Italy and the Veneration of Mary

I might step on some toes with this post.  Most likely Catholic ones.  But I want to address the veneration of Mary, Jesus’ mom.

It seemed that no matter where we went in Italy, Mary was there, in all her glory.  We saw her in the Cinque Terre, in little altars along the trails (roads) we walked.  In Tuscany, she was prominently featured in every church we visited.  And in Rome and the Vatican, we found the same thing.

One reason I want to discuss this topic now is that yesterday’s sermon at church addressed Mary and the appropriate Biblical response we can have to her.  Our pastor took a nice middle road, one that doesn’t set Mary too high but also doesn’t neglect her importance as a wonderful role model for women, especially young girls. I thought it might be nice timing to show a little bit of what we found at Catholicism grand central.

I’m going to focus on one church in particular, out of the dozens we visited.  This one epitomized for me all that was problematic about the Mary veneration.

The parish church of San Lorenzo isn’t among the major tourist destinations in Italy. In fact, it’s a ways outside of Florence, about 40 minutes by train.  And it’s a decent walk from the train station (especially in 90 degree heat).  What makes it so special is that it’s old, really old.  It was built on an ancient Roman temple to Bacchus (that wine loving god) in the 10th century.  Records indicate as early as 934 A.D.  Another special feature of the church is its collection of artwork.  For being a small parish church in a little town, it certainly has a lot of incredible art work.  Below, you’ll find our video overview of the sanctuary.

giotto madonnaAmong the works is a Giotto, that medieval artist who is considered to have ushered in the Italian Renaissance. Despite its illustrious attribution, the painting isn’t particularly noteworthy in appearance. However, it’s come to symbolize a lot of Italian church art for me.  The painting, from late in Giotto’s life (late 13th century), is titled very simply: Madonna.  However, upon closer inspection, you’ll notice a disembodied baby hand touching Mary’s face.  That would be the missing baby Jesus.  Nowhere in the title do we learn about the child.  Today, because of damage over the years, we simply have “Madonna.”  And while once, Jesus probably played a larger role, now, it’s Mary who steals the show.  She’s enrobed in queenly garments, with gold filigree and details (not the humble peasant image we get from the Bible). And she appears to be in her late 20s or 30s (not the teenager that Joseph married). 

My beef with this painting is its putting all the focus on Mary.  She’s not the main attraction.  She’s important, but she shouldn’t get first billing.  That little child in her lap (who currently happens to be missing his body), is the one who should steal the show.  He’s the one who was miraculously born, he’s the one who stepped down from his throne in heaven to a humble life on Earth, and he’s the one who would grow up to die for our sins.  Not his mom.

mary intercedesAnd the Pieve di San Lorenzo (The Parish Church of Saint Lawrence) gives us one more work of art that signifies the wrong attitude toward Mary.  This work is by Matteo Rosselini from 1615 (I didn’t get to use flash, so the picture is a bit fuzzy).  Its highly descriptive name is “The Saints Domenico and Francesco Interceding with Christ.”  This painting bothered me a lot.  Here, you have two saints down on earth pleading with a very angry looking Jesus.  Jesus is poised with weapons, ready to hurl them down on the innocent looking men.  This is more like the Jesus image I get for the last Judgement (toward the unrepentant and unredeemed), but here, Jesus seems to have no concern for the saints.  It’s Mary, sitting at his right hand, pleading with him.  She’s the one who is merciful.  She’s the one who hears the priests’ prayers. What a messed up picture of grace! 

We don’t need to pray to Mary, who then cools down her angry son.  We have direct contact with God the Father through Jesus and the interceding work of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26, John 14:16-17, & Luke 11:1-4).  No Mary needed to talk with Jesus or The Father.  And if you’re a believer, don’t expect Jesus to strike you down with his wrath.  He’s out to save you, to do good for you (I John 2:1).  For heaven’s sake, he died so we might live.  Mary didn’t do that.  Jesus did.

But in my doctrinal clarification, I don’t want it to come across that I hate Catholics or think that Catholics aren’t Christians.  I love my Catholic brothers and sisters.  I just don’t want any unbiblical doctrines to get in the way of the true focus, on Jesus.

We should rejoice because we have free and easy access to the Creator of the Universe.  Don’t stick unnecessary mediators between you and God.  Worship him freely, ask of him without reservations, and have that one-on-one relationship for which you were created.


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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I was raised Catholic, but it wasn’t until I read through the Bible and the Gospel was made clear to me that I realized how wrong this idolatry of Mary is. I think you make a good point in addressing the balance there – we don’t want to minimize her role, but at the same time, is it any greater than that of Moses’ or David’s for example ? All of these (including Mary, and us) are in need of a Savior. Some of my Catholic friends state that, “Well they weren’t the mother of God !” However, Mary herself acknowledged her own need in Luke 1:46-47. And the book of Hebrews is a fine example of how we no longer have need for another mediator – Christ alone does that for us !

    I have another Catholic friend who has been sending me links regarding Saint Faustina, the Apostle of Divine Mercy. There seems to be an idea of “Bible Plus” in Catholicism, where the Word of God and Jesus’ work need something added to make them complete. You said it well Amy – “For heaven’s sake, he died so we might live. Mary didn’t do that. Jesus did.”

    Amen !

    AL: Thanks Joe! I appreciate your perspective here, as someone who was a former Catholic. Great verse to include too Luke 1:46-47. Good way of saying it: “Bible +” or perhaps even “Jesus +”. Isn’t that the way it is with most idols, they become a mediator to God, something you need first before you can have all the wonderful joy that comes from Him alone. I think you’d enjoy Pastor Mark’s sermon from yesterday, which I linked to in the blog post. You should consider checking it out. The video version has a great intro. But it’s on audio as well.

  2. My Dad was sent to Catholic school as a kid, and his retort about praying to Mary was always: When you are sick, do you talk to your doctor or your doctor’s Mother?

    That always struck me as all that needs to be said on the topic.

    But…I personally am not convinced that Mary was poor. I also think there is a strong argument that Jesus was born in a Sukkah. I wish Christians would consider experiencing this holiday more…the making tangible the idea that we dwell in temporary structures openly with one another on our journey through life on the way to the Eternal Promiseland is a pretty cool experience don’t you think?,

    Happy Succoth to you and your dear MOT husband!

    AL: You know I love that doctor analogy. =) I’ll share that one with Dan, for sure. You’ve mentioned the wealth issue with Jesus’ folks before, and I find it intriguing. Suffice to say, I’ll leave it on the list of questions to ask her in heaven when we’re discussing what it was like to raise God. For now, I’m attached to the idea that Jesus’ birth was one of the most humble possible. It strikes me as somehow appropriate for my humble savior.

    Happy Succoth to you, even though we’ve been lame this year and haven’t done anything..even the apples and honey!

  3. PS: Would you add a comment to my post of Oct. 5th? I miss active conversation with intelligent deep thinking women here in Utah…and until I can round up face to face friends, I’m counting on blogdom to meet the need.

    AL: I’m honored to be asked. I’ll pop over there soon.

  4. My salvation came about during the latter part of the Catholic Charismatic movement of the 1980’s. So, I’ve been around a lot of Catholics who love Jesus and Mary.

    Does the veneration of Mary bother me? To be honest, when I first studied the Bible as a new Christian, the overemphasis on Mary bugged me, as in really bugged me.

    Then I read a Malcolm Muggerridge’s book on Mother Teresa. From my viewpoint, Mother Teresa’s theology was more than a little askew, especially her thinking on Mary. But then it dawned on me, Mother Teresa’s love far exceeded any other person’s love I’ve ever read about (excluding Jesus).

    How many people would fight off starving rats to help a dying, homeless, smelly person have a few extra moments of life? How many people would live next to rendering works and tanning factories just to reach the poor? How many people believe they are serving Jesus when they help the poor?

    Muggerridge stated that when Mother Teresa walked down the street the foul odors in the air were changed into sweet, smelling aromas because of her love.

    So, does the veneration of Mary still bug me today? Not really. I just lump it together with all of the other imperfect theologies, including my own.

    I really believe that we Christians should be known first of all by our love for one another…and way down the list in second place, by our so-called theologies.

    AL: Thanks for bringing up the key point that we have many catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, who love the Lord and are truly among those headed for salvation. I don’t want to have an unloving attitude toward our catholic brothers and sisters. If I have, I am truly sorry for it. If anything, I’m just continuing on my quest to illuminate idols where I find them. Just like any idol, of which I unfortunately have many (for which I am continually working to separate from), Mary worship fits as something that gets put between us and God.

    In my Bible reading today, I came upon a verse that spoke to me about this issue. In Phillipians 1:9, Paul prays for the recipients of his letter: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” Certainly, I need to have more love, because that’s what Christ has called me to. But he’s also called me to be discerning, and so, I hope to reach out to my catholic friends in love but also have knowledge and discernment about what will keep me “pure and blameless” for Jesus. Tough balance, which is probably why Paul makes it his prayer here.

  5. Hi Amy,

    You seem interested in reading, so I’ll recommend a book I’m just in the midst of finishing: “Mother of God” by Miri Rubin (Yale University Press). It’s a highly detailed walk through the history of the art, literature and theology built around Mary by the early Church, and then the Church of Rome. It even goes into all the Church’s internal debates about Mary’s nature, and the later rejection of Mary as a divine Mother under Protestantism. (Sadly, there is a lot in this history that associates Mary with hatred of the Jews and vice versa, but I found this instructive more than I found it depressing.) If you want to be more informed about where all that art you saw in Italy came from and why she is so greatly venerated by Catholics, you might want to read or at least skim this book.


    AL: Great recommendation! I’ll look into it (meaning I’ll see if my local library can get it for me!).

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