Written by S.J. Duca. Originally published in Family Foundations.
There is a temptation to grow weary of the familiar. We see so many images of the Virgin Mary that they can begin to blur and lose significance. There’s also a temptation to tire of the familiarity of domestic life, especially in a culture that devalues interiority and motherhood. Perhaps in rediscovering the art we can rediscover the reality. In a special way, images of Mary as pregnant can breathe a new life into our homes. If we learn to look closely, these images draw us into the mysterious meeting of two worlds — human and divine — and help us see pregnancy as one incredible place where those worlds meet. Whatever your style of home decor, have no doubt that there’s a Marian image for you.
Our Lady of the Sign
For the vintage lovers, consider Our Lady of the Sign, hands raised in praise, Christ nestled in a circle covering her body. Art historian Matthew Milliner delightfully calls this ancient, symbol-laden image “Sonogram Mary” because of the take-home image it offers of Jesus in the womb.
In one image, in one glance, this icon sums up a vast concept — the immensity of an eternal Christ in the womb of a young girl — giving us the opportunity to reflect on the role of a mysterious pregnancy in the story of salvation, in bringing God-made-man to earth.
In this pregnant Mary’s openness, there is a model for responding to the mysteries in our own lives: with trust, without pretension. The icon evokes Caryll Houselander’s poetic words, “The way to begin healing the wounds of the world is to treasure the Infant Christ in us; to be not the castle but the cradle of Christ; and, in rocking that cradle to the rhythm of love, to swing the whole world back into the beat of the Music of Eternal Life.”
Mary of the Annunciation
Several centuries later, Henry Ossawa Tanner gave us a more realistic Mary in the earliest moments of her pregnancy, a not-so-distant portrayal for more modern sensibilities. His Annunciation paints a young, thoughtful Mary in a simple, even austere bedroom. A few urns and jars in the background add to the realism and evoke Mary’s title of “Spiritual Vessel.”
This Mary’s attention is absorbed with a mystery in her presence; she looks with quiet intimacy at a strange, magnificent beam of light in the corner. The artist’s blend of realism and mystery suggests that we too could be watching for glimpses of another world, glimpses which might come even amidst unmade beds and wrinkled rugs.
Without diminishing the “otherness” of Divine mystery, there’s a relatability to this image, which quietly assures us that the call to carry the mystery of God extends to today, no matter how rote, messy, or unseen today is. While some are called to missionary service across the world, many are called to a deeper interiority, a deeper home life, and to deepen existing relationships.
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Of all the myriad Marian images that exist, perhaps my favorite is the miraculous tilma of Guadalupe, as on it Mary chose to reveal herself as a pregnant mother. We know this because, while Mary’s loose hair in the image is an Aztec symbol of virginity, her belt indicates pregnancy, and the rays surrounding her are brightest near her womb.
Like an inscription to the image are Mary’s own words to Juan Diego, which wrap any listener up in the comfort only a mother can bring: “Listen, and let it penetrate your heart… do not be troubled or weighted down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother?”
Again, femininity, fruitfulness, and motherhood are offered to us as beautiful and comforting, something history-changing, a place of heaven and earth mingling.
Taken as a whole, maybe the most striking aspect of this trio of images is the peace and receptivity of Mary in the presence of another world breaking through into her life, even into her womb. Whether it’s the shaft of light glowing in the bedroom in Tanner’s painting, or the Guadalupe tilma surviving intact for nearly 500 years, each image points to the relentless mystery of the Divine life, but she receives it so intimately and lovingly as to invite us closer rather than evoke fear.
It begs the question: In openness to new life and fruitfulness in our own lives, how are we, like Mary, caught up in a Divine mystery that seeks to meet us in our humanity?
All three of these images are worth so much more reflection. And they are certainly worth hanging in our houses. They give us a reminder, inviting us to marvel at femininity and to look for the glimpses of eternity made manifest in our own homes and bodies.
But for now, take a last look at your favorite of these images of Mary as mom-to-be, and pair it with this poignant reflection by Houselander:
“In this great fiat of the little girl Mary, the strength and foundation of our life of contemplation is grounded, for it means absolute trust in God, trust which will not set us free from suffering but will set us free from anxiety, hesitation, and above all from the fear of suffering. Trust which makes us willing to be what God wants us to be, however great or however little that may prove. Trust which accepts God as illimitable Love.”