The enigma that is Mary

Picture of Anthony E Dundon

Anthony E Dundon

Anthony is a UK-based writer

Described by St Thomas Aquinas as ‘the holiest of all creatures’, the Virgin Mary is revered by Christians and for many is the greatest of all the saints.


Also known as St Mary the Virgin, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Mother of God, she was born in Jerusalem in 14 BC to Joachim and Anne. There is no mention of her parents in the bible or the gospels and what is known comes from legend and the Gospel of James. (This is a written account of the early life of Mary and her marriage to Joseph. James was allegedly the half-brother of Jesus by an earlier marriage of Joseph).


At the age of three, Mary was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem where her education began, and she took the vow of virginity. This was the education imparted to women at the time. It is likely she had a profound knowledge of the Scriptures and the Law of Moses. Mary was likely skillful in the field of arts and crafts, including needlework and knitting, as well as painting and drawing.


The earliest icons of Mary date from the third century AD, but she looks different in these icons. Eastern Europeans identify and relate to the image depicted of the Virgin Mother as blond-haired and with blue eyes. But Orthodox believers describe her as having brown or olive-coloured skin and dark eyes and hair, not unlike present-day people of Middle Eastern background.


Pious pictures depict Mary as a good-looking woman. However, rather than anything spectacular or ostentatious, her beauty was generally portrayed in a nobler and more gracious fashion. Her face had a spiritual quality that veiled a physical beauty. Her sweet, gentle, loving and unselfish disposition captivated all who would meet her. The Immaculate Conception (Mary was conceived without original sin) meant that her body and mind were superior to all others.



The Holy House at Nazareth, where Mary was born and raised and where she was told she would be the Mother of God, was not a place of gloom. It is likely that she sang as a young girl and used her musical talents to sing to her son. It was she who taught Him to speak, and no doubt she spoke in accordance with the best rules of speech.


At a time of much illiteracy, Mary was also a letter writer. Messina, a town in Sicily, is reputed to have an altar in which is enclosed a letter written by Mary thanking the Messinese when they converted to Catholicism.


When St Paul preached sermons to the Messinese on the Blessed Virgin Mary, they declared: ‘Our city must be placed under the protection of the Virgin Mary’. A delegation led by St Paul was sent to Jerusalem where Our Lady resided. She sent a reply saying she would accept their wishes. A portrait by Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat (c.1481, in Florence), shows Mary with pen and ink bottle. The infant Jesus holds a pomegranate in his left hand – a symbol of the Resurrection.


How was Mary dressed? Some reports claim that after her marriage to Joseph they were poor, but there is uncertainty about this. It is likely that she was dressed elegantly at her wedding in a long, blue linen dress with sleeves and a fine silk underdress, as Jewish maidens often were. She did not go barefoot, even though some apparitions may suggest this. She wore the traditional footwear of the time: sandals or slippers.


Mary became betrothed to Joseph and was legally bound to marry him. She was probably fourteen at the time of the Annunciation when the Angel Gabriel told her she would be the Mother of God by the Holy Spirit. On hearing this, her reply was: ‘Behold I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be [done] to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38); and, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ (Luke 1:34).


When hearing that she would conceive the Saviour of mankind, she was probably scared. She did not know how God could make this happen, but she was brave and a woman of faith. She was faithful to the Lord and she knew that the crucifixion of her son was necessary for the salvation of mankind. She was a woman of great humility and showed this in submitting to God’s will, and in allowing her son to follow a path that was replete with obstacles and hardship.


Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, who had conceived at an older age. She was living in Nazareth and Elizabeth was 100 miles away in Ein Karem on the outskirts of Jerusalem. For the pregnant Mary the journey was arduous and contained hidden dangers. She had to travel dangerous mountainous paths, which were a popular refuge for bandits.


Joseph may have accompanied Mary as far as Jerusalem, while others claim that he completed the journey with her. She stayed there for the final three months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and possibly helped with the birth of John the Baptist. The visitation shows us how Mary trusted that God would protect her and assist her ageing cousin.


What we learn from Mary’s life is that God took a humble, ordinary girl from Nazareth and called her to do something extraordinary. What should not be forgotten, however, is that she is always our mother in a personal, understanding and necessary way.


Saint Dionysius, who lived in the first century, is the patron saint of Athens.


When he heard that Mary was alive and living in the Holy Land, he visited her and was present when she was assumed into heaven. Dionysius wrote to St Paul and said: ‘The grace from her overwhelmed my heart and shook my very spirit’. Later he declared: ‘Her whole appearance testifies that she is indeed the Mother of God’.


A slipper of Mary, reputed to have worked many miracles, was preserved for many years by the nuns in an abbey at Notre-Dame de Soissons, northern France. It was known as the Lady’s slipper. In the twelfth century, crowds converged on the abbey where many miracles were reported. The abbess encouraged the sick and suffering to pray to the Virgin Mary and to receive the blessing of the slipper.


When blessed by the slipper, a young girl with convulsions and weakness was pronounced cured. Little is known of how the nuns acquired the slipper. Although the abbey was restored after the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants in the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598), it never regained its former distinction. The abbey was again partially demolished during the French Revolution (1788–1799). A single wall and arched window frames are all that remain of this renowned abbey which will always be associated with the slipper of Mary.


Footnote: For centuries the Catholic Church has dedicated the month of May to Mary.


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