The Influence of Mary on Roman Catholicism and the United States Pop Culture
by: Daniella Rubio
“And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.Luke 1:38
Who is Mary?
One of the most prominent symbols of religious imagery in the Catholic world is Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. As mentioned in the New Testament, while betrothed to her husband, Joseph, the Virgin Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel and asked to bear God’s Son.
(7) Playing a key role in both Christianity and Islam, Mary has been given over 20 different names in honor of her merits as Jesus’s mother. Each name for Mary is also a reflection on how she is perceived by many within some of the Abrahamic Religions. When asking Father Antonio Carrion, a Catholic Priest, on how he perceived the Virgin Mary, he states, “I see the Virgin Mary as my heavenly mother, who intercedes for me before the Son, Jesus Christ. That is why I invoke and pray to her daily, to intercede with Jesus for all the needs of humanity.”
Mary, Holy Mother of God
The most common name given to Mary. (7) It is a reminder of how she contributed to half of Christ’s genetic makeup, also giving her the name Theotokos or “God-Bearer” in Greek. It is used many times by those in the Catholic church and is mentioned 53 times during the prayer of the Rosary.
Holy Virgin of Virgins
(3) Mary’s virginity was a sign of her Faith and an undivided gift of herself to God. Because of this Faith and her being free of the original sin, she was able to bear the Son of God. Additionally, her virginity throughout the conception signified that there was no doubt that Jesus came from Heaven and not another human man. (7) Through her virginity, Mary has now been deemed the symbol and realization of the Catholic Church.
Maryam Bint Imraan
For many of those who practice Islam, Mary or Maryam is known as the virgin mother of the Prophet Jesus. (8) She is mentioned over seventy times within the Quran and has a whole chapter dedicated to her upbringing, miracles, and how she was able to overcome affair accusations. Within the Islamic religion, she is considered as the (8) “example for all believers” and the greatest woman to have ever lived.
Mary, Queen Mother of Heaven
One of the biggest names throughout the middle ages. It is based on the notion seen in the Jewish tradition of the important role of the queen mother. (6)Not only was the queen’s mother the parent of the king, but she was also a key figure in court due to a king typically approved her wishes. In this case, given that Christ is the king of heaven, Mary is the Queen’s mother. (6) To many within the Catholic Church, this role given to her is pivotal because they are able to ask Mary to intercede to Christ on their behalf.
While many of the names mentioned earlier provide descriptions of Mary’s importance within the church, I was very curious about Father Antonio Carrion’s take on the matter. Regarding her importance, he stated that “if she did not say yes at the announcement, God’s plan would have had to change.” He later goes on to explain how crucial it is that we are reminded and thankful for her generous yes on bearing Christ. Through this annunciation, many Roman Catholics have deemed Mary to be one of the holiest figures and greatest saints.
Due to her important role throughout the Bible, Mary has become one of the biggest symbols of the Roman Catholic Church. And along with her being prominent through mass proceedings and prayer, there is no doubt that she has also become a key figure in Catholic art. Known for its mass productions of Marian art, Italy has become a capital for religious imagery and has inspired other countries to create their own portrayals and perceptions of the Virgin Mary. Today, this inspiration goes on and has begun to influence pop culture within the United States. Through various images, films, and music videos, Mary and the Biblical world have been heavily referenced by today’s artists. And while to some, these biblical references are just ways to reveal a hidden meaning within a piece, for many others, especially Catholics, the Portrayal of Biblical characters within the pop culture world is deemed inappropriate and sacrilegious.
Some of the great Marian art depictions could be seen through Madonna. (4) According to Britannica, this type of art style has the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ or sometimes shown alone. While it does not reflect a historical context, it is meant to reveal Mary’s significance to the Catholic Religion. As a result, this form of Marian art has had a prominent place in places such as the Vatican and has been utilized by many famous artists such as Raphael, Michaelangelo, and Lorenzo Ghiberti.
While there are various Madonna types, a highly common and popular style is the Italian sacra conversazione. (4) This Madonna is less-intimate compared to the other techniques and commonly depicts a group of saints and or John the Baptist around Mary and her child. Sacra conversazione also likes to include a rose garden in the background or some symbol of a flower to depict Mary’s purity and virginity.
Madonna and Child
One of the greatest pieces of Marian’s art is Madonna and Child. (9) According to an article published by The Met, Madonna and Child were painted by a famous Italian artist named Paoli di Giovanni Fei. This late 13th-century piece is considered to be a great example of Sienese Art, which typically included as (11) “gold background and timeless figures that gave spiritual force to icons .”Additionally, Sienese Art aimed to show a humanist approach towards art, more specifically, Christ’s human experience. This human side of Jesus is able to be seen through the madonna and child, where Mary is nursing the son of God. (9) To many, this piece was able to transform a common maternal activity into an icon of devotion. As a result, Madonna and child are considered among the masterpieces of the 13th and 14th centuries. Today, this piece is displayed and maintained at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Madonna sculptures and paintings have become highly favored and prominent in churches throughout the world. However, in pop culture of the western world, imitating oneself to the Madonna has become a sort of trend, and to many Catholics, blatant sacrilege. An example of this could be seen in Halsey’s album cover for If I Can’t Have Love, I want Power. While Halsey was not exactly replicating Paoli di Giovanni’s Fei’s piece, it is clear that they both shared many similarities. For one, the album cover has taken a Sienese Art approach by having a gold background to focus on the individuals along with having a child being nursed by the mother. And while the cover does not include saints and flowers symbolizing Mary’s virginity, it is clear that Halsey was aiming to imitate the Italian Marian Art.
In a comment given by the singer, Halsey claims that the piece is about (1) “the dichotomy of the Madonna and the whore”. By imitating Mary, Halsey was not aiming to also emulate her purity and virginity but instead be viewed as a vessel for a child and a sexual being.
Another example of Marian art is the Pietà, meaning “pity” in Italian. According to an article published by Britannica, this style of Catholic art is (5) “a depiction of the Virgin Mary supporting the body of the dead Christ.” And while some of these sculptures include other figures in the background, such as Mary Magdalene and John, the main story of the Pietà is focused on Jesus’s death and his mother’s grief. (5) Originally founded in Germany during the 14th century, the Pietà did not really take off into the art world until Michaelangelo’s famous Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica.
There is no doubt that Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica is the most influential piece for this theme. (10) Constructed in the mid-14th century by Michelangelo it ultimately became a game-changer for the renaissance due to multi-figure sculptures being rare and challenging due to proportions. As a way to combat this, Michaelangelo used a technique that made both figures appear the same in composition through the form of a pyramid. (5) The Pietà by Michaelangelo essentially became a new standard for sculptures. In addition to inspiring many other renaissance artists to use the pyramid technique, Michelangelo was able to build a new template of having Jesus draped across his mother’s lap, whereas prior, artists only laid him beside her feet. In addition to all of the unique techniques and methods practiced on this sculpture, what truly makes it remarkable is how it is able to display a terribly realistic scene of the grief and agony Mary endures during the death of her son.
The Pietà is known almost anywhere in the world. And while there are no iconic Pietas in the western world, this form of Marian art has made its debut within the United States pop culture. An example of this could be seen in Beyonce’s music video called Mine. (15) In the opening sequence, Beyonce is seen portraying Mary in suffering over the loss of her child. (2) And while it has not been confirmed by the singer, many assume that her portrayal of the Pietà symbolizes her uncertainty of becoming a mother and post-natal depression. When looking at both images side by side, you could see many similarities along with differences. For one, both Pietas are perceived as white marble, and both of the Mary’s in the pieces are in mourning looking toward their child. One main difference seen between both Pietas is that Beyonce Mary is not holding the child but rather the child leaning on her lap.
The last example of Marian art could be seen through Mater Dolorosa. Meaning sorrowful mother, the Mater Dolorosa style is highly present during the stations of the cross, which commemorates Christ’s Crucifixion on Good Friday. (12) Additionally, these images of Mary are also present in many Catholic Churches around the world, such as in Spain, Italy, and Mexico. Many of the common elements in a Mater Dolorosa are blue veils, tears, halos, crowns, and sometimes swords piercing her heart, which symbolizes the seven sorrows Mary had suffered.
Carlo Dolci’s Mater Dolorosa
One of the most well-known Mater Dolorosas was created by an Italian painter by the name of Carlo Dolci. (16) Dolci was very familiar with the style of Mater Dolorosa and commonly used similar themes in his paintings of the virgin, such as clasped hands, looking down, and veiled. And while many of his pieces were unpublished, Dolci’s oil paint Mater Dolorosa is considered the finest due to the piece’s (16) “Rich tonality and the refinement of the Virgin’s self-contained pose.” This piece was dated around the 1650s and is deemed as the climax of Carlo Dolci’s career. Today, many derivations and copies of Dolci’s Mater Dolorosa have been located in museums in Switzerland, Italy, and the United States
Lana Del Rey’s Tropico
Like many of the Marian styles mentioned earlier, the Mater Dolorosa is also believed to play a huge influence on Western Pop Culture. One example of this might be seen in Lana Del Rey’s short film, Tropico. (17) In this film, Lana Del Rey imitates the Virgin Mary praying and in mourning. While the singer never has acknowledged the Marian art influence and how it relates to the film, it could be assumed that what is being displayed is a Mater Dolorosa or sorrowful mother. The reasoning behind this is the common themes seen in both Mary depictions. Some examples include both Mary looking somber, wearing blue veils and dresses, having their hands clasped and their eyes closed. (13) Additionally, one of the main messages behind the film, Tropico, is about the singer’s loss of innocence throughout the music world. And given that Lana Del Rey has considered the virgin mary to be one of her biggest icons, it would be reasonable for her to portray herself as a Mary in mourning.
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