Aidan Mayoss CR on the Venetian statue of the Madonna dell’Orto and the motherhood of Mary

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph but before they lived together she was found to be with child’.

Joseph is a significant name for the husband of Mary. His name alone is shared with the hero of the technicolour dream coat, the saviour of his father Jacob and so of Israel; this Joseph too is an honourable man and his decision quietly to dump Mary is countermanded by an angelic visitation. It is an interesting speculation that the same angel Gabriel was charged with this message too! So Joseph accepted the truth and did his best to make his pregnant wife happy.

She, too was not without considerable trials; there were the parents… the neighbours… the village… but I very much doubt whether the attitude towards, shall we say, an ‘early’ pregnancy would be the same as that of middle-class churchgoers of 100 years ago. So the baby grows and then comes the summons to Bethlehem. Now that was a long and horrid journey if you are eight+ months pregnant and the only form of transport is a donkey. Every bump would tell and then, when the horrid journey is over, there is no room at the inn and for this birth, and is it not the most important birth in the history of mankind? There were no midwives but lots of angels.

Church renamed

Now to the picture. This statue has caused the great church of San Cristoforo in Venice to be given a new name, ‘Madonna dell’Orto’, the Madonna of the garden. The exquisite church is almost on the seashore and a place where Venetians still live and at the time of the church’s building early in the fourteenth century there was an unwanted statue in the sculptor’s garden next to the church and people would come there to pray and honour the statue.

The locals were very fond of this statue which was suffering from its exposure to the elements and, probably sometime in fifteenth century, it was brought into the church and over the years instead of being ‘San Cristoforo’ it became known as the ‘Madonna dell’Orto’. The lady of the garden was placed in a separate chapel opening off the nave. This is the picture you have, described in an art book as ‘an intrusive soft limestone statue’, not much of a work of art in a church containing many superb canvases but, as one would expect, Salley Vickers describes the statue as ‘The stone Madonna with the kind lap’.

Difficult path

Let us consider the Motherhood of Mary: from the moment of her ‘yes’ to the angel, it was a difficult path and it went on being difficult and it is a picture of those vicissitudes; it is a picture of a genuine Mother and, over the years, thousands of people have imagined themselves sitting in that lap if they are children, and lots of children still worship in that church, or just contemplating her as she holds out the baby. She is still and comforting and it is good for us, before we become engulfed in the miracle of the incarnation, to ponder Motherhood and above all the Motherhood of Mary.

Low points

The Madonna dell’Orto is undoubtedly a Mother; you don’t have a kind lap without children, and she holds out the Bambino to those who pray with her, or just sit, because by her silent receptivity she is good to sit with. So let us just ponder this homely Madonna, recall the low points in her life – that trip into Egypt, the dark prophesy that a sword would pierce her heart, rather taking the joy off the Presentation of this Babe, the precursor of much her life when the young lad stayed behind in Jerusalem. Some very streetwise youngsters in Covent Garden, when told the story about Mary rushing back and straight into the temple, ignoring all the prohibitions for women there, were asked what happened next. In a chorus they replied: ‘She hit him.’ ‘Then what?’ I asked, and again in a chorus: ‘Cuddled him, of course’. I think the children of Covent Garden would warm to the Madonna dell’Orto as the children of that part of Venice still do.

Easter Day

We can all go through some or all of her traumatic moments but the last one I want to mention, made much of by St Ignatius but appearing nowhere in the Gospels, that on Easter Day, before meeting anybody else, Jesus appeared to his Mother, I have a picture of this, a very rare subject indeed and part of an altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden c.1440. The scene is by an open window looking out on the churchyard, the stone is rolled away, the soldier asleep and the women approaching. Looking at the Madonna dell’Orto it seems the most normal thing which the risen Jesus would do; visit his Mother before anybody else.

So as we rejoice today in the Motherhood of Mary I will read the great ‘O’ that we now omit: ‘O virgin of virgins: how shall this be? For neither before thee was anything like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? The thing which you behold is a divine mystery.’ ND