. Beneath this, we see Christ being laid in the tomb. Constituting the foundation of the entire ensemble, each in his own corner, we see the four Evangelists, writing away on scrolls.
The two sidepieces contain images before and after the Crucifixion. If we read from bottom to top, starting with the Evangelists, then on the left side we see the scourging; the carrying of the cross; and the trial before Pilate. On the right side we see the Risen Lord appearing to Mary Magdalen; the three women at the empty tomb; and Christ in glory attended by angels. (This last makes an interesting counterpoint to the image of the trial, opposite: an image of “my kingdom [which] is not of this world”, perhaps!)
And all of it, all these events of the Paschal Mystery, rests upon the foundation of Mary, the Theotokos. And all of it lies concealed within the body of Mary when the figure is closed.
In Melissa R. Katz’ fascinating paper “Behind Closed Doors: Distributed Bodies, Hidden Interiors, and Corporeal Erasure in _Vierge ouvrante_ Sculpture”, she classifies the seventy-two known examples of these sculptures (“sixty from the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries, and twelve from the nineteenth century (replicas, forgeries, and homages”) primarily by the type of images they contain.
Some hold a single sculpture of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: these were first condemned by Jean Gerson in 1402, and formally banned by Pope Benedict XIV in 1745, over concerns of theological confusion regarding the doctrine of the Incarnation. The others contain an ensemble of images, as this one does, which she describes as Narrative interiors. She further identifies these Narrative interiors with either the Joys or the Sorrows of the Virgin, which were popular medieval Marian devotions. Other authors describe them as Life of the Virgin cycles or Passion cycles, and I would describe this example as a Passion cycle — although that does not ignore the “Marian program at work in the figures”, as we shall see!
Katz’ paper contains a wealth of information about medieval Mariology and reflection on the history and interpretation of these sculptures, and I heartily recommend it — not least for the photographs of a number of other examples! She does not, however, discuss two themes that I consider key to the interpretation of this item, and perhaps of other Passion cycle Narrative types. These are the idea of Mary as co-redemptrix, and of Mary as a type of the church.
As a first-generation Vatican II Catholic, the co-redemptrix language for Mary that I learned from my parents makes me uncomfortable, primarily because it is a source of scandal to most of our Protestant sisters and brothers, and also because I perceive it as distracting from, rather than enhancing, the contemplation of Jesus’ redeeming work.
But I can’t deny the logic of it: if one affirms that Mary’s yes mattered, that her consent/obedience was necessary for the Incarnation, then one must also conclude that Mary’s work (of consent, pregnancy, birth, and childraising) was essential to the Redemption. Thus, “co-redemptrix” or “co-redeemer”, which avoids the archaically gendered ending but perhaps sounds even more scandalous to modern ears.
Abbé René Laurentin finds the term co-redemptrix emerging during the medieval period (in place of the earlier term redemptrix! in case you weren’t already sufficiently scandalized) (cited by Aidan Nichols, note 8), so the concept that the Nativity was the foundation on which all the rest of the work of Redemption rested might reasonably have been well known to the artist who carved exactly that into this piece.
Katz does make some mention of this idea, as follows:
Criticism was never directed to the presentation of the Marian body that opens for inspection, but only to the presence of the entire Trinity within one branch of the genre. . . . Chancellor Gerson was alert to the possibility that Triptych Virgins might be perceived as having promoted Mary from mother of Jesus to mother of the Trinity, but not to her more audacious potential elevation from agent of the Incarnation to instrument of Christian salvation.
Without researching the history of the term I can’t be sure, but perhaps he wasn’t concerned by it because Mary’s necessary contribution to the work of redemption was already rather taken for granted.
Finally, let’s look at Mary as a type of the Church, which is especially but not exclusively prominent in Orthodox thought. This is the first interpretive key that leapt to my mind: Mary brings us Christ through the Incarnation as the Church brings us Christ in the sacraments. So if I look at this image of Mary not primarily as Mary the daughter of Anna, but as representing the Church, then its interior imagery is perfectly apt. This identification of the figure with the Church, rather than the woman, is further reinforced by the images of the four Evangelists writing the gospels at the base of ensemble. The Church bears the gospel — the heart of which is illustrated by the narrative images — just as Mary bore Jesus. The Church is called to incarnate, or embody, the gospel just as Jesus was incarnate of Mary.
What particularly strikes me about this reading is that the suffering of the Passion is hidden within the glory depicted by the closed figure. The Church Triumphant, indeed, enthroning Christ Regnant, Sovereign of the World! That’s what it looks like from the outside. Only upon entering into the interior does the suffering at the heart of the gospel become apparent.
Indeed, the vierge ouvrante is an image of kenosis: Mary emptying herself, as Jesus emptied himself, as we Christians are all called to empty ourselves in loving service to those around us.
Hail, O Queen of Heaven enthroned.
Hail, by angels mistress owned.
Root of Jesse, Gate of Morn
Whence the world’s true light was born
Glorious Virgin, Joy to thee,
Loveliest whom in heaven they see;
Fairest thou, where all are fair,
Plead with Christ our souls to spare.
V. Vouchsafe that I may praise thee, O sacred Virgin.
R. Give me strength against thine enemies.
Let us pray: We beseech thee, O Lord, mercifully to assist our infirmity: that like as we do now commemorate Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, Mother of God; so by the help of her intercession we may die to our former sins and rise again to newness of life. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
— Ave Regina Caelorum, a traditional Catholic prayer