To mark the feat of the Annunciation, Fr Denis Ryan considers the importance of religious art, ancient and new, in honouring Our Lady's role in the plan of salvation.
There has always been a need for religious art. Human beings want their beliefs, insofar as it can be done, presented in a visual manner. In the early years of Christianity it was considered that the illustration of divine things was best done in a semi-abstract manner rather than realistically, since the divine could never be interpreted in an earthly way.
With the passage of time this changed and figures from Scripture were depicted in human form. This reached its zenith at the Renaissance when people like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were commissioned to fill churches and monasteries with their interpretation of the human and divine together. This was the artistic interpretation of the Word made fresh.
A favourite subject of artists in the religious field has always been the Madonna - since she was a human being and not divine. Artists felt more at ease painting or sculpting her than a more rarefied subject. She could be shown alone, or with her child, or with saints or other people in all kinds of settings. Since she was the Mother of Jesus, the Son of God, and played a central role in the plan of salvation, it was very appropriate that she be remembered and celebrated.
Artists created a figure in paint, in stone, in bronze, that represented their ideal woman, usually young and embodying what was considered the perfection of beauty of the period in which they lived, so that it was different and differently presented in every century.
This continuity of paintings and sculptures of the Blessed Virgin, which flourished for centuries, has nearly ground to a halt in the past 50 years as religious art has gone out of fashion. In Ireland, at least, very few creative artists work at religious art since there is very little demand for it and artists have to live and cannot afford to produce work for which there is no market.
Some years ago, the parish of St. Jude in Willington, Templeogue, Dublin, wanted to get a statue of the "Madonna and Child" for their newly refurbished church. They wanted something fresh and original and not a tired reproduction of a saccharine "Mother and Child". They had almost given up in despair when a young local sculptor was found. He had trained classically and had worked and taught sculpture in Florence, the traditional home of great sculpture.
After two years of discussion and work, the result was recently unveiled. It is a life-size bronze statue of a young woman with semitic features. She is holding in the crook of her arm a child of maybe a year and a half. He is looking out at the world confidently. In her other hand, she holds a long-stemmed rose. The child is reaching across to grasp the stem of the rose, but in doing so, he is also grasping the thorns of the stem. This is prophetic of his future, of the suffering of his life and of his death on a cross wearing a crown of thorns.
In March, we come to the Feast of the Annunciation. That was when Mary made her great decision which changed human history. She could have refused the invitation and opted for a peaceful and tranquil life. Instead, she accepted and the work of our redemption was accomplished.