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A Rediscovered Tribute To The Beauty Of Our Lady

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By JAMES MONTI

Book Review: Crown of the Virgin: An Ancient Meditation on Mary’s Beauty, Virtue, and Sanctity, attributed to St. Ildephonsus of Toledo. Trans. Fr. Robert Nixon, OSB. TAN Books, Gastonia, NC 2020. 120 pp. $24.95.

For well over a decade, the subject of beauty as an essential attribute of great art, as a pervasive presence in nature, and as a prerequisite for the fitting celebration of the sacred liturgy has been a much-discussed topic, due in large part to the reflections of Pope Benedict XVI. As an attribute of the human person, we all tend to associate the word “beauty” particularly with womanhood.
While there are reasons on a natural level that could be offered for this, there is a supernatural explanation that surpasses all these — that Almighty God chose to “incarnate” beauty as it were, to give beauty a human face and name, in the supreme masterpiece of His creation, the Blessed Virgin Mary. For centuries, saints, theologians, and artists have striven to present Mary to us as the embodiment of beauty in every sense of the word, an incomparable beauty in soul, mind, and body.
For English-speaking readers, a very important new addition has been made to our corpus of Marian literature with the recent publication of the slender but deeply enriching work, Crown of the Virgin: An Ancient Meditation on Mary’s Beauty, Virtue, and Sanctity. I will tell you at the outset that this little book is a “must-read” for anyone who loves our Lady. As you will learn upon perusing it, it is, as its earliest editor Pedro de Alba y Astorga (+1667) acclaimed it, a work virtually unrivaled in its power to foster and inflame ardent devotion to the Mother of God through its effulgent presentation of Mary as the most beautiful of all creatures.
Crown of the Virgin as we have it here in this new English edition could best be described as a labor of love fashioned by three authors. As the editor and translator Fr. Robert Nixon, OSB, explains in his introduction, Crown of the Virgin comes to us from a single Latin manuscript in the library of Spain’s cathedral of Toledo, appearing amid the works of the seventh-century bishop of this city, St. Ildephonsus of Toledo (+ca. 670) and thus traditionally attributed to this very Marian-minded prelate of the early Church. Yet the Latin text as we have it contains phraseology clearly derived from much later sources, such as the Salve Regina.
The book is therefore to a large, albeit undefined extent the opus of an anonymous medieval compiler working with the original words or at least the ideas of St. Ildephonsus. Adding to this mix, Fr. Nixon as translator has had to be by his own admission a bit creative here and there, particularly with the text’s poetic passages, in rendering the Latin original into readable, intelligible, and poetic English, yet doing so in a manner that is totally faithful to the spirit of the original.
As the title suggests, Crown of the Virgin is cast as an attempt to fashion in words a verbal crown for the head of Mary, with the author choosing and mounting one by one a selection of twenty-four jewels, flowers, and stars with which to stud the crown. As I was reading the book, what kept coming to mind was the refulgent crown of jewels, flowers, and stars upon the head of our Lady enthroned in Heaven depicted in Jan van Eyck’s famous Ghent Altarpiece (1432).
One cannot help wondering whether this great Netherlandish painter, who habitually worked verses in praise of the beauty of the Blessed Virgin into his Marian paintings, had this book in mind as he developed his depiction of the Queen of Heaven in his renowned altarpiece.
As the author of Crown of the Virgin explains the meaning of each jewel, flower, and star that he is presenting to our Lady, he sets before our eyes a veritable cascade of strikingly vivid metaphors describing the Blessed Virgin and her virtues. While some of these are quite familiar, not unlike those in the Litany of Loreto, others come across as opening up new vistas in how we envision the glories of Mary. Many are drawn from nature, cast in deeply evocative language:
“You are the most secluded, the most secret of sylvan valleys — / Cool, shaded, and silent . . . / The untouched, exalted cedar of the mountain never scaled . . . ” (p. 33).
Mary is extolled as “the palace of modesty,” “the promised land of beatitude” (p. 24), the “crystal brook of peace” (p. 47), and “the rose of paradise . . . held lovingly in the hand of the King of heaven” (p. 65).
Yet in addition to offering such fervent praises to our Lady, the author of Crown of the Virgin seeks to contemplate the full implications of her perfection. As a soul perfectly sinless and faithful to God, possessing the plenitude of all the virtues as the Angel Gabriel’s salutation “full of grace” implies, Mary must love God with an intensity and ardor vastly surpassing that of any other creature, well beyond the passionate fervor of even the greatest mystics.
Thus the author describes the Blessed Virgin as so utterly “inflamed” with love from beholding the “majesty” of God in the Beatific Vision that she soars “in an endless flight of rapture” (p. 56). He acclaims her as a veritable personification of “the luminous fire of God’s ardent love” (p. 76).
The entire book from beginning to end is addressed to our Lady, the author speaking to her about each gem, flower, and star that he is setting in her crown and concluding each chapter with a prayer to her. By this means, the author is teaching us how we are to imitate our Lady and what we need to ask of her. Thus in the prayer that follows the author’s presentation of an emerald to the Blessed Virgin, he beseeches her that she may infuse her “burning love” into us.
This particular prayer also draws upon the senses of sight, smell, and hearing, begging Mary to allow us to behold her beautiful face and vernal splendor, to inhale the refreshing fragrance of her pure soul, and to hear the quiet whisper of her gentle voice (p. 79). The imagery here is clearly borrowed from the Song of Solomon: “Arise, my love . . . / let me see your face, / let me hear your voice, / for your voice is sweet, / and your face is comely” (Song 2:13-14).
In the author’s presentation of a crocus for our Lady’s crown, he develops most fully the thought of Mary as a flower so fragrant that her scent enraptures men and angels alike, while striking terror in demons. Likening the Holy Name of Mary to an aromatic nard, the author invites the Blessed Virgin to come into the garden of his soul and fill it with her fragrance, setting ablaze there the “golden fire” of her love (p. 46).
A major theme of Crown of the Virgin is that of Mary as the special guardian of our purity. This could be said to underlie the whole concept of this work as a love poem to our Lady. The sheer effusiveness of the author’s expressions can be best understood as an application of the language of courtly love poetry to the love of the Blessed Virgin. The author even addresses her with the affectionate salutation, “O my love” (p. 83).
If we “fall in love” with her, as the author clearly has, if we let her captivate our hearts with her supernatural beauty, she will tenaciously hold and protect our hearts within the virginal grasp of her chaste hands, forever hers. In the prayer with which the author concludes his presentation of a jasper stone to our Lady, he implores her to create in him “a flowering garden of purity” (p. 61), entrusting his chastity to her: “. . . gently hold my heart, direct my thoughts, guard my soul . . . ” (p. 62).
The reflection accompanying the presentation of a carnelian gemstone provides an exceptional meditation upon the sorrows of our Lady. The author speaks of the sword prophesied by Simeon piercing not only Mary’s heart and soul, but also her “gentle mind” (p. 19).

A Famine Of True Faith

In explaining his placement of the sun itself in the crown of our Lady, the author describes in a deeply moving and quite original manner Mary’s intimate solicitude for all the souls on Earth, envisioning her as spiritually roaming around the world, seeking out all who are suffering, casting her loving glance upon every sorrow, from the bitter destitution of the poor to “the pains of the elderly” (p. 74).
More glorious still is her solicitude for the salvation of sinners, the author hailing her for all the thieves, prostitutes, and avaricious men she has drawn to repentance (p. 75). For it is her mission “to seize the prey from the jaws of the devouring lion” (p. 52).
In comparing the virtues of the Blessed Virgin to lightning, the author speaks of her splendor driving out “the horrendous and foul darkness which envelops our times” (p. 34). For us who live in an evil age, the concluding portion of the earlier-cited prayer for the presentation of an emerald is very timely, the author earnestly supplicating our Lady to intervene at a time when there is “a famine of true Faith” and a “faithless” world in which “worldliness” has infested the ranks of those professing to be spiritual, with the Church under siege from the attacks of her enemies (p. 80).
Had the great Marian apostle of the twentieth century St. Maximilian Kolbe (+1941) known about this book, he would undoubtedly have wished to place it in as many hands as possible, for it is charged with the very same Marian fervor that consumed him in all his labors for the salvation of souls. Having this book in your personal possession is like having an especially beautiful statue or painting of our Lady in your own home. It will inspire you anew each time you return to it. We owe Fr. Nixon a debt of deep gratitude for bringing to light and placing into our hands such a precious and heretofore hidden jewel of Marian devotion.

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