Mary, Mary Everywhere*

I’ve started this post in my head several times in the last few days, but it keeps changing before I get an opportunity to sit down and write. At first it was simply going to be a “Where’s Waldo” reflection on looking for statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary on street corners (they’re everywhere here in Belgium; statues, that is, not just street corners). But then I started worrying about what this profusion of Marys might mean. A day or so ago, I hit my Protestant wall: I was no longer tickled to spot yet another Virgin peeking out over the doorway or under a spangled canopy overlooking the street, but rather almost disgusted at the near idolatry of it all. Then I started getting depressed. Was I the only one even paying attention to the fact that the Virgin Mother of God was supposedly watching over every street? Many of the statues are chipped and apparently uncared for. Perhaps Belgians notice them only when tourists clutter up the sidewalk taking pictures of them. I started to assume that the corner-Marys were rather of a piece with the churches: there but not there in people’s consciousness; not really art but not devotional objects either. Just part of the furniture of the street, like cobblestones and gabled rooftops.

Which just goes to show how wrong first—and even second or third—impressions can be. Having visited a few more churches further off the more usual path that the tourists have beaten, I am now somewhat less convinced than I was earlier this week that Belgians are indifferent to religion. Okay, so maybe they’re not in church every Sunday (I haven’t actually tested this by going myself; mea culpa), but then, as I understand it, this has always been a challenge for Catholics, even in the States. Protestants (forgive me if this is too sweeping a description, I’m going on broad impressions here) focus on the regular hearing of the Word, therefore, on attendance at sermons every week. Catholics, at least historically, focus rather on the administration of the sacraments. Which is not to say that the Protestants don’t observe the sacraments, at least baptism and the Eucharist, but rather that Catholics worry less about attendance at church as such and more about whether the sacraments themselves are being kept: baptism, confirmation, marriage, ordination, extreme unction, penance and Mass. Five of these occur only once in one’s lifetime, if at all (marriage and ordination being, at present, mutually exclusive), while penance and communion may be regularly repeated, ideally one (communion) after the other (penance). Theoretically, therefore, it is entirely possible to be a good Catholic by going to church only five times in one’s life, although I suspect most would argue this is stretching things a bit.

Nor is this an accurate description of what, once I got off the tourist trail, I have found in the churches I’ve visited the past couple of days. To be sure, even in the churches that the tourists frequent, there are candles burning before many of the images, but, as I’ve said, it’s sometimes difficult to know why they’ve been lit. I had no such questions about the purposes of this image.

What is the relationship between art and devotion? Not the most original question, I know; the art historians have been troubling themselves with it for decades, if not centuries. But I’ve been thinking about it this past week as my photographic collection of Marys only continues to grow. I confess I find the icon’s setting on an altar that is relatively free of ornament much more devotionally effective than the majority of the exuberant Baroque churches characteristic of the region, but why, exactly, should this be? My cultural Protestantism must contribute here to a certain extent, but then, as a medievalist, I am also habituated to deplore the iconoclasm of the Protestant reform and the consequent loss to ecclesiastical ornament of so much color and detail, not to mention figural, narrative and symbolic form. And yet, as I’ve said, if not my first impression of the churches of Belgium, then most certainly my second has been one of excess: I don’t know where to look when devotional images seem to be everywhere. Nor, and here I am even more embarrassed by my failure of empathy, can I help but notice that many of the images, including those explicitly the focus (thanks to the candles) of devotional attention, artistically are not, well, very good. Again, hardly an original observation, but here it is, staring me in the face.

This is the state of mind I was in the day before yesterday, as my son and I wandered around Bruges. It hit particularly hard when we got to the Jerusalemkerk with its intentional echoing of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, complete with an image of Christ in the tomb.

Despite the requests (in four languages) to respect the sanctity of the space, the image itself is in rather poor shape, dusty and chipped, exactly the kind of prop for devotion that the sixteenth-century Protestants so abhorred. Who could take this travesty of the pilgrimage impulse seriously? And then we went back into the center of town, to the Heilig Bloed Basiliek (Basilica of the Holy Blood), arriving just in time for the veneration of the actual relic. As I said to my son as he studied the blood-like substance in its sausage-shaped glass phial, “If it is real, this is the most amazing thing you have ever seen in your life. This is the test: do you believe?” Suddenly, there we were, pilgrims giving our offering and attention in the hope of being brought somehow closer to God, who Himself came to earth in the flesh—and blood—so as to enable human beings like us to come to Him. If we believe that He did this, then we should also believe that it is possible that, yes, there could be some material—in the sense of matter—relic of His presence on earth, perhaps even His blood.

So do I—did I in that moment—believe? What I saw was a long line (relative to the space, which is not that great) of people waiting to ascend the stairs and look upon the phial, held at both ends by a woman in white, her face solemn but, as I learned when I looked at her, willing to smile. I did not see anyone kiss the phial, but many knelt and crossed themselves, and almost everyone came down the opposite stairs only to sit down quietly and wait, unwilling, it seemed, to leave while the relic was still present. It was at this point that I began to revise what the Marys on all the street corners and in the churches surrounded by all the candles might mean. Perhaps, after all, the Belgians don’t really attend as consciously as they might to the presence of the Blessed Virgin in their midst, but just because the images are dusty and chipped does not necessarily mean they don’t care for them. As a Protestant, I could easily argue that it is because they can get dusty and chipped that the images are spiritually dangerous: they are so very clearly of this world, not in any way divine, but only works of man, subject to damage and decay. But, then, of course, that is somewhat the point of the Incarnation: God willed Himself to become subject to death if not also decay. And Mary was the one who gave birth to Him in this passible, mortal flesh.

My failing at the moment is to prefer certain images of Mary to others, which then makes me worry about the different between devotion and aesthetic response. Again, not a new question, but one that I am nevertheless hard put to answer. Is beauty necessary to (and congruent with) the expression of the divine or is it a temptation leading away from God to the contemplation of His creatures? I will leave this question for another post. For the moment, I want simply to share with you some of the many Virgins I have seen, every one, I now realize, the expression of a prayer that God, like a mother, may be present in our midst.



  1. What does the last phrase in Latin mean?

  2. As a person of Mexican background, I can relate to having images of the Blessed Mother all over and everywhere. I'll be going to Mexico in about 6 weeks and one of the things I hope to do is take an endless sea of photos of Her, not only in churches, but storefronts and, like you, all over!

    A part of this is like sanctifying the land. It's a holy place, not just because a church may be nearby. It's all sacred.

    Some of this has to do with a person's/community's specific devotion. I, for example, have a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her image abounds in my homes the same as images of my son.

    Some of the store owners in Mexico may choose an image of Our Lady under another title: Juquila, San Juan de Los Lagos, Zapopan, Roble, Agua Leguas. . .

    It's not so much something about art, at least not so much so for the Mexican community. It is the story behind the devotion. How did Our Lady come to be known in Juquila? Why is She so venerated as San Juan de Los Lagos? When did she become known in Zapopan? It's these stories behind the devotion, not so much the artistic rendition.

    And it's about symbol. This always seems to be hardest thing for non-Catholics to comprehend. The symbol represent, but the symbol isn't it. I have a picture of my mother taken when she was about six years old. One of my sisters has had it copied and cleaded up. Yet, I can't manage to part with this old, tattered photo of my mom in her youth. It's nothing more than kodak paper. But it holds a sacred memory. To rid myself of this photo, even though a much better, newer, clearer one exists, is just a heart breaking thing to do.

    The same with some of the images. They may be chipped and tattered. But that is one of the things that draw the faithul. The images, as it were, have a memory attached.

    And, if I may, respond to the other comment. . . The Latin is the text to the "Hail Mary" prayer.

    "Hail Mary,
    Full of Grace,
    The Lord is with thee.
    Blessed art thou among women,
    and blessed is the fruit
    of thy womb, Jesus.
    Holy Mary,
    Mother of God,
    pray for us sinners now,
    and at the hour of death. Amen."

    Thanks for your wonderful photos!
    God Bless!


  3. It good to see someone else trying to respond here. I was in san diego and often visited Tiajuana. This was in 1990. Even then I thought it was a wonderful place and people. Though, with the exception of Ave. Revolution, it was poor in many places dilapidated and yet the people were overwhelmingly good and honest. I can't speak so much for recognizing Catholic icons everywhere, but it wasn't hard to realize there was a stout connection to God, their culture and more importantly their family. I admired that. It truly a beautiful thing.

  4. "A part of this is like sanctifying the land. It's a holy place, not just because a church may be nearby. It's all sacred."

    Beautifully put! And thank you, too, for your thoughts on how the images are about story as well as beauty. This is clearly the case with some of the Virgins that I've seen, particularly the older ones that have been revered for hundreds of years.

  5. To give the Latin for the complete "Ave, Maria," including the final petition added in the 16th century:

    Ave, Maria, gratia plena,
    Dominus tecum.
    Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
    et benedictus fructus ventris tui.
    Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
    ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
    nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.


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