As the month of Mary winds down — and what a month it was (among other things: the kickoff of Fatima’s hundredth anniversary) — a final news item:
“One of the most sacred relics of Christianity, the Timia Esthita (the robe of the Virgin Mary) is coming to Cyprus and will be displayed at the Church of Constantinos and Eleni in Dhali from Thursday until May 23,” reported the Cyprus Mail. “The relic is coming from the Monastery of the Nativity in Evros, Greece.”
The dress of the Virgin, we are informed — it’s alleged — was found in 473 A.D., purchased from a Jewish man in the Holy Land and now kept at the state museum in Zugdidi, Georgia.
Is it really hers?
One comes to learn that the Shrine of Saint Mary (Marienschrein), at Aachen Cathedral in Aix-La-Chapelle) Germany, houses four similarly alleged great relics that include another cloak of “Saint Mary,” the swaddling clothes of the Infant Jesus, the beheading cloth of Saint John the Baptist, and the loincloth worn by Jesus at his Crucifixion. The relics were rarely displayed publicly before the 14th century; however, since about the mid-14th century, the relics have been removed from the shrine approximately every seven years for public veneration.
It’s comforting to think that anything which belonged to the holiest of women still survives for us to visit.
The following description is from the Aachen Pilgrimage 2014 website:
“St. Mary’s robe is an ancient work of domestic embroidery. . . . It is made of naturally colored linen and is embroidered with vertical and horizontal lines in a grid pattern. In Israel flax and cotton were only to be found on the coast and in the lowlands of Jordan . . . .”
The website further notes that the dress is sixty inches long; the seam circumference is 96 inches; and the span of the sleeves is 52 inches. (The Aachen Pilgrimage 2014 homepage can be found here. More information about the cloak of Saint Mary can be found here. A picture of the robe can be viewed here).”
In a book on Christian symbolism, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, George Ferguson notes, according to a reviewer, that Mary was traditionally painted wearing blue, the color of truth and a symbol of the sky, Heaven, and heavenly love.
But did the historical Virgin Mary actually wear blue?
Perhaps likeliest is that she is indeed adorned in a color that reflects Heaven, while on earth it was a different matter.
Notes the reviewer, “Evidence preserved in various shrines suggests the Virgin’s blue wardrobe may have been an invention of Medieval and Renaissance artists. These artists expressed their devotion to the Virgin by using a very scarce and very expensive pigment to paint her garments. The pigment, known as ultramarine, was a deep, celestial blue.”
And observes an astute blogger: “The deep, rich ultramarine prized by the artists of the Renaissance derived from lapis lazuli, an intensely blue, semi-precious stone found in only a few places on Earth. For artists such as Michelangelo, Titian, and Dürer, the only source of ultramarine was Afghanistan, a ‘mythical land so far away that no European . . . had actually been there.’
Finlay notes that ultramarine was once “the most valuable paint material in the world,” and artists such as Michelangelo would have had to wait for their patrons to procure it for them because they could not afford it on their own. Given its tremendous cost and unquestionable rarity, then, it is not surprising that so many artists chose to clothe the Virgin Mary in ultramarine. Fortuitously, ultramarine also happens to be a serene and majestic color, one truly appropriate for the Queen of Heaven.”
Continues the commentator:
“If the Virgin Mary did not wear blue, why did artists regularly paint her in blue garments? Victoria Finlay offers several insights. First, she explains that Saint Mary did not always wear blue in artistic representations. In Russian icons, for example, the Virgin Mary more commonly wore red, and in Byzantine art, she often wore purple.
“On other occasions, she was portrayed in white to represent her innocence, or black to express her grief. Finlay also observes that artists commonly dressed her in a manner to honor her, and their choice of color was frequently decided by cost and rarity. She writes, ‘In fifteenth-century Holland, Mary often wore scarlet because that was the most expensive cloth; the earlier Byzantine choice of purple was similarly because this was a valuable dye, and only a few people were important enough to carry it off. So when, in around the thirteenth century, ultramarine arrived in Italy as the most expensive color on the market, it was logical to use it to dress the most precious symbol of the faith.'”
Okay: all as fascinating as it is inconclusive.
Like so many things: “mysteries.”
But let us try again to solve it. To repeat: blue is a color described in historic apparitions (before Michelangelo) — a good reason to represent her as such artistically, now that she has risen far above Nazareth and Bethlehem and the colors of this earth.