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Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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The Trembling Veil of the Virgin Mary (Part Two)

Paul Kiritsis - Sunday, October 09, 2011

Another honorary title was conferred upon the Virgin Mary shortly afterwards when, at the council of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, Patriarch Anatolius of Constantinople declared her Aeiparthenos or “Ever-Virgin”. Save for having inducted her into an illustrious role of honour which included the goddesses Isis and Cybele, the title also elevated her above all other mortals as a Jewish woman whose virginal purity had remained unsoiled despite having birthed the Saviour in Jesus Christ. Moreover, she had now completed her ascendency as the new cultural canon of the divine feminine, having supplanted both Isis and Cybele in their mutual role as “Mother of the Gods”. It was the Perpetual Virgin Mary who was now the Mother of God, and the implications of such a dignitary role in the ascendant religion were that she needed places of worship.

Indeed the transference of power from the old mother goddesses to the Virgin Mary, from the feminine aesthetic as numinous and all-encompassing formative force to merely a vessel from whence the masculine equivalent of this force originated, took all of about one hundred years to complete, if that. On August 352ce, an apparition of the Virgin Mary seen by Pope Liberius was the apparent influence behind the founding and construction of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Interestingly, the church was built on the site of a temple formerly consecrated to the goddess Cybele. At about the same time, Christian priests stripped the inner sanctuary of the Parthenon in Athens of a marvellous chryselephantine statue made in the image of Pallas Athena and fled with it to Constantinople, where it was subsequently dismantled and its parts sold in the marketplace. Shortly afterwards, the Parthenon was declared the sacrosanct dwelling of the Virgin Mary. The Ptolemaic temple complex at Philae in Egypt was the last abode of the mother goddess as the creatrix of the universe, nature and all life. Here, she had been worshipped in her Egyptian form as Isis and Hathor before the Byzantine Emperor Justinian put an end to thousands of years of secular worship by closing her temple in 551ce and banishing her priests. When a church was built on the site the Virgin Mary became the new mistress of Philae, albeit fleetingly, and the priests who converted to the Christian faith were allowed to stay.

In acquiring sites formerly belonging to the ancient mother goddesses the Virgin Mary also inherited their dispositions. Athena Parthenos once stood at the helm of all classical philosophers as the goddess of wisdom but she had also been the goddess of war. Had she not come to the aid of classical heroes like Perseus, Jason, Odysseus and Heracles who sought to subdue their superhuman foes for some greater cause? Hence as Alexander the Great wore her Corinthian helmet for luck and dedicated many his battle triumphs in her name, so too did the Byzantine Emperors of the seventh and eighth centuries ce use Marian images as apotropaic symbols and talismans to deflect the negative energies of invading forces and attract to themselves favourable outcomes in war. In 610ce Emperor Heraclius (575-646ce) went to war against Phocas, a despised usurper he often referred to as “that Gorgon’s head”, with images of the Virgin Mary strapped onto the masts of his ships. Some sixteen years later, the patriarch Sergius the First of Constantinople stepped in as regent to defend the Great City against the besieging Avars and immediately ordered giant images of the Virgin and the babe Jesus be painted onto the west gates of the city. The gesture of apotropaic magic worked, for the invading fleet was destroyed by a sudden tempest. In 717ce, newly crowned Emperor Leo the Third incited a religious precession in the midst of a Saracen attack in which effigies of the Virgin and Child together with a relic of the True Cross were carried around the impermeable Theodosian Walls for exactly the same purpose.  

Between the sixth and the eight centuries ce, the popularity of the Virgin Mary exploded. Accompanying the consecration of her shrines were beautiful liturgies, prayers, invocations and medieval tales that were spun around a predominantly hermetic core and illuminated it from various trajectories. In all of them, Mary was the principle mediator between the ethereal and material worlds as well as the merciful intercessor for souls that had been touched by the devil. In an eighth century legend somewhat reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian love for mythologising the lives of historical figures and tainting them with the supernatural, a Faust figure based on Theophilus of Adana makes the tragic mistake of using sorcery to ascertain ecclesiastical eminence. There are numerous variants of the tale whereby particulars and embellishments are different, but all are underrun by a core narrative in which the wily devil appears before Theophilus and bestows upon him a lifelong award of serendipity in exchange for an eternal allegiance that is to be consummated through a pact written and signed in his own blood.

Like the vast majority of people to have graced the planet, Theophilus succumbs to an irresistible lust for immediate providence and accepts the offer. In time, however, he comes to repent for a foolhardy decision which could only ever benefit a transitory condition of the ego and beseeches the Virgin for forgiveness and redemption. Intransigent in her expression of empathy and compassion towards those who seek it, the Virgin Mary severs the devil’s stranglehold and then facilitates conciliation between Theophilus’s lost soul and the estranged Father in heaven. Thus in a legend which appears to be the prototype for all medieval tales concerning magic and the conjuration of demons, we see the Virgin Mary growing into a role later ascribed to her by the Catholic Church as the redeemer of an ancestral sin that had been drawn to the human condition through Eve’s disobedience of divine law. Mary’s powers of intercession are also newly formed features of a role which also belonged to that “Great Magician”, the Egyptian Isis. In a second century Latin novel by Lucius Apuleius titled “The Golden Ass” the protagonist makes a tragic mistake during an act of magical evocation which transforms him into a donkey. He prays to the goddess Isis for help, who agrees to rescind the spell on condition that he dedicates the remainder of his life to her service.

In any case the Faust-like legend laid the foundation stone for a divine nature reflected in the middle ground of a hierarchical cosmic order and echoed in a level of worship relative to that position. The triune aspect of the Creator himself as God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit is wholly ineffable, ethereal and incomprehensible, a condition which demands a total surrender to an absolute and blind sacrificial reverence known as “latria”, or adoration. The saints, on the other hand, are mere mortals who’d dedicated their lives to extolling and propagating the virtues of God’s remarkable and wholly benevolent plan. Hence they are worthy of a non-sacrificial form of fraternal love, praise and honour known as “doulia”, or veneration. Last but not least is the Virgin Mary, who is often portrayed standing between the heavens and earth on the apse of Christian churches worldwide. She is, in the eyes of the Christian faith, the single most exalted human being to ever live and stands well above the saints in eminence. Having said this, though, the cultural canon of the Virgin Mary initiates a radical departure from a divine nature and being indigenous to her predecessors Isis and Cybele. All share the same title in being Mothers of Gods, but the former is merely a vessel through which the divine seed emanated. Despite the fact that Mary brings forth the divine, she herself is not divine–she is human. Furthermore whatever powers she may possess in performing miracles and curing ailments are granted to her by God. She is, in essence, the ethereal embodiment of the moon which shines only by reflecting light. By this logic it was agreed amongst the church fathers that she is worthy of “hyperdoulia”, or superior veneration. This non-sacrificial form of worship also underpins the Greek version of her name, “Panagia”, meaning ‘she who is above the saints’.        

Iconic representation of the Virgin Mary, either on her lonesome or with the babe Jesus Christ, adhered to a conventional and ecclesiastical standard of being rather monotonous and colourless during the entire length of the Middle Ages, a phenomenon which thankfully dissipated with the coming of the Italian Renaissance. During an avant-garde age which saw the establishment of Cosimo de Medici’s Platonic Academy in Florence and the reawakening of classical ideals through the translation of Platonic texts, the pseudonymous writings of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Hymns of Orpheus, artists began to recollect the extrinsic and historical aspect of an archetypal feminine power that had become rather restricted and literal in its meaning to accommodate for an unconscious tug towards masculine yang-consciousness. It appears that the self-regulating mechanism of the collective human psyche needed to reinstate the balance between feminine-yin and masculine-yang energies, and the result of having been deprived of the former for so long finally manifested as an obsession and preoccupation with its external image in art, religious rites and folklore.

In his “Madonna della Rondine” (The Virgin of the Swallow), Carlo Crivelli (1435-95ce) painted the Virgin and Child with symbols which formerly composed the heraldry of the old mother goddesses. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506ce) did the same with a sixteenth-century altarpiece titled “Madonna of Victory” which vividly recalled, amongst other things, the old Goddesses of War. Whereas the just mentioned kept to Marian art, Sandro Boticelli (1445-1510ce) and Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72ce) wedged their paintbrushes deeper into the collective unconscious and attained colours and hues in which the divine feminine spirit was once a wholly transcendental being who’d brought forth the manifest and unmanifest mysteries of the cosmos from within herself. As the quintessence of life and cosmic womb she was once the Queen of the Heaven, the Earth and the Underworld, the progenitor of a totality experienced through the dualities of love and hate, light and dark, future and past, seed and child, friend and enemy, honour and disgrace, betrayal and fidelity, and so forth. Indeed, paintings like Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and Bronzino’s “Allegory” revivify aspects of an anima or female archetype that had once encompassed the totality of life, but they do so from a newfound context in which the sphere of femininity and the natural world are now enslaved to a deathly punishment imposed by Eve’s betrayal of the divine. Whilst it remains true that these Renaissance greats did in fact peer beneath the religious iconography of Virgin and Child that had circumscribed the feminine archetype for centuries on end, they were merely recounting it from a reductionist and a flat, two-dimensional perspective. For them Venus, the Goddess of Love, wasn’t the numinous force that birthed and gathered seemingly disparate aspects of creation back into herself, as the ancient cultures believed. She was an instinctual, unlawful and lascivious being motivated by lust; the same face of Eve that had been responsible for all human misery and travail.

Further details of a corporeal life that had been absent from Biblical scripture began to circulate sometime in the thirteenth century. According to the teaching of eminent Christian priests and scholars that included a catalyst of the Protestant Reformation in Martin Luther (1483-1546ce), the Virgin Mary was a Jewish maiden who’d been born free of ancestral sin and had remained unsoiled from such throughout the duration of her life. In 1854ce, Pope Pious IX had this belief ratified as ecclesiastical dogma by decreeing that Mary had been Immaculately Conceived by Anne whilst she herself had Immaculately Conceived her divine son Jesus Christ. The official sanction did very little to alleviate the enigma at the heart of the Christian faith, explicitly as to why God the Son would depart for heaven leaving  the sinless receptacle that was his own mother to an inevitable condition reserved for the rest of the living human populace who’d inherited ancestral sin.

More apocryphal texts circulated to make sense of this divine contradiction. These revealed that the Virgin Mary survived into her seventies and died on a bier somewhere in Ephesus (the old cult centre of the Great Mother Goddess Artemis) surrounded by all but one of the apostles. Having been held up somewhere, St. Thomas didn’t arrive until after her body had been interred in its final resting place. This didn’t deter him from attempting to reopen the tomb though, for he wished to peer upon the body of the one and only Mother of God one last time and bid her a final farewell. In all it was a bittersweet affair; he succeeded in his quest, only to find that her sarcophagus was empty. The implication here is that she did not suffer the physical corruptibility that is a natural consequence of death, but rather that her body had been wholly assumed into heaven. In 1950ce, Pope Pius XII officially decreed that the Virgin Mary had been ‘taken up, body and soul, into the glory of heaven’ in  a religious celebration that became known as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Kimisis tis Theotokou (The Falling Asleep of the God-bearer) in Greek Orthodox Christianity. Shortly afterwards, in 1954ce in fact, the Virgin Mary regained an honour that had been indigenous to her former incarnations; she became the “Queen of Heaven,” finally elevated to a position which the untutored Catholic priests had failed to recognise as her birthright from the very beginning.   

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