Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Pictorial Allegories of the Love of God Inspired by the Song of Songs - Part 3

How do you paint the love of God? Love is not something we will ever see directly, and this creates difficulties for artists who work in a purely visual medium. The answer for many who wish to represent the greatest virtue has been to look for inspiration in the allegorical account of God’s love in the Song of Songs.

This is the third of three reflections on the Song of Songs, an intense love poem as illustrated by different artists. Part 1 - The beloved is in the garden, the beloved is the garden was a reflection on the implications of the symbolism of the garden, a place of fertility and beauty. Part 2 - The beloved is the lover, and the lover is the beloved was a Christian response, inspired by the Song of Songs, to Marxism, social justice, critical theory, and radical feminism.

Part 3 - A garden enclosed, a fountain sealed - Mary the great lover and most beloved of God

One traditional pictorial representation of God’s love as described in the Song of Songs focuses on the interpretation of the book as an allegory of the Father’s love for Mary, the Mother of God. Mary is understood to be the personification of the ‘garden enclosed’ and the ‘fountain sealed’, from verse 4, 12: “She is a garden enclosed, my sister, my promised bride; a garden enclosed, a sealed fountain.”

In Latin this is Hortus conclusus – garden enclosed - and Fons signatus – sealed fountain - and there are genres of paintings that have these Latin names. The Mother of God is likened by the Church Fathers to a garden because of Her fertility as a perfect mother, and the source of the cultivation of the new Tree of Life originally in the Garden of Eden, as described in the book of Genesis.

The Fall, which took place in Eden, resulted from Adam and Eve succumbing to temptation and eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. St Ephraim the Syrian, the Christian commentator from the 4th century AD, declared a Doctor of the Church in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV, believed that Adam and Eve were subsequently expelled from Eden in order to prevent them from eating of the Tree of Life. If they had eaten the fruit of the Tree of Life, he says, it would have resulted in their living forever in the misery of their fallen state. With Christ’s establishment of His Church, Christians in communion with the Church are now able to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, the fruit of which is Christ himself present in the Eucharist. By this, we are permitted to live forever, partaking of the divine nature.

Mary is not only the garden enclosed, she is also the Fons conclusus, a fountain of life sealed by her perpetual virginity. The image of ‘living’, that is flowing, water is often connected to the Spirit that brings life out the dry ground of our hearts, and leads us to eternal life. So the Virgin is a garden, watered by the living water of the Holy Spirit, from which springs the Tree of Life, Christ. The garden is enclosed and the fountain sealed because she remains perpetually a virgin. The Mother is both the beloved and lover of the Father, passive and responsive. As such she is most beloved and the great lover of God, both active and passive. She is the greatest lover in the human race, aside from Christ himself.

She is therefore a lover whose pure love for God is a type for perfect Christian feminism, and a perfect human love that is a model for all of us in every relationship, a model that can be the basis of justice in the family and society. Christian feminism neither diminishes the active, vigorously personal, and distinctly feminine role of women in any loving interaction, nor does it blur the distinction between the natures of men and women.

Radical feminism refuses to consider divine love as a type for all love. As a result, its influence is the opposite of what it intends. It proposes patterns of behavior that rupture their relationships with others and degrade their capacity to love and be loved. The result is greater misery and bitterness towards others.

In common with the left in general, it is common for radical feminists to accuse those who disagree with their ideas as ‘haters’. I have some sympathy for them in this, because I suspect that they genuinely feel hated, although they falsely blame those around them for this. The fact is they feel hated because they do not feel loved. And they do not feel loved because they do not accept the love of God. This is as a result of their own choices, not God’s, and it has nothing to do with those whom they blame for how they feel.

We are all sinners, and this tendency to blame others for the unhappiness we feel when we rupture the relationship with God goes with the human condition, of course. However, if we at least acknowledge at some level our need for God, and are inclined to recognize, however imperfectly, that we are the cause of our own unhappiness, then through the infinite mercy of God we can be happy.

All of us, therefore, can benefit from considering the perfection of Mary as a lover in the hope of perfecting the pattern of our love of others.

This painting of the Garden Enclosed shown above was made in the 15th century by a German artist named Stephan Lochner, a work in the late Gothic style known as “International Gothic.” Mary is portrayed as the garden, set in a garden. Angels adore their queen and her son the King. The detailed and beautifully rendered blue mantle spreads out, and connects the figure visually with the gorgeous detail in the portrayal of the flora. The embossed details in the gilding extend the garden upwards and lend a sense of the heavenly dimension. Mary wears a crown as Queen of Heaven

Other common portrayals of Mary connect her to a garden so as to reinforce the point that she is the New Eve, the exemplar of cooperation with grace in the work of redemption. For example, images of the Annunciation, which is the prequel, so to speak, of the Garden Enclosed, will often show a garden, typically in spring, newly bursting into life. The common thread is that both show Her as a sign of fertility and superabundance that opens the door to the incarnation of the Eighth Day of creation, Christ, and which is the new age that ushers in eternal life for all of us.

Sometimes it is subtle. For example, in this late 15th-century painting of the Annunciation by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli, known as the Costello Annunciation, we see through the window a garden with a tree, presumably the Tree of Life, centrally and prominently placed.

Another example is the Tree of Jesse, the father of David; the line of Christ’s ancestry is shown, with Mary as the stem bearing the fruit of the Tree of Life, who is Christ. It is inspired by the passage from the prophet Isaiah, 11, 1: ‘And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.’

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