Virgin Mary: Trust and Obedience in the Lord

On this solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25th, we remember St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation:

“Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.”

“And when the angel had come to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.” When she had heard him she was troubled at his word and kept pondering what manner of greeting this might be.

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he shall be king over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end”

“But Mary said to the angel, “How shall this happen, since I do not know man?”

“And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee; and therefore the Holy One to be born shall be called the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth thy kinswoman also has conceived a son in her old age, and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month; for nothing shall be impossible with God.”

And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1: 26-38)

Mary, the Blessed Mother, the Theotokos – “the God bearer” at first, questions Gabriel, “How shall this happen…” Upon his explanation Mary undertakes her all important journey with perfect trust and obedience to God’s will. She accepts her eternal role not in fear but in love. Mary will be the God Bearer, the bearer of her Son Jesus, our Savior, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

Jesus, at the moment of His conception, is both true God and true man: two natures in one Person.

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Icon of Mary: it is the icon called The Madonna of Saint Sisto, located in Rome in the Dominican convent of Monte Mario. It is one of the oldest and most beautiful icons of the Virgin from antiquity.

 

Mary is the perfect disciple of God. She provides us with the model of love, obedience, and trust in Him. There were many times throughout her life that she had to express her trust and obedience, and at times not knowing where the journey would lead. It led from the great joy of her pregnancy, Jesus’ birth, family life, through to His ministry, and her motherly presence before the Holy Cross.

A few verses later, in her beautiful canticle the Magnificat, she exclaimed to her kinswoman Elizabeth her lack of doubt in what has happened.  She praises the mercy of God and her willingness to be the servant of Him who is faithful to His word. In her humility, trust, love, and obedience to God, Mary, as the New Eve, will be given the privilege of crushing Satan at the end of time.

From the beginning, the Catholic Church has never worshipped Mary. The Church venerates her as the first disciple and its greatest saint.

On this beautiful Solemnity of the Annunciation let us join with the great St. John Henry Cardinal Newman in his prayer to Jesus: “Dear Jesus, Your Holy Mother cooperated with the divine plan for the human race. Let me try to imitate her in her obedience and service to You.” Thank you, Jesus.

Note: The sacred image that appears at the top of all of my posts is The Annunciation by Fra Angelico.

Copyright © 2011- 2020, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students, and those interested, may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

Roger of Helmarshausen O.S.B. – Theophilus the Presbyter: Part 3 – The Prologues

Last February, in Parts 1 and 2 of this article, I shared with you some thoughts on an important figure in the history of Western European art: the Benedictine monk, Roger of Helmarshausen, also known by his pen name, Theophilus the Presbyter.

Dom Roger was born in the late 11th century during a dramatic time in Western European history. In 1066 the Normans successfully invaded England and defeated the Saxons, which forever changed the history of England and the Continent. In 1084, St. Bruno founded the Carthusian Order in France, and in 1098 the foundation monastery of Citeaux saw the beginning of the Cistercian Order.

In 1095, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade in an attempt to restore Christianity to the Holy Land. In 1115, St. Bernard became the abbot of the monastery of Clairvaux; and remained its abbot until his death in 1153. In 1120 we have the extraordinary sculptor Gislebertus working on the tympanum of Autun Cathedral in the Burgundy region of eastern France, and in 1150 we have Abbot Suger beginning the rebuilding of the abbey-church of St. Denis in Paris, which ushers in the beautiful Gothic period in Western art and architecture.

It is within this dynamic and exciting environment of the early 12th century that the Benedictine monk, Roger of Helmarshausen (considered by many, but not all scholars, to be Theophilus the Presbyter) compiles and writes his important manuscript De diversis artibus (On Divers Arts), also known as Schedula diversarum artium, or simply the Schedula. His book contains three chapters of which only one (the most extensive and detailed) deals with metallurgy, the other two deal with painting and the making of stained glass.

Many scholars believe that On Divers Arts was written/compiled between the years 1100 and 1140. Besides its importance as a medieval artistic treatise, On Diverse Arts is known as containing the first very early description of oil paint, thus, conclusively proving Georgio Vasari (1511-74) was mistaken in claiming that the van Ecyk’s were the first to develop the use of painting in oils.

Dom Roger’s artistic skills revolved around metallurgy, specifically in the crafting of exquisite gold and silver liturgical furnishings, an example of which can be seen in the image below of a Portable Altar, c. 1120, Oak box, clad in partly gilded silver, feet of gilded bronze, 165 x 345 x 212 mm (approx. 6.6 by 13.6 by 8 inches), found in the Cathedral of Paderborn, Germany.

2altar

Dom Roger’s contributions to the understanding of late 11th and early 12th century Western European sacred art are so numerous as to be out of the purview of this post to catalogue them all. My goal today is to mention how specifically a contemporary sacred artist in the Western Tradition could benefit in reading his book On Diverse Arts.

This is my main point: if a sacred artist picks up Dom Roger’s book and quickly scans through the Prologues to each of the three chapters in the book they will miss the entire point of what he was trying to accomplish. It is a book that requires the reader to view its contents not as another medieval manuscript of pigment recipes or the social anthropology of a highly skilled 12th century artist. Clearly, Dom Roger is inviting us into his working world and the spiritual perception of the application of prayer to work, which is true to the motto of his Benedictine Order: Ora et Labora.

Each of the three prologues discusses the development of specific spiritual values in relation to the sacred art (painting, glass making, or metalworking) the student is pursuing. There is a progression through different skills and obstacles that the student must master in order to reach the heights of individual artistry.

St. John Climacus and other Patristic Fathers in discussing a soul’s spiritual journey speak of a similar progression up the “ladder of ascent” to the Godhead and spiritual union with God. The soul’s journey is fraught with problems and obstacles, yet, those souls that persevere are rewarded for their efforts. Dr. Heidi Gearhart, presently of Harvard University, also speaks of this idea in her research on Dom Roger when she identifies the intention that he is interested in a progression forward, an ascent, through different and more complex art forms to the pinnacle (in his mind) of artistry – which is Dom Roger’s own specialty: the art of gold, silver, and bronze metal work.

The First Prologue to the chapter on painting emphasizes the need for the sacred artist to be humble in his/her approach, they should not neglect the wisdom of the past, nor should they be idle or selfish with the artistic gifts they have received. They have the duty to pass on to their receptive students the wisdom of the arts that they have been given by God, and have gained through study, and experience; and lastly, your art should always give glory to God and to His holy name.

In the Second Prologue, which is the preface to the chapter on glass making, we read that Dom Roger is emphasizing his adherence to the guidance of Holy Wisdom. In a passage of mystical quality he says “I drew near to the forecourt of holy Wisdom and I saw the sanctuary filled with a variety of all kinds of differing colors, displaying the utility and nature of each pigment…” He goes on to say that he can accomplish superior effects through the use of glass alone, thus, “without repelling the daylight and the rays of the sun.”  We wonder whether Abbot Suger in Paris was familiar with Dom Roger’s experiments with glass prior to or during his renovation of the abbey church of St. Denis – the precursor of French Gothic churches.

The Third, and last, Prologue, the preface to the art of metal work, takes us into the recesses of Dom Roger’s soul, for in this preface he is stressing that the Holy Spirit bestows on the sacred artist the grace of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. These Seven Gifts: Fear of the Lord (which means that we do not desire or act to offend God in any way), Understanding, Counsel (Spiritual Prudence), Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Wisdom have been given to us through the compassion of God. These Gifts are given to the artist who sincerely desires them through the Sacraments of the Church, sincere prayer, and activity, which acknowledges the truth, goodness, and beauty of God. The sacred artist should always be open to cooperate with the grace of God. Dom Roger implores his students to understand that their work should reflect the truth that it is executed under the authority, direction, and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Dom Roger’s perspective is solidly within the Benedictine tradition of attempting to live within a state of spiritual wisdom, and to transfer that wisdom, through teaching and practical workshop application, to another generation of monk/artists. Humility, creative technique, investigation, silence, prayer – listening to Holy Wisdom – enable him to succeed at his art.

His approach is to remain true to his spiritual values as a Benedictine. He recognizes the absolute significance of the role that the Holy Spirit plays in assisting, molding, and inspiring the artist in his or her efforts to create artworks which give glory to God and to share their knowledge with those who are willing to learn.

My next post on this subject will present a brief overview of some salient research by an outstanding scholar of this period of European art history: Dr. Heidi Gearhart of Harvard University.

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved         The quotations are taken from the John G. Hawthorne and Cyril S. Smith translation from the Latin of Theophilus’ On Divers Arts, published by Dover Publications, New York, 1979.

December 21, 2012 – The Archangel Gabriel’s Greeting to Zechariah

A very clear narrative greets us in the Gospel by St. Luke. He tells us that both Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were both righteous before God: walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord – they were blameless; but they have no child. Elizabeth was barren and both were elderly. We read of Zechariah silently bringing his heavy heart before the Lord – even after all those years – it was still burdened with disappointment. The couple probably remembered Psalm 112 which says:

“Happy the man who fears the Lord, who takes delight in his commands. His sons will be powerful on earth; the children of the upright are blessed.”

Zechariah was a priest, and on that day – by lot – it was his turn to enter the chamber within the Temple called the Holy Place and burn incense on the special altar. The Holy Place was a small chamber that led to the Holy of Holies, which housed the Ark of the Covenant.

For whatever reason, Zechariah that morning carried his disappointment with him into the Holy Place; and while he was there the archangel, Gabriel, appeared on the right side of the Altar of Incense. Gabriel tells Zechariah not to be afraid and that his prayer was heard before the throne of God. Gabriel continues with the joyous news that Elizabeth will bear a son, and that he will be called John – which in Hebrew means – “the Lord is gracious.” This child will grow and be great before the Lord, and even from his mother’s womb – he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

But, in a typically human way, Zechariah questions the archangel’s announcement. His query must have been different in tone. It must have had the typical masculine attitude of “Are you kidding me!” Zechariah’s tenor makes Gabriel, and possibly God, indignant – and Zechariah is struck speechless for his insolence.

In Scripture, few lines later, we see Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. She questions him, too, as “How can this be since I do not know man? But Gabriel does not strike her speechless. We have to be struck by this difference. What does it teach us?

It is clear that God knows our hearts. God knew what was on Zechariah’s heart when he was in the Holy Place. Zechariah does not trust the message or the messenger, and by inference – he does not trust God. God knows his heart; and disciplines this good man. Like Zechariah, we, too, may disbelieve God. In our sophistication or position in life we may say “Well that’s fine, but, the Scriptures don’t apply to our situation, or this specific teaching was acceptable years ago, but, too much time has passed and it doesn’t apply to my problems.

The Gospel says that Zechariah and his wife were good and righteous people. It was mentioned that he kept all the Commandments and ordinances. Yet, when his big moment comes – where is all that goodness and righteousness? It might still be there in his heart, but, there was also a pocket of doubt – a crevice of skepticism – that was significant enough for him, as a priest of the Almighty God, to be struck speechless in punishment for not trusting Gabriel’s message.

As sacred artists, as Christians, this Gospel asks us to stop, and check our souls in this last week of Advent. It asks us how patient, confident, and trusting have we been of the Lord’s message to our hearts, and have we allowed this to carry over into our actions? Have we become more interested in all the hype about the end of the world from a pagan culture, or, have we trusted in the Word of the Lord and His messengers?

Zechariah learned the hard way that when the Lord prepares us for His coming He desires us to be alive, awake, and alert to His call and to trust His message. So, our prayer in these last days of Advent should echo that of Zechariah, who in the months of speechless waiting, most likely in his mental prayer said,  “Lord, I believe; cleanse me of my disbelief. Lord, I trust, heal me of my distrust;” and it should also echo that of Mary – who in humility and expectation waited patiently for the graciousness of the Lord to take fruit in her womb.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Thanks to angels-angelology.com for stained glass window image

Thank You! Our One Year Anniversary!

We are so very grateful to everyone who has visited this website over the past year. It was on August 1, 2011 that I posted my first essay. By midnight tonight over 13,000 people, from 106 nations, will have visited this site and, hopefully, been spiritually fed by the discussion on issues concerning sacred images and iconography, prayer, and reflections on the Holy Scripture.

May God continue to bless all those who have an interest in sacred art and move them to deepen their prayer life by using sacred art as a focal point in their meditations.

Thank you!

May the Blessed Mother continue to intercede for all of us.

Peace and Victory in Christ!

Deacon Paul and Jackie Iacono

Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. The above image on The Annunciation was painted by the great American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner. It may be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Solemnity of the Annunciation – The Confident Sacrifice Of A Pure Heart

Many years ago, Blessed John Paul 2 spoke to the seminarians of Rome on this, the Solemnity of the Annunciation. He began his homily with the phrase: “Fear not!”  Echoing the archangel’s comments to our Blessed Mother he was trying to calm the natural anxiety of those young men as they  prepared for their Gospel ministry in the world. The Pope counseled them that “We must all accept the call. We must listen [to the Holy Spirit],  and use the grace that we have received from God. We must shore up our strength, and say, “Yes” in confidence and certainty to the call that we hear from the whispers of the Holy Spirit.”

Upon hearing the message of the archangel Gabriel, the ultimate decision by Mary that “Let it be done to me according to your word” conclusively and forever changed cosmic and spiritual history. For at the moment she said “Yes” to Gabriel, our salvation and redemption, through the Cross, began.

Let us not forget, however, that Mary’s “Yes” had a tremendous affect on her, too.  It required a great cost from her personally because it resulted in the Crucifixion – it resulted in the sacrifice of her own son Jesus – and – the sacrifice of her own heart.

Blessed John Paul 2 speaks of this when he says:  “Mary in a particular way – unlike any other – experienced mercy, and at the same time, made her participation in the revelation of the Divine Mercy possible with the sacrifice of her own heart.  Such a sacrifice is closely bound up with the Cross of Her Son, at which she was to stand at Calvary… No one has experienced the mystery of the Cross as did the Mother of the Crucified…. Mary is therefore the person who knows the Divine Mercy most deeply. She knows the price; she knows how high it is.”

He goes on to say, “Maybe there is another point: for all people are born at Mary’s Yes.” This must be understood: such a Yes in imitation of Mary creates joy, a new life, a breath, a blessing;” it creates opportunities for us to  sacrifice our own hearts in imitation of her and the Holy Family.

So as we enter the 5th week of Lent let us celebrate this Solemnity by trying our best to live like our Blessed Mother – a person with complete confidence in the Lord. Let us say Yes to God in imitation of Mary and allow the Lord to work wonders in our own lives, as well.

Images in order of appearance: A 13th Century Byzantine icon of the Annunciation from St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai; Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Annunciation (1898); John William Waterhouse’s Annunciation (1914); and Bartolome E. Murillo’s Annunciation completed between 1660 -1665, and please don’t forget to do some research and take a closer look at one of Fra Angelico’s versions of the Annunciation! Please also notice that in Waterhouse’s and Murillo’s renditions both artists have included the tradition that Mary was in the process of sewing the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the outer room which housed the Altar of Incense in the Temple in Jerusalem; other artists, such as El Greco, do that too.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved