Review: Visions of Mary

Jill K. H. Geoffrion. Visions of Mary: Art, Devotion, and Beauty at Chartres Cathedral. Paraclete Press, 2017. 192 pp. Colour illlus. ISBN: 978-1-61261-894-4. £17.98 hardcover.

The unparalleled intact collection of medieval stained glass in Chartres cathedral has long been justly famous and the subject of study by art historians. Likewise, millions of pilgrims and tourists flock to Chartres to marvel at its beauty and to pray and meditate in its spiritual ambience.

This new and elegant volume focuses on the extensive Marian iconography in the cathedral, detailing its content and location. The author, herself an American Baptist minister who has lived, studied, photographed and prayed in the cathedral for many years, does much more than that however, as she provides an accessible and at times profound theological and devotional reflection on the role of Mary in Christian tradition and life.

In a short preface, the author poignantly describes how as a Protestant with very little background on Catholic Marian devotion, she came while at Chartres to a deep appreciation of the role of Mary in the Christian story, and how the art of the cathedral, in which Mary is rarely alone and always points the observer towards Jesus, nourishes and supports the liturgical and devotional life at the heart of the cathedral’s mission. Geoffrion describes herself as she became ‘aware of swimming with joy and wonder in an ocean of prayers’, and how she felt herself drawn closer to Christ while praying in the presence of the Cathedral’s most famous relic, the Veil of Mary (xiii).

In her introduction, as she subsequently does throughout the book, the author quite adeptly, with a disarming and accessible prose, introduces and explains aspects of Marian devotion to Protestants for whom it might be new and disconcerting, but also in ways that make familiar things come alive in unique and renewed ways for a Catholic reader. And she does this very effectively by discussing the windows and statuary of Chartres, accompanied by beautiful and evocative colour photos.

There then follow five chapters, which each have ten subdivisions, with a page of text and a facing illustration, which explore different aspects of Mary’s role in art and theology. The first is “Mary, Mother of Jesus”, and as she goes through the biblical stories, she also discusses how apocryphal texts expanded and enriched the Christian imagination in the Middle Ages – for example, the traditions of Mary’s youth and her mother, St Anne. In her discussions, Geoffrion deftly weaves in the cult of relics, Chartres as a center of learning, and the placement of windows within the cathedral space to enhance her explanations. For example, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is related to the Candlemas liturgy, and the Wedding of Cana depiction to the understanding of Mary as intercessor and mediator.

Subsequent chapters on “Mary, Mother of God”, “Mary, Mother of the Church”, “Mary, Mother of Us All” and “Mary at Chartres in the Twenty-First Century” proceed in a similar fashion, unpacking the symbolism of the cathedral’s art and relating it to the Christian liturgical and devotional life in poignant and effective prose reflections. While the focus is on the medieval art, it also very interestingly includes reflections on more modern and even quite recent windows and statues that show the cathedral not to be a museum, but a living and vital space today.

The book concludes with short bibliographies in English and French, useful indices, and four appendices including a helpful dictionary of architectural terms and tables describing the location and content of every Marian image (statues and windows) and their location in the cathedral.

It is difficult to imagine a more useful guide to prepare for and accompany a trip to visit Chartres cathedral.

Yet beyond this practical aspect, this lovely volume serves as an excellent introduction and reflection on the place of Mary in Christian devotion. Furthermore, as each prose meditation focuses on a beautiful Marian image on the facing page, it can serve as an excellent tool for prayer, in good medieval fashion, as a type of visio divina used one image at a time. In all these ways, this book brings alive the artistic heritage of Chartres, showing it to be a wondrous and living ecumenical resource for Christians of all backgrounds.

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