Our Lady, the Ark of the Covenant

Pop quiz: which of these two images represents the Virgin Mary? Hint: you can find both of them in the Cathedral at Antwerp, the one on the left on a pillar to the right of the altar, looking out over the people as they pray; the one on the right in one of the two main side chapels of the cathedral.

The answer, of course, as I am sure you have already guessed, is both of them, but I suspect you are wondering why. I remembered the pillar image from my first visit to the cathedral, eight years ago when my brother moved here and I came to see him the summer that I was starting on my current research project on the Hours of the Virgin. I had forgotten about the Ark, and yet there it was. Indiana Jones could not have been more surprised.

We like to think of the Ark primarily as a mystery of the Old Testament: the gilded box in which the ancient Hebrews carried the tablets of the Law written by the finger of God and brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai or Horeb (Exodus 25:10-28, Deuteronomy 9-10). As everyone knows, or thanks to Indiana Jones, thinks we know, the ancient Israelites carried the Ark in battle as they conquered the land promised to them by the LORD.* When not carried in battle, the Ark was kept in the Temple of Solomon, more specifically, in the Holy of Holies, where it served as a throne for the presence of the LORD, as it says in the Psalms: "The LORD reigneth, let the people tremble; he sitteth between the cherubims, let the earth be moved" (Psalm 99:1 KJV).

But, as Dr. Jones explained to the army intelligence officers, the Ark was lost sometime in antiquity, possibly taken to Babylon along with the other temple furniture (1 Esdras), possibly (as 2 Maccabees 2:4-10 would have it) hidden away by Jeremiah along with the tabernacle and the altar of incense before the Babylonians captured the city of Zion in 587 BC. Alternately, according to the Babylonian Talmud Horayoth 12a, the Ark had already been hidden away at the time of King Josiah (d. 609 BC), along with the anointing oil, Aaron's flowering almond rod, and the jar of manna. These same items, as Margaret Barker points out, were listed by the author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews as having been kept in the Holy of Holies (Hebrews 9:4), suggesting at the very least that the tradition associating the Ark not just with the tablets of the Law (1 Kings 8:9, 2 Chronicles 5:10), but also the other items mentioned by the late antique rabbis was well-known to the early Christians.

More to the point, the early Christians, more specifically the author of Revelation, believed they knew exactly where the Ark was. As the seer recorded, when at the Great Angel's behest he had eaten the book and measured the temple, and the seventh angel had sounded the trumpet,
the temple of God was opened in heaven: and the ark of the testament was seen in his temple. And there were lightnings and voices and an earthquake and great hail. And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
As Barker explains, while in modern Bibles, these two verses (Revelation 11:19-12:1) tend to be read separately, as describing two different mysteries, in fact, read without the chapter divisions that were added in antiquity and the verse numberings added in the Middle Ages, they clearly refer to one: the temple opening in heaven where the Ark was seen. The Ark, like the sign, appeared in heaven, that is, Barker explains, the Holy of Holies. And the great sign seen in the Holy of Holies was the woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, crowned with twelve stars, who, as it says in verse 5, "brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod," as it says in the Psalms: "Thou shalt rule them with a rod of iron, and shalt break them in pieces like a potter's vessel" (Psalm 2:9 Vulgate). Mary, as medieval exegetes argued, was this Woman.

More recently, Scott Hahn has argued for significant narrative parallels between Luke's account of the Visitation and King David's journey from Jerusalem to the house of Abinadab to bring the Ark into the city of which he had been anointed king (2 Samuel 6). The tradition, however, is a very ancient one, as I show in my (mirabile dictu!) forthcoming book. As Richard of St.-Laurent (my main guy, you will want to know all about him!) put it in the mid-thirteenth century in his De laudibus beatae Mariae virginis (lib. 10, cap. 1, n. 1, my paraphrase, his scriptural citations):
Possibly the church
where Richard is buried.
Mary is the ark because in her God hid himself (Isaiah 45:15). The material ark was made that in it might be preserved memorials of the divine activity: the rod (virga) in memory of the liberation from Egypt, the manna in memory of the feeding in the desert, the tablets of the giving of the Law (Hebrews 9:4). Mary, the spiritual ark, was made "that in her might be placed the price of our liberation." The rod signifies his divine nature, for the Son of God is the power of God (Psalm 109:2 Vulgate); the two tablets signify his created nature, namely his soul, with its intellect and affect; the manna signifies his corporeal nature, pure of all stain of original sin except its penalties. This manna is the bread that Wisdom prepared (Wisdom 16:20), and the bread for which Christians pray, saying, "Give us today our daily bread."
Richard was a deacon of the metropolitan church at Rouen; his tomb has been found at Les Andelys, about four and half hours by car from my brother's house. I do not know enough about the cathedral at Antwerp (or, rather, haven't tried to find out, a girl needs a few mysteries) to know why there is an ark there. What I do know is Mary meant me to see it yesterday, perhaps even as a sign. I have not found any manuscripts of Richard associated with Antwerp, but I do know this much: in 1625, the printing house of Martin Nutium published the first edition of Richard's work to be correctly attributed to him, all previous printed editions having suggested that his work was by Albert the Great. Martin Nutium was a publisher in Antwerp.
As Sallah says to Indiana when they decipher the headpiece of the Staff of Ra (I paraphrase): "We've been digging in the wrong place!" Perhaps Abner Ravenwood is not the only professor at the University of Chicago to know something about the Ark.

*I have a Note to the Reader about this way of rendering the Name in my book. The all-caps refers to the Tetragrammaton, the Name Too Holy To Be Pronounced, translated as Kyrios in the Septuagint, Dominus in the Vulgate, and LORD in the King James Version of the Bible.

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