Photo Essay: Mary
Mary Joan Leith, Stonehill College
This relief panel from a fourth-century sarcophagus presents the only image of Mary that appears in Early Christian art with any frequency before the fifth century. The scene illustrates the visit of the Magi who, "When they saw that the star had stopped, . . . were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh" (Matthew 2:10–11). Mary sits on a throne-like chair holding Jesus, who looks like the almost-two-year-old he should be since it was boys under the age of two who were targeted in King Herod's death warrant. Jesus reaches out eagerly for the gift proffered by the first of the three look-alike Wise Men who also points his right thumb at the circled star just above Mary's veiled head. The Magi process in single file wearing identical short tunics, floppy Phrygian hats and ankle booties; the latter two details, along with the three wall-eyed camels, signal the Magis' exotic "Oriental" homeland. The Gospel does not specify the number of Wise Men—some Christian traditions claim there were twelve—but most early depictions of the Adoration of the Magi show three givers to present the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh listed by Matthew. On the basis of comparisons with more detailed versions of this scene, the first wise man's gift is meant to be a gold wreath-like crown traditionally presented to Roman emperors as tribute from grateful subjects.
The Virgin Mary features surprisingly little in the New Testament; only the Gospels refer to her, and the Gospel of John fails even to provide her name. Mary's importance for early Christians was linked to the effort by followers of Jesus to work out his nature and purpose, a subject that theologians call " Christology." One of the earliest and most bitterly contested controversies concerned whether Jesus had been human or just "seemed" human while remaining divine. Insisting that unless Jesus had truly suffered, his death had no meaning, second-century church fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons insisted that Mary, Jesus' human mother, guaranteed that Jesus, too, was human. In these Adoration of the Magi scenes, both aspects of Christ's nature are affirmed: as a child on his mother's lap, Jesus is human, while as the recipient of royal tribute from the Gentile nations, symbolized by the Magi, Jesus is the divine sovereign.