Tota Pulchra Es
by Jem Sullivan, appearing in Volume 37
An old Catholic prayer dating to the fourth century extols the incomparable beauty of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the words Tota Pulchra Es, meaning “You are completely beautiful.” It is no wonder that the spiritual and moral beauty of the woman who is “completely beautiful” has taken the form of the beautiful in masterpieces of sacred art.
In Regina Coeli: Art and Essays on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Father Michael Morris, O.P., offers an inspiring collection of writings on Marian art, drawn from the pages of Magnificat and three additional art reflections. Morris, who died in 2016, taught at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley.
The essay collection is a tour de force journey, featuring over forty Marian masterpieces from artists like Giotto, Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, Titian, Raphael, Velasquez, van der Weyden, and Juan de Flandes. The volume’s full-color large-scale renderings take the reader on a Marian pilgrimage through the life of the Mother of God. And since Mary’s life is inextricably bound to the life of Jesus, this Marian pilgrimage is a Christ-centered pilgrimage.
The compilation also includes essays on works of sacred art that depict the distinctly Marian prayer of the rosary and the Marian devotion of saints and religious orders, such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Carthusians, and Saint Sixtus and Saint Barbara.
The reader will find particularly insightful numerous essays on artistic masterpieces that trace the life of Jesus. For instance, in reflecting on a work by the Netherlandish painter Juan de Flandes titled The Wedding Feast at Cana, Morris writes that his picture of Mary “reinforces our notion of her as a powerful intercessor exercising enormous influence with her son. … Christ may have felt that his time had not yet come, but he responded immediately to her plea. And so she pleads our cause as well. As we say over and over again in the Hail Mary, may she be an advocate for us sinners especially at the hour of our death, so that we too can enjoy that eternal feast that is prepared for us in heaven.”
Each reflection invites the reader to ponder the heavenly liturgy where the Blessed Virgin Mary sits enthroned as Queen of Heaven in the company of all the saints. One is reminded of Dante’s contemplation of the Mother of God among the brilliant splendors of Paradise as, “beauty that was joy in the eyes of all the other saints.”
To His Mother First
Rogier van der Weyden’s Miraflores Altarpiece depicts the appearance of the resurrected Christ to his Blessed Mother. “While the Gospel says nothing,” Morris notes, “Christian tradition has long taken it for granted that Christ appeared to his mother first. For it is logical that she who had shared most in his passion should also share in his glory. … For at the Annunciation she was the means by which he entered the world; likewise she would be the first to witness his entry into glory. Bathed in that glory of the risen one, she anticipates the Church’s splendor.”
The Miraflores Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden. Image: wikimedia.org
The book’s concluding essays highlight masterpieces depicting historical events linked to the intercession and presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary. First, Paolo Veronese’s intricately detailed historical painting, Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto, that captures the decisive sea battle victory that turned the tide against Ottoman naval superiority in the Mediterranean.
Then, a stirring essay on the Icon of Our Lady of Cambrai, in which Father Morris recounts the dramatic moment when Bernadette Soubirous, visionary of Lourdes, claimed that this icon was the image closest to the heavenly woman she saw in the grotto. The ethereal icon invites our contemplative gaze as it highlights the affectionate intimacy between the Mother of God and the child Jesus.
Finally, a concluding essay on the iconic image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The author concludes his Marian pilgrimage by leading the reader to the heart of Marian theology in art, captured in the endearing words of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego, “Am I not here with you who am your Mother?”
Father Morris’ reflections on Marian art convey his keen knowledge as an art scholar and his deep devotion to the Mother of God as a Dominican priest. Mary was not only a figure of art historical interest to the author, but a spiritual mother and companion on his life’s journey. In this collection of essays, he invites the reader to see the person and life of Mary both in her physical motherhood of the Son of God, and in her spiritual motherhood of every baptized Christian.
In the foreword, Father Morris’s long-time close friend Father Peter John Cameron, O.P., describes his sudden death as he collapsed to the floor in front of him on the afternoon of July 15, 2016. Father Cameron notes of this book: “what started out as a heartfelt, personal tribute to the glorious Queen of Heaven turned out instead to be a great, last love letter.”