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The Queen Of Eastertide

May 4, 2022 Frontpage No Comments

By JAMES MONTI

Several years ago, I discovered in the vestibule of a church a holy card for the Easter season with the words of the great Paschal antiphon of our Lady, the Regina Caeli, printed on one side and a vivid reproduction of the famous masterpiece of Diego Velazquez, Coronation of the Virgin (c. 1645), printed on the reverse side. This Eastertide evocation of our Lady’s ultimate triumph in Heaven, an event liturgically commemorated in August as the sequel to her glorious Assumption, is by no means inappropriate. For her place in Heaven stems directly from her place at the foot of the cross on Good Friday and her joy when on the Third Day Christ rose from the dead.
Indeed, the very title by which our Lady is saluted in her Easter antiphon is “Queen of Heaven.” Moreover, much of the Easter season falls within the month most especially devoted to Mary, the month of May. In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the liturgical commemoration of Mary’s queenship occurs on May 31. And the most distinctive custom of May as the month of our Lady is the “May crowning,” a symbolic coronation of a statue of the Blessed Virgin with a wreath of flowers.
Artistic depictions of the heavenly enthronement of the Mother of God first begin to appear in the twelfth century. Among the factors that helped bring this about was a twelfth-century uptake in the acceptance of the doctrine of the Assumption. It was also in the twelfth century that allegorical interpretations of the Song of Solomon (the Song of Songs) began to see the bride in this sacred text as not only a personification of the Church but also as a specific human person, our Lady.
Another Old Testament text important to the understanding and depiction of Mary as Queen is Psalm 45, and in particular verses 13-14: “The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes; / in many coloured robes she is led to the king…” As early as the eighth century, St. John of Damascus (ca. 675-749) was applying this to the Blessed Virgin, describing her as “queen alone among queens, girt in golden vesture, and with variety, as David the cantor of the Psalms exclaimed” (homily upon the Annunciation of the Most Holy Mother of God Our Lady, Patrologia Graeca, volume 96, columns 654-655, Latin trans.). The same psalm also contains a comparably relevant verse, “…at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir” (Psalm 45:9).
Italian depictions of the coronation of Mary from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries portray her seated side by side with her Divine Son on a dual-seated throne, both in royal attire, as our Lord places upon her head a crown, with a retinue of angels in attendance, and usually an audience of saints as well. The placement of the angels in these depictions carries a key significance, for the angels are portrayed as not only at the service of our Lord but also at the service of Mary. She as the Mother of God possesses a dignity that surpasses even the highest angels of Heaven. And thus the angels are under not only the sovereignty of God Himself but also under the sovereignty of Our Lady as their Queen.
At the same time, artists of the coronation of Mary depict her as ever-mindful of her own identity as a creature who is totally under the sovereignty of her Divine Son, for even at the exalted moment of her crowning she humbly bows her head and crosses her hands across her heart as signs of her total submission to God. Some artists, including Fra Angelico (ca. 1395-1455), take the visual expression of our Lady’s creaturely submission to her Divine Son a conspicuous step further by placing her in a kneeling posture, kneeling before Him to receive her crown from His hands.
Another key iconographical element in medieval depictions of the coronation of Mary is the role given to music: Time and again, one finds in these works angels with musical instruments or engaged in the act of singing. With the Church on Earth celebrating all her liturgical feasts with sacred music, it would have seemed to medieval artists a foregone conclusion that our Lady’s exaltation in Heaven should be seen as a prime occasion for angelic music.

Nuptial Imagery

By the fifteenth century, the subject of the coronation of the Blessed Virgin was taken to a new level by presenting the event as an act of the Holy Trinity. A particularly beautiful early example of this was painted by the Flemish artist Michael Sittow (c. 1469-1525). On the left side of the painting, God the Father and God the Son sit side-by-side on a dual throne, both clothed in red, with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovering above them. To their right, the Blessed Virgin kneels, clothed in a white gown with a long white mantle upon her shoulders, the train of which is borne by three angels behind her. Hovering above Mary are two angels who are bringing down over her head the crown with which she is to be adorned.
Both God the Father and God the Son are depicted in a gesture of benediction, each blessing Mary with an upraised right hand. God the Father in His left hand bears a scepter, and God the Son clasps with His left hand both a cross and an orb. The eyes of Mary are lowered, her hands reverently folded as she prepares to receive the crown of her queenship. Although the scene as a whole is set amid clouds below and above, the Holy Trinity’s throne and our Lady rest upon a patch of verdant ground with blooming flowers.
While as we mentioned earlier, the Song of Solomon and its nuptial imagery influenced Marian coronation iconography virtually from the beginning, that nuptial imagery is particularly evident in this painting of Sittow, for our Lady looks very much like a young bride on her wedding day in this exceptional work.
In most of the Trinitarian versions of the coronation of our Lady, both God the Father and God the Son take hold of the crown itself and together set it upon the head of Mary. In some cases our Lady kneels between them to receive the crown, while in others she is seated between them. This takes us back to the painting we mentioned at the outset of this essay, the Coronation of the Virgin by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). The painting narrowly escaped destruction in a catastrophic Christmas Eve fire at Madrid’s Royal Alcazar palace in 1734.
The equal participation of the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity in the coronation of Mary is expressed especially well in this image. As God the Father sits on the right and God the Son sits on the left, and as they with their right hands lower a crown of flowers upon the head of the Blessed Virgin, who sits between them at a lower level, the Holy Spirit portrayed as a dove hovers midway between the head of God the Father and the head of Christ, with the two heads and the dove on a perfectly level line running across the image, visually representing the equality of the three Divine Persons.
There is also a vertical shaft of light running directly down from the Holy Spirit through the center of the crown and to the head of Mary, indicating His full participation in the coronation as well as alluding to Mary’s identity as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit.
As in other coronation portraits, Mary’s eyes are humbly lowered. What is distinctive about her depiction here is the gesture she is making with her right hand, motioning toward her heart. She has an air of deep seriousness and a regal quality that suggests a full readiness to assume her awesome role as Queen of Heaven.

Desacralization

The affirmation of the queenship of our Lady has taken on a new urgency in our time. The modern obsession to desacralize everyone and everything once held sacred has also taken its toll on how the Blessed Virgin is perceived. Many seem to think that the only way that they can accept Mary is by pulling her down from her pedestal, as it were, by reimagining her as just a totally ordinary woman. Even in many homilies, the stress is hugely upon trying to persuade the congregation how “ordinary” Mary was, and how the Holy Family was just like any other family.
Yes, our Lady was fully human, and she wants us to feel totally close to her as our Mother, but she wasn’t simply ordinary. When the Angel Gabriel came to her, he did not greet has as just an ordinary woman: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28). And when Elizabeth saw Mary arrive to visit her, she greeted her as far more than just her cousin: “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). On the occasions when our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette of Lourdes and to the children of Fatima, she did not appear under the guise of just an ordinary woman. The Almighty has done great things for Mary. She knew it and acknowledged it. So should we.
While our Lady has received her queenship with the utmost humility, as so many artists have depicted so well, she nonetheless rejoices in the sovereignty that her Divine Son has bestowed upon her, because she is exceedingly eager to use all her power to help us in every conceivable way. She loves to see us crowd around her altars, bring her flowers and set a crown of fresh blossoms upon her head because she longs to give us so much more in return.
It is only in the next life that we will even begin to understand how very much she loves us.

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