Q: Why do people put Mary statues in their yards?
A: There are many local reasons for outdoor or yard representations of Mary, but there are other more generic explanations. Catholic religion is a very visual religion. Influenced by Eastern Christianity, Catholic piety is iconic, that is, it uses images to bring the divine close to the human and to lead us humans by way of holy images to the source of holiness. Images are not an end in themselves, they have mediating character. Just as Mary has always been considered our main mediator with her Son, many old and venerable Marian images are considered miraculous and were found outdoors in fields, trees, rivers and caves indicating thus that their origin was not of human doings and dealings. No doubt that there was also a connection between the generative forces of nature and the life-giving function of the mother.
However, the more immediate reason for yard Madonnas is to be found in post-Reformation religious tradition. It became popular in the 1700s to witness one's Catholic identity by showing off publicly some typical sign of recognition. Mary was such a figure or sign of Catholic identity. This led to columns with Our Lady statues, Calvary mountains and open-air religious theater. Baroque culture with its artistic and devotional program of showing heaven on earth pursued this same goal, while in Italian Renaissance the custom of outdoor statuary was a revival of antique traditions.
In the 1800s the custom of outdoor Mary statues was encouraged by some of the major Marian apparitions, in particular Lourdes and later Fatima (twentieth century). The Lourdes grotto became a very popular feature of this custom and spread wherever Catholic missionaries went, in particular the Brothers of Our Lady of Lourdes and the Missionary Priests of Paris. The statues of Our Lady of Lourdes, Fatima and the Miraculous Medal are among the most numerous and popular yard Madonnas.
Most people would not know about this historical context but their rationale follows instinctively the basic reasons why Mary, indoors and outdoors, has been a figurehead of Catholicism: 1) She is the primary witness of our faith in Jesus Christ; putting her statue in our yards we profess this same faith; 2) she is praiseworthy because of her special place in salvation history; her open-air statue proclaims this veneration; 3) protection may be the primary reason why people set statues on their property. Mary has been the protectress of Christians since the very early centuries of Christianity. Why Mary? She is the closest to a free pass to Jesus, not because of magic but because of the model character of her life.
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