Dec 1, 2023
"In our zeal to project our conceptions of The Ideal Woman onto this enigmatic first-century figure, we’ve strayed a bit from the little we do know."
Considering how important she is to Christianity, it is surprising how little information the New Testament provides about the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is despite the fact that, even during Jesus’s lifetime, people held strong opinions about her. According to St. Luke, Christ’s preaching was once interrupted by a follower who shouted: “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” To which Jesus gave the quelling reply, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:27,28 NRSV).
Over the centuries, Jesus’s suggestion that Christians focus on our relationship with God, rather than speculate about Christ’s earthly family, has been widely ignored. Theologically, artistically, poetically, and musically, we have not been able to resist filling in the enormous gaps in the Gospels’ accounts of Mary with our own ideas about what a woman worthy of bearing the Son of God must have been like. Sometimes, in our zeal to project our conceptions of The Ideal Woman onto this enigmatic first-century figure, we’ve strayed a bit from the little we do know.
Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat, for example, portrays Mary as a stylish blonde Florentine aristocrat, surrounded by refined angel/courtiers as she coolly pens the Magnificat with one hand and dandles the infant Jesus in the other. It is a beautiful painting, far beyond my ability to praise adequately, but somehow, I just can’t imagine the woman it depicts giving birth in a barn.
To finish the Re-Imagining the Magnificat, click here.
Image: Madonna of the Magnificat, Sandro Botticelli. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
**This is a republication without modifications from blog.oup.
Canadian composer Tawnie Olson is inspired by politics, spirituality, the natural world, and the musicians for whom she composes. She is the winner of the 2018 Barlow Prize, a consortium commission for The Crossing, Seraphic Fire, and the BYU Singers, and the 2021-2023 National Opera Association Dominick Argento Chamber Opera Composition Competition (for Sanctuary and Storm, libretto by Roberta Barker). She is currently working on a new piece for Grammy-nominated Sandbox Percussion, funded by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.