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Institute do not necessarily endorse or agree with the events and ideas expressed in this feature.
Our sole purpose is to report on items about Mary gleaned from a myriad of papers representing
the secular press.
Mary grows up: The virgin in her later years. [Source:
Women's Review of Books, July, 2003]
Icons never age. Especially not the Virgin Mary. In the
cultural imagination, she is always in her 20s--a Renaissance artist's ethereal
dream, nothing at all like the dark-skinned, hard-muscled Middle Eastern
peasant adolescent she really was. She remains "ageless," as they
say, as though this were a compliment, even an honor. 'In fact it is the
opposite. She is all image and no reality--a kind of virtual Mary. Deprived of
vitality, intelligence, and feeling, she is a being so self-effacing that all
she can say at the Annunciation is "Let it be done unto me"--a phrase
some biblical scholars interpret as a queenly "Let it be," but that
can as easily be read as a cowed "Yes, sir," or even as a sulky
The events of the gospels are immensely physical--conception, birth, feeding,
healing, excruciating death--and yet Mary seems to sleepwalk through them, so
vague a presence that she doesn't even appear at the crucifixion until the last
gospel, John, and then only as "his mother," without even the
courtesy of her own name.
The most revered woman in the world surely deserves better than this. The least
one can do is honor her by gracing her with reality. Who was she, then? This
was the deceptively simple question that impelled me to write Mary, A
Flesh-and-Blood Biography, which will be published next spring.
I began by giving her back her real name: Maryam in Aramaic, the language she
spoke. That helped me to ground her in a time and a place, in Palestine 2,000
years ago. After four years of intensive research, a portrait emerged of a
woman who was far more than we have yet acknowledged her as being a strong and
courageous woman who did not merely assent to her role in history, but actively
chose it and lived it to the fullest.
The further I explored the multiple facets of her life--peasant villager, wise
woman and healer, activist, mother, teacher, and yes, virgin, though in a sense
we have long forgotten--the more relevant and admirable a figure she became. I
was struck by how political, social, and cultural issues seemed to echo across
time, creating new perspectives. The question of Maryam's age, for instance,
challenges contemporary assumptions
Pregnancy at 13 sounds scandalously early to the modern ear. It brings to mind
stories of inner-city girls who have sex in desperation for love and attention,
then treat their newborns as though they were living toys-- barely out of
adolescence, children bearing children.
It can't be, says the western mind. Not Mary. Except for the collective mind of
the Vatican, which retains a less sentimental and, ironically, more realistic
view of human physiology. The official Roman Catholic celebration of Mary's
2,000th birthday was in 1987, 13 years before that of her son.
Never mind for now that the Vatican reckoning is off since calendars have
become more precise through the intervening centuries. Whether you reckon the
year of Jesus' birth at the academically agreed upon if peculiar date of 4'
BC--Christ born four years Before Christ--or at the simpler and popularly
accepted stroke of midnight between 1 BC and 1 BC, or at the more likely date
of 6 BC, one fact remains: Maryam was 13.
Even today, in much of the world, girls are married off at puberty. And Maryam
lived 17 centuries before what historian Philippe Aries called "the
invention of childhood" in the West. Children were seen simply as small
adults. Their ages were figured not by numbers, but by what they could do:
"the age of chasing stray sheep" or "plant gathering" or
Marriage came early. It had to. When life is short, you need to grab at every
opportunity to reproduce it. And life 2,000 years ago was very short.
True, there is the biblical reckoning of a long life, still echoed in the
Jewish birthday toast "to a hundred and twenty." But nobody does live
to a hundred and twenty, not today and not in biblical times either. Long
before records of births and deaths were kept, 120 was an idealized lifespan,
providing an image of the patriarch or matriarch looking on in satisfaction at
four or five generations of offspring, the visible proof of having been
fruitful and multiplied.
To grasp just how idealized this biblical number is, you don't have to go back
2,000 years. You need only look at almost any peasant population today--in
Afghanistan, in Somalia, in all those countries that many westerners barely
register as existing, until some form of military intervention suddenly brings
them into the brief and fickle spotlight of world attention.
The numbers are chilling. Data from 1980 show one stillborn per five live
births. One in ten of those born die during the first year of life. A third are
dead by age five. Fewer than half of those born make it to puberty. And even
for the survivors, life expectancy in many parts of Asia and Africa is under 50
Not that the western world is that far removed from such lifespans. Go back a
mere couple of centuries to 18th-century London, and records show well over
half of those born dying by age 16. Only ten percent made it beyond age 45--the
same number as in ancient Rome. In 19th-century Massachusetts, more than a
third of all women died by age 20. It wasn't until the 20th century with the
germ theory of disease, and especially with the introduction of penicillin and
vaccination, that lifespans began to increase to those we now take for granted
in the West.
In the ancient Middle East, as many as half of all children died before age
five. Infant mortality was so high that Aristotle noted in his Historia
Animalium that newborns were not named until a week after birth because many
wouldn't live that long.
Childbirth was almost as dangerous for the mothers. Miscarriage was common,
usually due to malnutrition or disease. Of those who carried an infant to term,
about one out of three died in childbirth from uterine hemorrhage or infection,
often with their first delivery. Five or six live births would be high for any
one mother, and since so many children died in infancy or early childhood, the
effective birthrate was lower than it is today in the industrialized world.
The other famed biblical lifespan, three score years and ten, was the preserve
of the fraction of one percent who were wealthy and sheltered, and even then of
very few of them. The second-century philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius,
raised by his grandfather after his parents died when he was young, saw nine of
his 12 children die in infancy or childhood, and that was with the best
hygiene, nutrition, and medical attention available in Rome.
And such figures applied only to "normal" times, when death was
caused by disease, or by the kind of gross accident familiar to farmers
worldwide, or by infection--even a cut or a rotten tooth could kill you. Death
by human violence shortened lifespans still further. Political upheavals sent
foreign armies roaming and killing at will, making no distinction between
military and civilian targets, while internecine conflicts spiraled out of hand
as they still do two millennia later (think of Hutus and Tutsis, Serbs and
Bosnians, Irish Catholics and Protestants, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs,
to name just a few). At such times, death rates surge beyond predictability
with, depending on the place and the century, firing squads,
"disappeared" people, massacre by machete, torched villages, mass
crucifixions, marketplace bombs, unmarked common graves.
Imagine, then, the idealism it took to conceive of someone living to three
score and ten, let alone to a hundred and twenty. Imagine the power of the
biblical command to be fruitful and multiply when being fruitful and
multiplying was so rife with risk, the odds so loaded against success. Who
needs such a command, after all, except those for whom it is in doubt?
When life is short, there is no such thing as "youth." There were no
teenagers 2,000 years ago, as there are none in many parts of the world today.
To be 13 when the average lifespan is so short is equivalent to being a young
adult in modern western society. Westerners are shocked at 13 year olds toting
Kalashnikovs and shoulder missiles in African and Middle Eastern warfare, but
that is because we take for granted the idea of childhood, and of the teen
years as a kind of older childhood, a slow adaptation to adulthood. We forget
that to be a teenager is a luxury afforded only those with good nutrition and
healthcare. For nearly the whole world 2,000 years ago, there was no such
luxury. Together with the short lifespan, the high risk of maternal and infant
death in childbirth made early marriage and pregnancy essential to survival of
both families and peoples.
A 13-year-old girl was considered a woman. Menstruation had begun. She was
fertile, and fertility meant maturity. What we now celebrate only as ritual--the passing into adulthood marked by rites such as Confirmation or Bat
Mitzvah--was fact 2,000 years ago. A 13 year old would be a mother. A woman of
40 would be a great-grandmother. By 50, if the survival odds worked in her
favor and left at least one surviving child in each generation, she would be a
great-great-grandmother. She would be truly ancient.
To paraphrase the end of Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus-"We have to
imagine Sisyphus happy"--we have to imagine Mary old. And that means
reconstructing her life after the crucifixion, when she disappears completely
from the gospel record.
Are we really to believe, as various apocryphal and legendary versions have it,
that she retreated to Ephesus to live out her days in the care of John, or was
sheltered in Jerusalem by Peter, or went back to the Galilee to live out her
days in quiet anonymity? In fact, are we really to believe that such a woman
would retreat at all?
This is the woman who was the source of her son's powers of wisdom and healing,
the woman who taught him about justice and freedom. She had just been through
the worst any mother can know--the excruciating death of her child. Face etched
deep by hard work and harder experience, it is inconceivable that she would
simply accept such cruelty with another silent "Let it be."
No. Given what we know of the time, and of women's role in early Christian
life, it makes more sense to see her in a far more active role. The gospel
writers refer to "the many women who came up with him to Jerusalem,"
and these women would almost certainly have gathered around Maryam to form a
new kind of community. In an early form of liberation theology, they would have
combined activism with contemplation, offering shelter and healing to those in
need, in the spirit of justice and the path of wisdom.
Wise is not a word much used any longer. One can be smart, one can be
intelligent, one may even be a genius. But wise? That has an unreal feel to it,
simultaneously too grand and too vague for practical people.
Yet in Maryam's time, there was nothing vague about wisdom. Quite the contrary.
A great deal of the Jewish theology of her day was built around the divine
female figure known as the Lady Wisdom. She had a distinct voice. She spoke
directly, in quotation marks, in several books written by Judean gnostics
living in Egypt from the third century BC on.
Her name, Hochma, was the abstract form of hachama, wise woman. Her earliest
known appearance is in the third-century BC Book of Proverbs, where she
descends from the divine world to guide and save humanity. She was there when
God created the world, she says, before anything else existed. She proclaims
her greatness, gives dire warnings of the dangers of ignoring her, and demands
and expects loyalty As the manifestation of God's presence in the world, this
is her due.
In the apocryphal Book of Wisdom, written in the first century BC, Hochma
encompasses all the sciences of her time: physics, alchemy, astrology, biology,
psychology, herbalism, and medicine. The book praises her in a list of 21
attributes--three times the magical number seven--that make her everything a
woman and a goddess could be: "Intelligent, holy, unique, manifold,
subtle, active, incisive, unsullied, lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, sharp,
irresistible, beneficent, loving to man, steadfast, dependable, unperturbed,
almighty, all-surveying, penetrating, all-intelligent, pure and most subtle
At times, her language reflects the grandeur of contemporary hymns to Isis; at
others it seems very close to the sensuality of the Song of Songs. In the
apocryphal second-century-BC Book of Ecclesiaticus--often called the Wisdom of
Ben Sirach to distinguish it from the better-known Ecclesiastes--she says she
is like the finest vines, the sweetest blossoms, the most beautiful roses, the
tallest and most graceful trees:
I have exhaled a perfume like cinnamon and acacia, I have breathed out a scent
like choice myrrh... Approach me, you who desire me, and take your fill of my
fruits, for memories of me are sweeter than honey, inheriting me is sweeter
than the honeycomb. They who eat me will hunger for more, they who drink me
will thirst for more...
And so they did. Two centuries later, Christian gnostics would expand the
earlier Jewish writings and elevate the Lady Wisdom still further. Calling her
by her Greek name, Sophia, they explicitly revered her as the great virgin
mother. In The Apocryphon of John, she becomes "the invisible, virginal,
perfect spirit." She impregnates herself, and so is "the Mother of
everything, for she existed before them all, the mother-father." She is
the origin of all things; without her, the world would not exist.
Inevitably, gnostics hungering for divine knowledge identified Sophia with the
first great biblical figure who hungered for knowledge: the mother of all
humans, Eve. Where Adam was content to exist in ignorance, Eve dared to reach
for more. She picked and ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and
Evil. The gnostics saw this as reaching for knowledge of the divine. They
believed it was an act of courage and spiritual integrity, not of disobedience.
Eve was Wisdom in action, to the extent that in the gospel On the Origin of
the World, she becomes Sophia's daughter, sent by her mother to teach Adam, who
has no soul, so that he might attain one.
But Sophia's main child in the gnostic gospels is Jesus, the teacher and
mediator of Wisdom. He is her son, her lover, and even, in the Sophia of Jesus
Christ, Sophia herself. "The earliest Palestinian theological remembrances
and interpretations of Jesus' life and death understand him as Sophia's
messenger and later as Sophia," says theologian Elizabeth
Schussler-Fiorenza in her book In Memory of Her. "The earliest Christian
theology is sophialogy."
A world without Wisdom, without Hochma, must have been unimaginable. She was
literally a proverbial presence, constantly invoked. And now that her favored
child, Jesus, was dead, his spiritual and earthly mothers would unite to
transform grief into wisdom, disaster into renewal. For if ever there was a
flesh-and-blood manifestation of Wisdom, it was the white-haired Maryam: the
mother, the healer, the wise woman.
LESLEY HAZLETON's books include Jerusalem, Jerusalem and Where Mountains Roar.
She lived in and reported from Jerusalem for 13 years, and now lives on a
houseboat in Seattle.
Col plans Virgin Mary epic [Source: Daily Variety, June
RIO DE JANEIRO --- Flush from the success of Hector Babenco's
prison drama "Carandiru," Columbia TriStar has high hopes for another
local pic, "Maria, a mae do filho de Deus" (Mary, the Mother of God's
Columbia is co-producing the $ 2.6 million epic about the life of the Virgin
Mary with lead producer Diler & Associados. The studio will distribute.
Lensing began June 18 in a Rio studio and will wrap July 20. Col is planning an
Oct. 10 bow with 300 copies, a wide release for a local production. Brazilians
will celebrate the Virgin of Aparecida holiday during opening weekend.
Pic toplines Giovanna Antonelli, with Luige Bariccelli as Jesus and vet Jose
Wilker ("Bye Bye Brasil") as Pontius Pilate.
Local celebrity priest Father Marcelo Rossi, famous for his CDs of religious
songs, will portray a priest who recounts the story of Virgin Mary to a child.
"Carandiru," an HB production with Columbia and Globo Filmes about
the 1992 riot at the infamous prison, opened April 4 with 247 copies. Through
June 16, that pic has sold 4.4 million tickets and grossed 28.7 million reais
($ 9.9 million).
Russian sacred icons get rare exhibit [Source: UPI, July
Russian sacred icons--second only to Faberge bibelots as the
most popular form of Russian art in America--are getting an unusual exhibition
in the form of the collection of an Italian journalist who acquired 19th and
20th century examples created for veneration in ordinary Russian homes.
Francesco Bigazzi collected the 56 icons on display through Sept. 6 at the
Gallery of the American Bible Society while working and traveling in Russia for
20 years. A native of Tuscany, he donated the collection to the Tuscan town of
Peccioli which opened a museum for its exhibition three years ago in the former
city hall. This is the collection's first display outside Italy. Icons
originated in Russia in the 10th century as a form of Byzantine-inspired art
featuring paintings of Biblical figures and Russian Orthodox saints on wood
panels, the figures framed in silver gilt "rizas" cut away to reveal
the face and hands. Only the church and the aristocracy could afford to
This art reached its apex in the 15th century, considered the classical period
of the icon, but continued unabated until the Russian Revolution put an end to
religious observances in 1917, especially the public display of icons
associated with miracles. In addition to paintings on wood, there also were
crucifix icons made of metal with enameled decorations, two of which are in the
By the 19th century, icon-painting had been highly commercialized, and icons
were produced in large numbers to satisfy the demand of all classes of society.
They often were displayed in even the humblest homes in a special location
called the "beautiful corner" where oil lamps were kept burning day
and night, their light flickering on the silver-gilt framing.
Peccioli's icons are of this variety, though many of them are of surprisingly
high quality. Accompanying photographs from the New York Public Library show
how the icons would have been displayed in churches, private chapels, homes, on
the street, and in shrines of pilgrimage. There is also a display of all the
materials and paraphernalia used in icon-making including wood panels, paints,
varnishes, and brushes.
The icons have a particular charm, possibly because they are somber but never
dour and portray the human figure rather rigidly and with awkward linear
gestures that are most usually found in folk art. Symbolism plays a big role in
this art as in the icon of St. John the Precursor (John the Baptist) whose left
hand holds a chalice in which the infant Jesus reclines surrounded by bright
red stripes representing the blood of His future sacrifice.
The meaning of much of the symbolism is explained in wall labels and there are
other educational displays, and a fine catalog including a history of the icon,
to help viewers who are unacquainted with this art. The show can also be
enjoyed solely for its aesthetic richness, since this was an art created for
the purpose of adding a note of gilded glamour to public and private worship
and outdoor religious processions.
Among the memorable icons on view are a stunning Mother and Child almost
completely enveloped in an elaborately detailed metal reza, titled "Mother
of God of Vladimir" after a famous Byzantine icon on the same subject that
performed many miracles in the city of Vladmir. Similar madonnas are in the
style of famous icons displayed in cathedrals in Kazan and Smolensk and at a
monastery in Iviron.
The only "action pictures" among the icons are two showing St.
George, the protector of Russian agriculture, mounted on a white horse and
slaying a dragon while a princess the beast intended for dinner looks on
admiringly. Most saints are depicted lined up as if for a group photographs as
in the panel depicting the Archangel Michael with Saints Modestus, Blaise,
Florus, and Laurus, their painted faces peeking out from an elaborately
engraved silver riza on which gold crowns are superimposed.
There are story-telling icons including a picture of the young Virgin Mary's
presentation at the temple in Jerusalem, Christ's triumph over Hell, and the
death of the Virgin Mary. There are also portrait icons of recent saints,
Mitrofan of Vonezh who died in 1703 portrayed as a bishop, and Seraphim of
Sarov, who died in 1833, garbed in the robe of an ascestic monk. Seraphim's
heavenly intercession was credited for the birth of a son to Czar Nicholas II
and Empress Alexandra after they had produced four daughters.
St. Nicholas was the most popular saint of the Russian church and the exhibit
includes an icon of the wrinkled, grey-bearded holy man, his right hand raised
in blessing and his left holding the Gospel open to St. Luke. His figure is
completely enclosed in a silver riza in the magnificent high Baroque style
popular in the 19th century and his golden halo is supportd by two angels
seated on puffy clouds.
There are few great icon collections in the United States but many icon
collectors. One of the best collections is displayed at Hillwood, a
house-museum in Washington, D.C., once the home of cereal heiress Marjorie
Merriweather Post. She collected great 18th to 20th century icons when her
third husband, Joseph E. Davies, was ambassador to the Soviet Union in the late
Israel bulldozers destroy mosque foundations built on
Nazareth Christian site [Source: AFX European Focus, July 1, 2003]
Bulldozers have begun destroying the foundations of a mosque near a
Christian holy site in Nazareth, northern Israel, early this morning, in
accordance with a court order banning its construction, Israeli radio reported.
Seven Arab Israelis protesting the move were arrested, while two of the
hundreds of police deployed in the area were injured--one was lightly stabbed--the radio said.
Among those arrested are deputy Nazareth mayors Salman Abu Ahmad and Ahmad
Zwabi, police said. Before his arrest, Abu Ahmad condemned "the barbarous
act of destroying a mosque" and called for the city council to resign in
Israel's Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi reiterated that the move
was based on a court decision, adding that Israel is bound by the rule of law
and " cannot accept an illegal structure, especially on the second holiest
site of Christendom." He told army radio that the mosque was
"provocation against the whole of the Christian world," however
adding that its destruction will "not harm the political process."
Police, who have removed hundreds of local Muslims worshipper from the site,
used jack-hammers to destroy the partly-built mosque near the Church of the
The church marks the site where, according to some Christian denominations,
the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to
Jesus Christ, the son of God.
The operation was launched following a court decision ordering the Waqf, the
body charged with managing Muslim assets, to destroy the foundations, saying
they had been illegally constructed.
The previous government of Ehud Barak had allowed the mosque to be built over
the tomb of a Muslim saint between the church and the main street running
through Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab city.
However, the Vatican strongly criticised the move, thereby prompting a
two-day protest closure of Christian holy sites in Israel shortly before a
visit to the region by Pope John Paul II.
THE SARCOPHAGUS OF VIRGIN MARY DISAPPOINTS PEOPLE IN SELCUK [Source:
Turkish Daily News, July 2, 2003]
The sarcophagus of the Virgin Mary claimed to be buried in Virgin Mary's
house in Bulbul Mountain was unfounded. Following research by experts
consisting of archaeologists and geologist, it was discovered that there was no
sarcophagus of the Virgin Mary, but a historical water channel.
Professor Zafer Akcig, the head of the geophysics team who worked in
exposing the geophysical map of the Virgin Mary complex, said that after
excavation they discovered an historical water channel near the baptism pool.
Akcig said that they excavated the area after completing works on the
geophysical structure of the complex that indicated there was something
"We searched the area using electromagnetic waves and obtained some
findings that the sarcophagus of Virgin Mary may be buried. We decided to
secretly dig the area. After the excavation we saw that there was no
sarcophagus but discovered a historical water channel," said Akcig.
Akcig said that the water channel was very old. He added that they had started
to work on the water channel.
York Mystery Plays on the wagons [Source: Newsquest Regional Press,
July 3, 2003]
THE Mystery Plays are set to be performed next year on the back of pageant
wagons--but the organisers say this will not compensate fully for the loss of
York's major static production.
Members of the cast from previous plays--including the Virgin Mary from the
2000 performance in the Minster--have continued to express their
disappointment at the lack of a 2004 production.
The wagon plays are being planned for next year by the Friends of the Mystery
Plays in the absence of a major production. Artistic director Ray Alexander
said the Friends who for almost 50 years have supported the dramas, supplying
actors, technicians, stage management stewards, programme sellers and
administrative support, were disappointed there is unlikely to be a production
in 2004 or the year after.
"That means that if the next production is to be in 2010 the impetus and
enthusiasm in the city may well have evaporated," he said stressing that
the plays brought many benefits to York through extra tourism revenue.
The venue for the wagon plays could not yet be announced, but he invited anyone
interested in taking part to contact him on 01904 764222.
Meanwhile Frances Marshall, who played the Virgin Mary in the 2000 production,
has said she was really upset when she heard there would be no 2004 production.
"I had no idea this was going to happen. I think it's terrible."
She said her experience in 2000 had changed her life. "I had planned to do
an English degree but instead did a drama degree and I am going to apply to
drama school after finishing my studies--hoping to be a professional
Dame Judi Dench also played the Virgin Mary in 1957 and went on to a successful
career on stage and screen.
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