And don’t be offended if I call God “tu” [“tu” – the familiar form of “you” in Italian], I call all those whom I love “tu”. Even if I have only met them once I call all those who love each other “tu”. Even if I don’t know them.
Through what enigma did you enter my life, Mary? I, whose family culture did not hint at the slightest prediction of that Marian obsession, which has nevertheless pursued me since childhood?
I imagine that this enigma might be called the “collective unconscious”. We may be Protestants on the paternal side and feminist atheists on the maternal side but all the same there is little possibility, Mary, of not coming into collision with the plaster from which your statues are made, of fleeing to the blue sky of your fixed gaze, of avoiding all our lives your pallid smile as a young woman giving birth, docile to the heavenly laws which all of a sudden propelled you into an unexpected pregnancy. Thus there are few possibilities of ignoring this intimate fact, brandished as a standard by 2,000 years of Christianity: your virginity. But there is worse to follow: your name has been made of the adjective “virgin” – with a capital letter.
In the fourth century Bishop Epiphanius found it spiritual to be filled with wonder: “Who and in which generation has ever dared to say St Mary’s name and not add ‘Virgin’ when asked?”. Then in the sixth and seventh centuries the Councils of Constantinople (553) and of the Lateran (649) locked your chastity belt once and for all with a key: since you are “the Virgin” you will be so for eternity!
If no one in their time has been concerned with this I would now like to be the one to respond to Bishop Epiphanius: yes, someone did dare to pronounce Mary’s name without specifying “the Virgin”. And that someone was St Paul: even St Paul, for Catholics. He wrote to the Galatians just before the final draft of what was to become the four Gospels. And concerning you, Paul does not say “Virgin”, he says soberly “woman”. With a small letter, he writes simply “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman” (Gal 4:4).
Theologically, calling you by the common name of “woman” means saying something essential: normality.
The normality of the champions of the Word is a crucial element of the biblical revelation. From Moses to David, passing through Ruth, Jeremiah, Jonah, your Joseph, a little carpenter of the little village of Nazareth, God clearly likes to address ordinary men and women. The extraordinary of God is embodied in the ordinary, it is precisely this that is the beauty of Christianity, my good lady.
However, it is necessary to admit that the ordinary does not sell well in terms of religious marketing. And I really must confess it, Mary: if you attracted me when I was a little girl, it was because of the splendour, the gilding, the majesty of your statues and your heavenly aristocracy.
But when I grew up I hated you for this very reason. Because after you, how was it possible to be a woman?
The history of Marian iconography, I must tell you, disguised the ordinary young woman who you certainly were so that you might reach out to us better. In order to lay a better trap for us, most painters have depicted you with a halo, with a crown, untouchable.
Full of Christianity: the religion of the Incarnation which, however, spent all its energy seeking to disincarnate the young woman who you were.
In his version of the Annunciation Duccio di Buoninsegna (14th century) did not hesitate to set a vase of white lilies between you and Gabriel. “They are the emblems of chastity and of the perpetual virginity of Mary” I read. “She is the intact vessel; ‘as a lily among brambles’ (Song 2:2)”. Oh, I am tempted to say (but yes, I have clearly understood the metaphor: we are the thorns, and I suppose that we must take this to mean the whole of the female world except for you).
Yet although you are Protestant you can love Mary. If only we could have these conversations among women in which shyness can sometimes be overcome so that we can confront one another. Does not the biblical project consist precisely in offering humanity not an open book but a mirror, offering ourselves a genealogy where one is holy only if one is formed of clay, since God still has mud on his hands?
Blessed be Fra Angelico who, in the first of the eight Annunciations whichare attributed to him (dated c. 1430, today displayed at the Prado Museum in Madrid), without giving up illuminating you has inserted beneath the vault that shelters you the detail of a swallow. It is not that the swallow replaces the dove which represents the inseminating Holy Spirit. It helps him, so to speak, by its simple presence. And that presence is sweet to me because the swallow is so ordinary, it is a bird to which only farmers still pay attention, a stable bird that likes nothing better than the warmth of a hayloft where a flock is ruminating.
Too much splendour, Mary, I repeat to you, to make you a sister, the elder sister you might have been if we had conformed to the little that the Gospels say of you.
And as for me, who go round museums, greedy for an image of you that can reconnect our intimate dialogue, that can teach me to be a woman, to be a mother.
I find something of this invitation in your resistance portrayed by Matthias Grünewald. Since I live a few kilometres from Colmar, I have had the incomparable privilege of being able to contemplate in full tranquillity the Isenheim Altarpiece. Your hesitant body, the uncontrollable twisting of your torso in front of the angel’s finger pointing at you like an arrow, all this can indeed tell me something of the dizziness, the inebriation, the contradiction inherent in being chosen in this way, whether by God or by man. I feel we are accomplices.
Last January I was going with my son to see this monumental work when I discovered that in the Unterlinden Museum there was a temporary exhibition of works by the painter Otto Dix. A German painter of the 20th century who was fascinated by the Isenheim Altarpiece, he is known as one of the key artists of the New Objectivity movement.
While my son was busy making a sketch of Dix’s Crucifixion, I wandered through the galleries formed by lines of panels which supported canvases of very different shapes. I did not pay much attention to the setting. Yet all of a sudden I found myself in the throbbing heart of the exhibition, where in the middle of the hall three panels were arranged to form a curved niche, a triangular and intimate place.
It was you, Mary, who that heart sheltered. An Annunciation like no other, one large, one small, several studio sketches where I saw you scowling, petulant, your brow furrowed. In one of these studies Dix sought to reproduce the elusive body of Mary as shown by Grünewald but on the canvas he gave up and in the end you were transfigured from the ordinary, which makes you the most improbable and most beautiful of the elect.
You are sitting on a chair whose back is made of woven wicker. We used to have that kind of chair at home when I was a little girl, I had fun feeling with my finger the marks that the woven wicker had left on my back. But now it is on your breast that we rediscover the marks left by the weaving standing out in the Small more clearly than in the Great Annunciation. You are casting a sideways glance at the angel-bird, full of diffidence, and your flushed face betrays that absurd heat which rises from your belly in the face of that unusual desire, that leap into the unknown. You are young, Mary, a little girl, ingenuous, but already your character of iron may be intuited – a volcanic child, frail and rebellious. And that transparency of your breast which permits a glimpse of the weaving of the backrest perhaps tells where the Spirit passes, that radar of God which scans us with a disarming smile (in fact the angel-bird, in the Great Annunciation, looks at you with a smile that cannot lie, and, so to speak, attracts you. With your hands resting clasped on your thighs, while you clutch between your legs at the blue denim fabric of your short dress with straps, I see the nervous play of your fingers and it speaks of all the tension of that moment, the “yes”-“no”, the “no”-“yes”, and in the end the “yes” to the unheard of.
And there it is Mary, I see you for the first time and I want to say to you “Come on!”. And I want you too to say to me, eternally, in the face of the folly of God, in the face of all the births and deaths of my life: “Say yes”.
So don’t be offended it I call you “tu”. I call all those I love “tu”, even if I’ve only met them once.