The cover of the month
“I am the mother of fair love” by Pierre-Marie Dumont
Attributed to Claus de Werve († 1439), an influential artist at the court of the dukes of Burgundy, this touching Virgin and Child is truly monumental. Even seated, Mary is almost four and a half feet tall and, thus, a literally larger-than-life Sedes Sapientiae. This title is given to representations of the seated Virgin with the Child Jesus on her lap because she would serve as the “throne” of “Wisdom,” incarnated in Christ. It is in this sense that the Litany of Loreto honors her with the title “Seat of Wisdom.” However, the theological basis for this title is more sophisticated. In fact, in iconography, Sedes Sapientiae would not refer to the Mother of God, but rather to the imperial throne (a Byzantine inheritance) on which she sits. Hence, it would be Mary (or more precisely, the Mother and Child) who is represented, not as the throne of Wisdom, but as Wisdom itself enthroned. In this sense, depictions of the seated Virgin and Child, without the imperial throne, are referred to as the “Virgin of Humility.”
The adorable curly-haired child we contemplate here on Mary’s lap confirms this interpretation. He himself holds on his little knees a heavy volume of the Bible which is opened to the Book of Sirach the Wise (formerly known as Ecclesiasticus). He points out to his Mother verse 9 (14, in the Vulgate) of chapter 24, which places these words in the mouth of Wisdom:
Ab initio et ante saecula creata sum
Et usque ad futurum saeculum non desinam.
Which can be translated as:
From the beginning and before the ages I was created,
And I shall never cease to be, eternally.
With a tender gaze, the Child-God indicates his Mother as the realization of this figure. How can we tell? Because the artist has inscribed the above verse in magisterial letters on the fold of Mary’s mantle.* And it is indeed Mary that the Fathers of the Church, as well as liturgical tradition, recognize as the eternal Wisdom referred to in chapter 24 of the Book of Sirach. As early as the 7th century, this text was chosen as the first reading for Masses on feasts of the Virgin Mary. And still today, it is this same chapter 24 that is claimed, among others, as the scriptural basis for the definition of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Let us pause a moment to meditate on its prophecies:
Wisdom sings her own praises and is honored in God,
before her own people she proclaims her glory;…
“From the mouth of the Most High I came forth
and mistlike covered the earth….
Then the Creator of all gave me his command,
and he who formed me chose the spot for my tent,
Saying, ‘In Jacob make your dwelling,
in Israel your inheritance
and among my chosen put down your roots.’
Before all ages, in the beginning he created me,
and through all ages I shall not cease to be.
I am the mother of fair love, and of fear,
and of knowledge, and of holy hope.
In me is all grace of the way and of the truth.”
To be precise, we must keep in mind that Wisdom is a figure of the Son, in the Person of the Word, the creative Word of God. But at the same time, Wisdom is also the figure of the created response to this Word, personified in the daughter of Zion par excellence, Mary of Nazareth. Thus a dizzying perspective opens before us onto the mysterious genesis of the Immaculata, willed in the same divine plan as the incarnation of Wisdom. “Sophia refers to the Logos…and also the womanly answer which receives Wisdom and brings it to fruition” (Pope Benedict XVI). Let us adore that divine plan in which the conception of the Mother of God is contemporaneous with the Creation of the world by and through the Word of God. Something the French writer Bernanos expressed when he said that Mary is “younger than sin, younger than the race from which she sprang.”
*Not visible on your cover, but you can view this entire masterpiece in greater detail following this link.
Virgin and Child (c. 1415–1417), Attributed to Claus de Werve (c. 1380–1439), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, N.Y. Photo: Public domain.