The Image of Jesus’ Mother Has Changed Throughout History

January 30, 2014

While standing on the bimah, an elevated platform where the Torah is read during the service, on a sultry summer night in 1970 while preparing to preach at a Shabbat Service at a synagogue in Phoenix, AZ., Dr. Mary Christine Athans had an epiphany: “This is how Jesus and Mary would have prayed on earth. That night changed my spirituality forever.”

Speaking recently before an audience of nearly 125 students, faculty, and community members at Saint Leo University, the noted author and religious scholar recounted how the image of Mary, mother of Jesus, has changed during the course of history. She portrayed Mary as a woman of great courage, strength, and prayer. In restoring Mary to her own time and place, she helped the audience rediscover Mary’s message for our own time. The program was sponsored by Saint Leo University Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies and the Franciscan Center.

Before introducing the “Jewish” Mary, Dr. Athans took attendees through a brief art history presentation. During the Patristic period, Mary had an image as an icon, or regal figure– almost like an Empress. During Medieval times, Mary was portrayed as the lady par excellence as cathedrals were built in her honor such as Notre Dame in France and others like it in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Mary and Jesus were held in reverence as Mary became the great intercessor. As a period of humanism evolved during the Renaissance with a rebirth of arts, science and letters, emphasis was placed on the human body which was reflected in images of Mary. The most powerful of these is Michelangelo’s masterpiece sculpture, The Pieta, housed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion, which balances the Renaissance ideals of classical beauty with naturalism.

During the Pre-Vatican II period in the mid to late 19th century, emphasis was on Nordic supremacy and most of the images of Mary were blond-haired and blue-eyed. Devotionalism and spirituality at the time described Mary as a special person – “The Immaculate Heart of Mary.” During Vatican II and after, there was a push for simplicity and cosmic images of Mary emerged – Mary as “Queen of the Universe.” The image of her with the lamb suggest her presence with Jesus and she was pronounced an abiding anchor.

In researching for her book “In Quest of the Jewish Mary: The Mother of Jesus in History, Theology, and Spirituality,” Dr. Athans became fascinated with the Pharisees and their role in Jesus’ and Mary’s lives. Her study showed that Jesus was actually closer to the Pharisees, the ancient religious leaders and teachers who followed the Oral Law, the Torah and lived in a constant state of purity, than any other group.

Upon further research in the Loyola University-Chicago library, Dr. Athans found a fascinating publication that studied women in the Biblical world. With this, she saw women of the era in a whole new light, bringing her to this reflection on how Mary would have prayed, and the strong possibility that women were members of this assemblage during the Second Temple period.

Mary prayed faithfully — as would other Jewish women of the time. Even as an illiterate, she knew her psalms and prayers by heart and recited the ancient Hebrew table prayers. She participated in the monthly mikvah, or ritual purification bath, and fasted and prayed all day on Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.

In the lowly stable in Bethlehem, Mary contemplated the birth of her son, Jesus – the savior of the world. According to Dr. Athans, Mary would have recounted with Joseph a traditional Jewish prayer – giving thanks to the Father for “giving us life, sustaining us, and that which brought us to this very moment.”

In closing, Dr. Athans offered this observation: “We tend to 'impose' our approaches to prayer on Mary instead of asking how Mary might have prayed in her own time.”