Mother and Son, Paired
This chapter, provides evidence of the way Mary and her grown son were often paired in art, especially on objects used in the liturgy into the seventh century. This pairing also appears to be present in earlier art. I discuss the theory that the Council of Ephesus in 431 caused Mariology by calling Mary the Theotokos—and the resulting circular dating theory that has required Marian art to be dated later than that council. I argue that when compared to fourth-century iconography of Mary, the Maria Maggiore Basilica mosaics completed after the council do not elevate Mary.
One of the curiosities of history that suggests the magnitude of hidden early traditions about Mary is that, according to Averil Cameron, until the era of Iconoclasm images of Jesus with his mother “greatly outnumber” images of Jesus by himself.1 Given the modern pious imagination of Mary, one might assume that all these images of mother and son together depicted him as an infant sitting on her lap. That assumption would be wrong. The pairing of Mary and her infant son was important, but their pairing when he was a young man was apparently just as important or even more so.
As demonstrated in the last chapter, some artists vertically paired Mary with her son in scenes where she was depicted lifting her hands and leading the prayer, praising God, and blessing people, while Jesus was depicted in the heavens above her. This core vertical iconography is best explained as art of the Six Books scene where Mary raised her arms and prayed to her son. Other artists, however, paired mother and grown son horizontally. This horizontal pairing, likewise often depicting Mary arms-raised, is found on silver chalices, censers, processional crosses, gold bishops’ medallions (the encolpion), gospel book covers, church decoration, and reliquary boxes, as illustrated in this chapter. Most of this precious art is dated between the year 500 and the end of the seventh century and advent of Islam. Toward the end of this chapter, however, I will demonstrate that in some cases, this dating may be too conservative. Some objects may be older.
The pairing of mother and son in early Christian art is consistent with the way some narratives paralleled the importance of mother and son. For example, according to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus was conceived without a man’s seed—and, according to the Protevangelium, Mary also was conceived without a man’s seed, thusly conceived while her mother’s husband was in the wilderness for 40 days. The Protevangelium said an angel first went to Mary’s barren mother Anna and announced that she would conceive and next went to her husband, Joachim, who had been in the wilderness forty days, and announced that Anna had conceived.2 In the late fourth century, Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis treated this scene as gospel, as it is written. He did not question that Anna had conceived Mary without a man’s seed, but he bitterly complained that some people were using this “to make her God, or to have us make offerings in her name, or, again, to make women priestess es.”3 Perhaps, as Epiphanius complained, the belief that Mary was conceived without a man’s seed indeed was used to justify offerings in her name and women priests. If so, that might explain why later scribes redacted the scene to add that Mary had a human father. In one popular example, the angel instead announces to Joachim: “Know that she has conceived a daughter from thy seed.”4 Another scribe bluntly added: “Anna conceived from the seed of Joachim.”5 Yet another explained that Mary “was born of a father and a mother even as all men.”6
In another narrative parallel, the canonical gospels depict Jesus as dead, then resurrected, and the oldest surviving Dormition text depicts Mary as dead—and then her son resurrects her.7 Likewise, Luke 24:50 depicts Jesus bodily ascending after his resurrection—and the early Dormition text depicts Mary bodily ascending after her resurrection (in her son’s chariot).8 Accordingly, some Greek Dormition manuscripts use the same word for Mary’s ascension—analēpsis—that Luke 9.51 uses for the ascension of Jesus.9 Their two ascension scenes are paralleled on two side-by-side wood panels on the Santa Sabina Church doors in Rome dated 420–430.10 The parallel of their auspicious deaths persisted longer than the parallel of their births—no bones of either Jesus or Mary became relics in the medieval era, because Christians believed that both had been bodily taken up to heaven.
Their sacrificial roles also appear to have been seen as parallel from an early date. Jesus was seen as a sacrifice, and Lily Vuong has detailed how the Protevangelium described Mary as a Temple sacrifice.11 Writers called both mother and son the altar, the incense, the lamb, the ark; he was king, she was queen; he was prophet, she prophetess.12 The early fourth-century poet Ephrem the Syrian called them brother and sister, as well as mother and son.13 With these early literary parallels in mind, we examine the way that artists paralleled them on objects used in the liturgy.
Mother and Son Paired on Objects Used in the Liturgy
Early Byzantine silver objects, many of which were used during the Eucharistic liturgy, provide excellent examples of the liturgical pairing of mother and son. It was rare that Jesus was portrayed on one of these sacred utensils without his mother.14 Mother and son, or scenes from their respective lives, were typically placed on opposite faces. In some cases, each stands alone on opposite faces. Sometimes Mary is flanked by angels, or sometimes by male saints, although she may be flanked by a woman and a man on a silver flask that most likely held oil for anointing.
Some of the most exquisite examples of this mother and son pairing are on chalices found in buried hoards of church silver in the Eastern Mediterranean, primarily in and around Ancient Syria. A few chalices, such as three in the Beth Misona Treasure in the Cleveland Museum of Art, have facial portraits of Jesus and Mary on the opposite sides of each chalice.15 Most chalices portray their entire body. On these, Mary is almost always depicted with her arms raised.16 Likewise, Jesus is almost uniformly depicted as a beardless youth17—a characteristic of the earliest Christian art, such as in the Christian catacombs of Rome.18
Censers for incense were used during the liturgy, and many of these also depicted Jesus and Mary on opposite faces, including one of the three unstamped silver censers found with the chalices in the Attarouthi hoard.22 Other censers that paired mother and son are in the British Museum and the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich.23 A hexagonal censer probably made in Constantinople that portrays Mary, arms-raised, is also in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, but from a different hoard. It has silver stamps, which securely date it between 582 and 602.24
Other items likely used in the liturgy, or associated with the altar, paired Mary and Jesus. The silver Homs ewer in the Louvre Museum probably was used to hold the wine. It does not have silver stamps and therefore is broadly dated sixth to seventh century.25 Two silver reliquary boxes have survived that paired mother and son, neither of which depicts Mary with her arms raised. One, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, portrays Mary holding an open book. It was found near Pola, Croatia, and is unstamped, therefore broadly dated sixth or seventh century.26 The other box, in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, shows only Mary’s face. It has silver stamps dating it between 527 and 547.27
Mother and son were also paired on silver processional crosses. With respect to these large crosses, Maria Mundell Mango says it is important to distinguish between crosses and crucifixes, because crucifixes, which bear the body of Christ, do not appear until the Middle Byzantine period.32 Before then, Mary is often found in the center of the cross, and she continues to be even during the transition to crucifixes. For example, a medieval silver cross in the Musée de Cluny has several scenes from Mary’s life on it, including Mary holding her infant in the center of it; in another example, a copper cross in the Benaki Museum in Athens depicts Mary arms-raised in the center of the front of the cross and Jesus in a loincloth on the back.33 A large number of small wearable pectoral crosses in the same style—Mary arms-raised on the front and Jesus on the back—have survived from the Middle Byzantine period.34
Another example of an earlier silver processional cross with Jesus and Mary on it is the Čaginkom Cross in the Archeological Museum of Istanbul. It has silver stamps that date it between 527 and 547.35 The portrait of Mary is featured in the center of the cross. A portrait of Jesus is above Mary, at the top. The portrait of a female saint is below Mary, at the bottom. Portraits of archangels are at the ends of both arms of the cross.36
The pairing of scenes from Jesus and Mary’s respective lives is also on some gold pectoral medallions. A pectoral medallion like this is called an “encolpion.” It signifies episcopal authority and is worn hanging from the neck of the bishop. One encolpion dated circa 600 and unearthed in Adana, near Tarsus, is today in the Archeological Museum of Istanbul. One face has several small scenes featuring Mary—Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, the ride to Bethlehem, and the Adoration of the Magi (the wise men bearing gifts). The other face has seven small scenes of Jesus’s healings, miracles, and ministry.39 Yet another encolpion, dated 584 and unearthed in Cyprus, is now in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection. One face portrays Mary holding her infant, plus two small scenes of the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi. The other side comprises a large scene of the baptism of Jesus.40
Jesus and Mary sometimes were paired in church decoration. For example, the early fifth-century wood panel on the door of the Santa Sabina Church that depicted Mary with her arms raised beneath Jesus, in the Six Books scene of her death and ascension, was paired with a second, adjacent, wood panel that depicted Jesus’s own ascension.44 In another example, around the year 500, King Theodoric installed monolithic mosaics of Mary and Jesus seated on thrones facing each other across the nave on opposite sides of the altar apse in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Basilica in Ravenna.45 Along the walls of the nave, twenty-two women and three magi bearing gifts process toward the portrait of Mary, while on the opposite side, twenty-six men process toward Jesus. The mosaics of these saints date approximately sixty years later than the mosaics of Jesus and Mary and may have replaced older mosaics of earlier saints.46
Dividing the Mother-Son Dyad: The Maria Maggiore Mosaics
The dating controversy around the late fourth-century San Nazaro silver reliquary box, which continued until the recent technical investigation demonstrated that, indeed, the box was the same date as its late fourth-century strata. The late fourth-century dating of this silver reliquary box suggests that other Marian artifacts pairing mother and son—many of which have not been technically investigated—may also be older than currently dated. An example of such artifacts that are usually dated sixth century or later—but which could be older—are the unstamped silver chalices for the Eucharist, as well as other unstamped silver pieces associated with the liturgy that paired Mary and Jesus.
Between the years 500 and 670, silver was stamped with the reign of the emperor. If a silver object is stamped, it can be securely dated to the years during which that emperor reigned. Maria Marlia Mango did a study which, remarkably, indicated that only around a quarter of all silver pieces associated with the liturgy have silver stamps. Furthermore, the iconography of the unstamped pieces associated with the liturgy is substantially different than the iconography of the stamped pieces. For example, stamped objects seldom have figural decoration (such as images of Jesus and Mary). None of the silver chalices that paired Jesus and Mary were stamped.48 In addition, unstamped objects tend to have portraits of Jesus as a beardless boy without a cross—much like he was depicted in the Christian catacombs of Rome.49 Finally, unstamped silver pieces associated with the liturgy rarely have large crosses as part of their design, whereas the stamped silver pieces do.50 The lack of large crosses suggests that the unstamped pieces could be older, because the cross is virtually never seen in Christian art prior to the end of the fourth century and afterward only slowly became a featured motif.
Could unstamped silver liturgical objects that pair Mary and Jesus be older than the stamped pieces? That is, could they have been made prior to the year 500, when silver stamping began? There appears to be no reason that they could not be older. Yet, as the dating controversy around the San Nazaro silver reliquary box illustrates, modern art historians typically date objects that depict Mary later, to the sixth century, and beyond.
This late dating of Marian artifacts began with the old hypothesis that when the church fathers at the Council of Ephesus in 431 called Mary the “Theotokos,” they caused a gradual explosion of Mariology.51 This hypothesis assumes that Mariology would have taken a few decades to blossom and that therefore, with little exception, almost all Marian artifacts must have originated after the year 500. In circular fashion, this late dating of Marian artifacts then becomes evidence used to validate the original hypothesis.
Until recently, most scholars accepted the hypothesis that the bishops at the Council of Ephesus in 431 essentially caused Mariology by using the title Theotokos for Mary. Recently, some scholars have delicately pointed out that this title was already in use for Mary.52 Long before the Council of Ephesus, at least as early as the Council of Nicaea in 325, some bishops were already calling Mary “Theotokos,” and they were calling her that without any definition or explanation. According to Richard Price, “The use of the word is incidental: it is not explained or justified, and no weight is placed upon it. The implication is that by the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 the term was already in standard use.”53 The earliest undisputed use of Theotokos for Mary is in 319, when Bishop Alexander of Alexandria used Theotokos for Mary.54 Decades before the Council of Ephesus, some of the most influential people in the Empire—from the famed Trinitarian theologian Athanasius (296–273) to the pagan Roman Emperor Julian “the Apostate” (330–363)55—are recorded calling Mary the Theotokos. Additional evidence indicates the title was used for Mary in the third century.56
Consistent with the early use of Theotokos for Mary, literature that elevated Mary, such as the Protevangelium and the Dormition narrative, which portrayed Mary as someone who, like her son, was born without a man’s seed and bodily taken up to heaven, was composed centuries before the Council of Ephesus.57 Finally, as we saw earlier in Chapter 2, after the Council of Ephesus, some scribes were not elevating Mary, they were demoting her—they were excising passages that portrayed her with liturgical authority.
Recently, some scholars have questioned the validity of the old hypothesis that the Council caused Mariology.58 A false premise has kept the old hypothesis alive. That false premise is that the triumphal arch mosaics in the huge Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome elevated Mary. Since these mosaics were completed shortly after the Council of Ephesus, they are presented as evidence that, nonetheless, somehow, the Council must have kicked off Mariology. Over the decades, however, some art historians have quietly concluded that the Maria Maggiore mosaics do not elevate Mary as the Theotokos.59
The first clue that the Maria Maggiore Basilica mosaics were not designed to elevate Mary as Theotokos is that the basilica’s dedicatory inscription did not call her Theotokos. Nor did the inscription call Mary by her equivalent Western title, Mother of God. Instead, Sixtus III dedicated the basilica to Virgo Maria—the Virgin Mary.60
The third clue that these mosaics were not intended to elevate Mary is that the scene of the Adoration of the Magi (the wise men bearing gifts) was unique, never seen before and never seen again. Instead of elevating Mary’s motherhood, as was typical in older scenes of the Adoration of the Magi, the mosaic designer de-coupled mother and son. For the first time, the child was seen seated alone on a huge throne, his mother divided into two women seated on either side of him, neither touching him, much less holding him. This scene is so extraordinarily peculiar that Beat Brenk calls it “the most unusual scene in Early Christian art.”63
Although today we are accustomed to three men bearing gifts, neither Matthew, nor Luke nor the Protevangelium, specifies how many magi came. Early Christian artists portrayed two to four magi. These wise men were almost always dressed as Phrygians with colorful tunics, leggings, and floppy, peaked caps. In addition, their gifts were often depicted as large round platters, as if for communion bread, sometimes with tiny pieces on the platter, also seen in Fig. 5.9.
Here again, we see the magi dressed as Phrygians with their floppy caps and tunics, carrying large round platters laden with what appears to be pieces of bread. Yet here Mary does not hold her son. Cleo McNelly Kearns describes mother and son in older scenes of the Adoration of the Magi as a “unity” or “the mother-son dyad.”69 Here, the mosaic designer divided the mother-son dyad. This strange composition of the Adoration of the Magi suggests that the patron of these mosaics did not intend to elevate Mary or her motherhood. Not only is the mother-son dyad divided, but also we cannot even tell for certain which woman is his mother. Further signifying Mary’s demotion, neither of these women has a halo. Yet directly below them, King Herod—in the scene where he orders his soldiers to kill all the male children who were under two years old (Matthew 2:16)—has a large yellow halo.
Three more mosaic panels on the triumphal arch depict Mary, always without a halo. One, an Annunciation scene that portrays her weaving, a scene from the Protevangelium, naturally does not have her son in the scene with her because he was not yet conceived. The two that do depict her son with her further demonstrate that the patron of these mosaics wanted to symbolically demote Mary’s motherhood in the public eye.
Only one mosaic panel shows Mary actually touching her son. That panel is top right, high above the floor of the nave. In addition to the height, it is hard to identify Mary in it because she is off center and smaller than the people who are in the center.70 In the panel directly below this one, Mary is even further off center. In this scene, as in the scene of the Adoration of the Magi, Mary does not hold her son. Again the mother-son dyad is divided. A man was placed standing between Mary and her son. As if that were not enough to convince the laity in the nave that Mary was not all that important, the panel below again depicts Herod, with his big halo, directly below Mary—a positioning that appears to be intended to highlight that even compared to Herod the babykiller, Mary herself is not holy enough or regal enough—or Theotokos enough—to have a halo.71
One final detail strongly suggests that the patron of these mosaics wanted Mary to literally disappear. In all four registers, Mary is dressed in gold against a gold mosaic background—which makes her disappear into the background, as seen in Fig. 5.11. Some scholars propose that Mary dressed in gold suggests her elevation, either divine or imperial.72 Yet Mary does not have a halo, nor, as Maria Lidova notes, does she have a crown.73 Regardless why Mary was dressed in gold, the designer of these mosaics almost certainly knew that dressing Mary in the same gold color as the gold background would make her form disappear.
In conclusion, the premise that the Maria Maggiore mosaics elevate Mary is false. When compared with depictions of Mary in older art—whether on gold catacomb glass or in older scenes of the Adoration of the magi—it is apparent that the design of the Maria Maggiore mosaics was not intended to elevate her. The overall design of the mosaics appears to signify a powerful opposition to Mary as Theotokos—at least in the city of Rome at that moment in time.
This opposition, however, like the pope himself, was transitory. The strange iconography of the Adoration of the Magi is never seen again in art, despite that it was prominently displayed in one of the four largest basilicas in Christendom. Instead, art that elevated Mary continued to be installed in Rome. For example, around the year 700, Pope John VII installed a monumental mosaic cycle of Mary’s life in his oratory in Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, a cycle which included the Adoration of the Magi. Here, the laity saw the mother-son dyad the same way we see it in catacomb art: Mary seated on a large chair, her son on her lap, the magi bringing gifts.74
It is uncertain whether the papal patron behind the Maria Maggiore mosaics was Pope Sixtus III or his archdeacon, the future Pope Leo the Great.75 Whoever it was, in Chapter 7 below, I provide a plausible reason for his opposition to Mary as Theotokos. For now, suffice it to say that his opposition almost certainly was related to the dispute that led to the Council of Ephesus in the first place—a conflict between Nestorius, the new patriarch of Constantinople, and the Augusta, the Princess Pulcheria, who herself invoked Mary the Theotokos.76
The Mother-Son Dyad in Art Prior to the Council of Ephesus
Silver stamps on a handful of liturgical objects, such as some censers, prove that some Christians continued to pair Mary and her son into the seventh century. The late fourth-century San Nazaro silver reliquary box demonstrates that some Christians were already pairing mother and son in the late fourth century. A second fourth-century reliquary box adds to the accumulation of evidence that artists were pairing them well before the Council of Ephesus.77
The Novalje reliquary box is in the Archeological Museum of Zadar. A recent reconstruction overseen by the museum’s director, Jakob Vučić, indicates that this image of MARIA originally appeared ten times around the sides and lid. This stamping presupposes a mold and suggests mass manufacture. Given the amount of trade around the Mediterranean during the fourth century, it is impossible to say where the mold, or the stamped sheathing, or even the box, originated. Nonetheless, the mass production implicit in its mode of manufacture suggests that the pairing of mother and son was common in art.
Mother and Son Paired in Third- and Fourth-Century Funereal Art
According to Robin Jensen, during the third and fourth centuries the arms-raised woman and shepherd “were extremely popular and appear in Christian art more than any biblical subject.”85 Could they be the mother-son dyad? The fourth-century Novalje box’s identification of an arms-raised woman named Mary paired with a shepherd representing Jesus in the midst of gospel scenes provides a new possibility for one of the greatest art history mysteries—who is the arms-raised woman in Christian catacomb art? More than two hundred images of this woman have been found in the Christian catacombs, but scholars have yet to agree who, or what, she represents.86
Some scholars call this arms-raised woman, who was so prevalent in catacomb art, a metaphor, an allegory of the church, a symbol of the soul, or some other symbol.87 Stine Birk says the arms-raised gesture on a woman in catacomb art is “suggestive of some of the social roles that were open to women in early Christian society. She could apparently teach, preach, or act as a spiritual leader—even for men.”88 In the Vatican Museum, the arms-raised woman is almost always called a deceased woman. Nicola Denzey describes the oddity of seeing so many catacomb images of deceased women: “Where are the men and children in these family graves?”89
In a 2015 article in the Journal of Early Christian Studies, I proposed that an anonymous woman, or her family, may have commissioned frescos in the Cubiculum of the Velata in the Priscilla Catacomb with the intent of patterning her portrait after Mary.93 The association of Mary with women, especially when she was described arms-raised, seems likely to have been an old tradition. In any case, the Six Books originally contained multiple scenes of Mary raising her arms to bless women. For example, the “S-2” fragment says Mary “called the women of her neighborhood,” invited them to go to Bethlehem with her, and then “stretched out her hands to heaven, and blessed them.”94 The medieval Arabic preserves that when women came from around the Mediterranean to Jerusalem, Mary raised her arms and blessed them.95 Yet another scene, partially preserved in both the fifth-century palimpsest and the Arabic, originally depicted Mary raising her hands and blessing the women who lived with her.96
The oldest surviving example of the core vertical composition aboveground is on a wood door panel on the doors of the Santa Sabina Basilica. These are the same doors that preserved the Adoration of the Magi with Mary holding her son while elevated as the seventh step.99 When the door panel with the core vertical composition and the fresco in the Cubiculum of the Velata are compared side-by-side, the similarities between the two compositions are substantial. In both, a young man stands inside a circle. He holds up his right hand, as if in greeting. Directly beneath him stands an arms-raised woman. On the panel, she is portrayed in the less powerful-looking semi-profile Madonna advocata arms-raised pose that became so popular for Mary in Rome. In the catacombs, a peacock, the symbol of eternal life, was painted over her head, while on the church door, a circle with a cross was carved over her head. The biggest difference is that in the Cubiculum of the Velata, she is flanked by two vignettes that feature a woman, whereas on the church door a century later, she is flanked by two men—one balding and one with bangs, Paul and Peter100 (see Figs. 5.17 and 5.18).
The Santa Sabina wood door panel is adjacent to a second panel that depicts Jesus being lifted by angels into the clouds—a scene very much like one on a famous ivory dated 400, which likewise depicts Jesus being lifted into the clouds, but which also has a second scene below it, which depicts the two Marys at the tomb. The women at the tomb in the composition suggest that that when Jesus is seen lifted into the clouds, it represents his ascension.101 Thus, iconography depicting the heavenly ascents of both mother and son are seen, side-by-side, on the Santa Sabina doors—just as mother and son were paired in so much other art.
The long cultural durée of Marian religion, a continuity most clearly witnessed in art, is evoked by the images of a woman in modern cemeteries around Rome. The woman portrayed in these cemeteries is never considered the portrait of a dead woman—despite that sometimes her portrait is placed over the door of a family mausoleum or on a tombstone. Sometimes she is portrayed praying while standing by herself. Sometimes she is portrayed with her son, both as an infant and as a grown man. Although, as in the catacombs, this featured woman is virtually never named, the families who buy the tombstones and tend the memory of their dead seem to know who she is—Mary pray for us.102
Mary is the sole woman who in the fourth century was identified by name when depicted arms-raised and paired with a shepherd—on the Novalje reliquary box. The pairing of mother and son, however, is seen in even older catacomb art, from the Adoration of the Magi to their pairing on sarcophagi. This pairing continued for centuries in art, including perhaps most prominently, on Eucharistic utensils. The Six Books explains why mother and son were vertically paired; this iconography represented the scene of her praying to her son in heaven, a scene associated with her own death and ascension, or Assumption, to heaven. But why were mother and son horizontally paired? Did their side-by-side pairing perhaps represent a scene from a long lost, or nearly lost, gospel?
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