Mater Misericordiae: Mary, Mother of Mercy

The title “Mother of Mercy” first appears with reference to Mary in the tenth century, in John of Salerno’s Life of Saint Odo (of Cluny). St. Odo died in 942 and John commemorates him a couple of years later, recounting that the Virgin appeared to St. Odo and told him, Ego sum mater misericordiae: I am the Mother of Mercy. The title became more widespread in the eleventh and, especially, the twelfth century with the liturgical use of the hymn Salve Regina, known in English as the Hail Holy Queen, first at the Abbey of Cluny, attested by 1135, and later in Cistercian houses, where by 1218 it was used daily.

The author of this hymn is unknown, though the two candidates for this honor most often mentioned are Blessed Hermann of Reichenau, also known as Bd. Hermannus Contractus, Herman the Crippled (1013-1054), and St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Hermann, though severely crippled from childhood, and oblated to the Abbey of Reichenau by his parents who were unable to care for him, nevertheless became a scholar and composer of great renown, having mastered Latin and Greek and even Arabic. The Salve Regina bears stylistic resemblance to other Marian hymns known to be composed by him. On the other hand, one of the early biographies of Bernard of Clairvaux, by John the Hermit, records a vision that Bernard experienced, in which he heard the Salve Regina sung by a heavenly choir:

One night, Bernard was sleeping in the dormitory amongst the other monks, when he heard a glorious sound of voices coming from the chapel. So, without waking anyone else, he quietly went to the chapel, and—behold!—there were multitudes of angels within, bathed in the radiant refulgence of celestial light. They were singing the praises of almighty God and the most holy Mother of God, in resonant waves of indescribably mellifluous harmonies. And he saw the blessed Mary herself standing in their midst! She held a golden thurifer in one hand and an incense boat in the other. One of the angels led Bernard to the right side of the altar, next to the glorious Virgin. And there he heard sung in an angelic voice the Salve Regina. Bernard remembered carefully all that he heard, and, the next day wrote it down completely and precisely, and sent a copy to Pope Eugenius III (translated by Fr. Robert Nixon, OSB).

Scholarly opinion tends to favor Herman and thus an earlier date. Still it is fitting that this hymn, which has fixed “all generations” since its composition in contemplation and impetration of Mary as Mother of Mercy, evokes in those whose souls have been marked by the tenderness of its spirit a sense of an origin somewhere in the domain of God’s grace. If it is Hermann, it seems fitting that the one who “lifts up the lowly” had indeed “lifted up” Herman, from being, it seemed, doomed to a position of social uselessness and community burden to a position, instead, of international renown. And St. Bernard himself, in the incident reported, takes no credit for the composition but ascribes it to an angelic voice. In either case, it is as though this inspired and for centuries beloved invocation of Mary as Mother of Mercy had its origin in an initiative of grace.

However, even though “Mother of Mercy” does not emerge as a fixed devotional and liturgical title until the tenth century, the association of Mary, specifically as Mother, with divine mercy is much more ancient. We find it in the earliest known hymn addressed to Mary, the hymn known from its Latin first line, “Sub tuum praesidium.” The text that is familiar to most Roman Catholics is as follows:

Sub tuum
sancta Dei Genitrix :
nostras deprecationes
ne despicias
in necessitatibus,
sed a periculis cunctis
libera nos semper,
Virgo gloriosa
et benedicta.

Under your
we take refuge
Holy Mother of God;
our petitions,
do not despise
in necessities,
but of all dangers
deliver us always,
glorious Virgin
& Blessed.

However, this is not an exact translation of the original Greek text, found, almost miraculously preserved, on a papyrus dated by most scholars approximately to somewhere between AD 250 and 350. Here is the Greek text, followed by an English translation:

Hupo tain sain eusplangthian katapheugomen Theotoke . . .

Under your mercy we fly to take refuge, Mother of God! Our prayers, do not despise in necessities, but from danger deliver us, you who alone are pure, alone holy.

Remember that a hymn is a formal liturgical composition. That means that, if by say AD 300 we find a carefully produced formally written papyrus copy, it is evidence for a tradition that is popular and much earlier, a tradition of devotion that is developed enough to be written down for formal liturgical use. This means, that is, that the tradition of (a) addressing Mary directly in prayer, asking for her assistance, is very ancient and (b) that this includes the understanding of Mary as a Mother who is merciful, in fact, whose mercy can be reliably invoked for assistance. We can well imagine the dangers and perils that caused third- and perhaps second-century Christians, who faced the reality of gruesome persecution, to invoke Mary’s merciful deliverance.

We also note that in this most ancient hymn, Mary’s main title, “Mother of God” or Theotokos in the Greek, is a devotional title. She is not described as Mother of God but addressed as Mother of God, meaning Mother of Jesus who is the Son of God. It is as the perpetually virginal (“alone pure”) and sinless (“alone holy”) Mother of the Incarnate Word that she is associated with God’s mercy. She is so associated with God’s mercy that according to the sensibility of this most ancient hymn, this mercy has become hers, in a way analogous to how God’s Son had become hers as Mother of God. But not, of course, to hoard and hold to herself.

She not only became Mother of God at the angel’s request, she not only bore him, but she also gave him, gave him away to us and for us. And this giving away of him was implicit in the angel’s request and in Mary’s understanding of it, according to the further testimony of St. Luke. Mary is aware that in agreeing to bear the Son of God as her Son, she is participating in the plan of God’s mercy. “For,” as she says glorifying God in her Magnificat, “he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever” (Lk 2:54-55). Mary is also aware that she is uniquely an agent in this culminating act of the drama of God’s mercy, for she had also said that as a result of her conception, “From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk 2:48-49). Mary is fully aware that in agreeing to the angel’s proposal, she is agreeing to bear God’s mercy into the world, precisely as hers but as hers to give up as though it were not hers. But God’s mercy is revealed not as an abstract concept, entrusted to Mary to transmit to theologians so they could have a career talking about it. It is not too much of a sacrifice to give up a concept.

Instead, God’s mercy is revealed as a person, and Mary is aware of this. It is the babe of Christmas carols, the boy of twelve lost in the Temple, and the grown man who worked his first miracle in the presence of his very real mother and at her really very insistent request, despite the reservations he had also equally insistently expressed. She agreed to bear him, God’s mercy fully bestowed, and, however intuitively or implicitly, “full of grace,” far from impeding the bestowal of God’s mercy on the world, to follow through on the bestowal of God’s mercy on the world, and so to give him, however unthinkable such a gift might be and in fact turned out to be. It is awesome to think about. In the entrustment of God’s Son to her, as her Son, God’s mercy, in a sense, was entrusted to her fully, as her mercy. As she gives her Son away, she cooperates in God’s bestowal of mercy uniquely; it is, derivatively and by grace, yes, but still truly her bestowal of mercy on all of us who are not her precious and uniquely lovable Son. In loving her Son as God’s mercy for the world, she loves in him his love for us. And she loves that merciful love to the end on his terms, the terms of his mercy, which requires her to give him up. And so, in her act of mercy in doing so, she loves us as if we were that very Son, as her Son, with the very same love she loves her Son. As his Mother, she is in her mercy our Mother too, and the ancient hymn expresses the confidence that we can invoke her mercy and indeed fly to it and take refuge there, and that she cannot, will not, fail us.

Another Scriptural root of this sensibility is John 19:26-27: “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, behold your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” This cannot be simply a last minute slap-dash effort of Jesus to see that his Mother is cared for after his death. Jesus predicted his own death throughout his public ministry and would not have left this important detail to a chance meeting at the foot of the Cross.

The words of Jesus on the Cross, his last words, are presented by the Evangelists because they have theological, not just historical, import. The Evangelist has carefully prepared us for this scene. This is the only place in the Gospel of John that Jesus refers to Mary as his Mother. In the wedding scene at Cana, she is addressed as “Woman,” as in this passage; but at Cana Jesus does not refer to her as Mother in any way. His hour, he tells her, has not yet come. Apparently her hour had not yet come either. The “hour” of both of them comes with the Cross. Jesus refers to her as Mother, and himself as her Son, only when he is giving her away. It is at this point that the fullness of what it means to be his mother is revealed. It means that as the Mother of Jesus she is the Mother of all the members of his body, all of those to whom his mercy extends, all those beloved to him for whom he is giving his life. “Woman, behold your son,” “Behold ME, your Son, in him.” “Son, behold your mother.” Who is the Beloved Disciple? It is significant that the Beloved Disciple is not named. Traditionally the beloved disciple is understood to be the evangelist himself, John; but he is not actually named, though the Fourth Gospel is certainly capable of naming names when it suits the Evangelist’s purpose. The point is that the “beloved disciple” is anyone who calls or invokes Mary as “Mother,” who receives her as his own mother, “into his home.”

All of this theology is expressed in the traditional imagery of Mary, Mother of Mercy, which pictures Mary spreading her mantle with protective care over a variety of people. The mantle is a symbol of her mercy, and the people are those who have (in effect) uttered the ancient prayer, “under your mercy we take refuge, Mother of God,” as can be seen from their attitude of supplication, looking up to her. According to the priest and art historian Timothy Verdon, in his Mary in Western Art, the most famous image of Mater Misericordiae is this one, by Piero della Francesca, commissioned in 1445 by a lay confraternity known as the “Brotherhood of Mercy.” It is actually part of a larger work, the central panel of an altarpiece which includes the Crucifixion scene above and the scene of the burial of Christ below. Verdon comments that “the message of divine mercy shown through Christ’s self-annihilation in the flesh he took from Mary is perfectly clear, as is the eucharistic connotation of this work originally set on an altar.” Verdon encourages us to remember that the scene was intended to be viewed by people attending Mass. He says, “At the consecration of the Mass, when the priest elevated the host and chalice, those kneeling before the altar and its painting would have perceived themselves as . . . included in the image. Beyond the raised [host and chalice], they could see themselves gathered beneath the cloak of her from whose body came the body offered on the cross and present in the Eucharist!” Continuing, he says, “The arrangement of the men and women in the painting, in a circle around Mary, seen in relation to the circular host and chalice rim, would have suggested that they too were ‘body and blood’ of Christ, born of the same mother” (48-49), “sons and daughters of her body just as Christ is: lesser expressions of that same divine mercy whose mother, she, Mary, is” (48-51). Invoking Mary as “Mother of Mercy” invokes the depth of God’s mercy, not because Mary is divine, but because in her absolutely and fully human motherly love, a real mother’s love, we have known the depths of God’s solidarity with us.

We can turn to another traditional image to help us understand this even more deeply. It is not an image of “Mater Misericordiae” strictly speaking, but it arises as an expression of the same ancient prayer, “under your mercy we take refuge, O Mother of God” from which the title “Mother of Mercy” ultimately arises. It is, in a sense, a picture of her motherly mercy. It is the type of Eastern Marian iconography known as the “Tenderly Kissing Mother,” and we see a great example of it in the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir. In this image, created in Constantinople in the early twelfth century, we see the typical markers of the “Tenderly Kissing Mother” (“Eleousa”) style of Marian icon. The scene indeed is one of tenderness. As Paul Evdokimov describes it, “Christ presses his face affectionately against his mother’s and is completely absorbed in the movement of tenderness and consolation” (The Art of the Icon, 256-66). You see the bottoms of his little baby feet, a marker of his true humanity. “Christ has a reassuring caress for his mother. His right hand holds her [veil], while the left hand is tenderly placed on her neck,” really, around her neck (266). We see the “reciprocal tenderness of Mother and Child,” as Mary allows and receives her Son’s gestures of intimacy. The icon reminds us, however, that, despite his evident humanity, this is no ordinary child. Evdokimov comments, “His clothing is completely woven with the ethereal golden thread . . . , that brilliance of the never-setting sun which is the color of his divine dignity” (264). His face, though it has a tender expression, is also “serious and majestic, reflect[ing] the Wisdom of God.” This baby, the image tells us, is the Word who “emptied himself,” who mercifully humbled himself to become human, as human as any little boy with cute baby feet. But the icon warns against abstraction: he did not just become a generic example of babyhood, he became someone’s baby, not just the child of humanity, but Mary’s boy. God’s mercy goes all the way. He becomes a baby with the love and attachment to his mother that we are familiar with from all babies we see; he became someone’s special someone, and that someone is Mary, who is mother not of mercy as a concept but of this little boy with the seriously and majestically endearing face.

And we see, too, the other side of the relationship. Note that Mary is carrying Jesus on one arm, but with the other she is showing the onlooker her Son, inviting the onlooker to look at her son. This icon, then, also takes the form of another classical Marian image, where Mary is “She who shows the Way,” she who points the onlooker’s attention to him who said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Configured to divine mercy by her own free decision to accept the angel Gabriel’s proposal to bear divine mercy into the world, she invites the onlooker to receive her Son. If I were Mary, frankly, I would be saying, “Back off! This is MY kid, not yours. Hands off, all of you betrayers, duplicitous schemers, dissemblers, sinners! You’re not going to TOUCH this kid!” But not Mary. Instead, she shows the way, willing to cooperate in God’s merciful plan, though she is now more fully experiencing what this means.

Mary is sinless. But remember, this does not entail being immediately perfected, at least not at the outset. Mary, even if sinless, is a human being who, like all human beings, grew through struggle and experience. Just as a married couple, say 40 years later, come to understand more deeply and fully what the vows they exchanged meant in a way they could not as newlyweds, as they have had occasion, with each obstacle or setback, to repeat and reaffirm, even if only internally, their “Yes, I do,” so Mary, though she consented completely, utterly, and fully as only a sinless person could, to God’s plan of mercy, must say her “Yes,” her “Fiat,” at each new moment as the cost of that “Yes” becomes more and more concretely apparent. Luke says she pondered in her heart the saying of Simeon about the sword piercing her heart, as well as the heartrending rejoinder she and Joseph received from their twelve-year-old son whom they found deliberately leaving them behind to be about his Father’s business. Mary in her mercy ponders but persists, repeating her “Yes” with ever deepening experience, doubling down on her commitment to be the Mother of Mercy.

The icon in the most vivid way possible reminds us that this Mercy, God’s Mercy, is not an abstraction, not an abstract theological concept. It is a person, it is a boy, it is her boy, her firstborn and only Son. His hour, anticipated in the icon, will come. So will hers. Evdokimov comments, “Mary’s face is full of heavenly majesty . . . but at the same time it carries all that is human. And here is the miracle. Whoever has seen this icon, especially the original, can never forget her look” (265). Later he continues, “Mary is gripped by the shadow of Christ’s coming sufferings. Her head is slightly inclined toward Christ and softens her majestic dignity as the Mother of God” (256). The tenderly caressing gestures of the Son and Mother show us that Mary is not just a neutral vessel through whom the Word made flesh passed, but someone who willed with all her heart to have him, and is bound to him by all the deepest ties of natural and supernatural love and affection. We see what it costs for her to “show the way,” to offer him to the viewer. “Mary’s face is elongated, her nose long and pointed, her mouth thin and narrow, her eyes big and dark under arched eyelashes. The eyebrows are slightly raised with folds between them. The fixed stare of the eyes looks off into eternity and gives the face the expression of a dense and gripping affliction” (256). These are the “eyes of mercy”—“Turn then most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us.” These eyes of mercy are turned toward the viewer, as though the icon is extending the mantle of the Mother of Mercy over anyone who looks at it imploring her help. Evdokimov concludes,

Mary’s face speaks to us of her maternal love; her wide open eyes are fixed on infinity and at the same time turned inward. We feel as though we are in the Virgin’s inner ‘spaces of the heart.’ It is an immense mercy [‘compassion’], as big as the heavens . . . towards suffering, that unavoidable fact of human existence which brings about the Cross. We ought to be able to hear the voices of the numberless souls who have cried out before this icon throughout the ages. Mary’s eyes [those misericordes oculos] follow the destiny of every man and nothing can interrupt her look, nothing can stop the power of her maternal heart (267).

Though the icon painter in twelfth-century Constantinople could not possibly have had knowledge of the twelfth-century Western antiphon, “Salve Regina,” they are remarkably agreed in their presentation of the powerful maternal mercy of Mary. That is because they are both, each in their own way, responses to the ancient prayer “Sub tuum praesidium,” and also because the doctrine it expresses is true, biblically founded, as we have seen, and traditionally grounded.

We have in the course of our contemplation here identified two senses of the title “Mother of Mercy,” namely, on the one hand, Mother of the Mercy of God that is Jesus Christ, and, on the other, the merciful Mother under the protection of whose mercy we fly to take refuge. But of course the two senses are intimately related, as we have also seen, from our study of the ancient prayer and its biblical roots as well as the presence of its soul living in later work both Eastern and Western. Mary the Mother of Mercy, of Christ, was throughout her life perfected in mercy as she was more and more perfectly configured to the mercy that she consented to bear.

It is worth pausing over this thought once more before concluding, and I would like to do it listening to one of the greatest modern interpreters of Mary’s motherly mercy, Caryll Houselander in her little classic The Reed of God. Houselander gives us a profound meditation on the fifth joyful mystery of the rosary, which is at one and the same time the obverse of the third sorrow to pierce the heart of Our Lady of Sorrows, namely the loss and finding of the boy Jesus in the Temple.

Commenting on her search for Jesus as she and Joseph realized he was not among them on the way home, she says, “Her search did not end when she found Him in the Temple, and it did not really begin when she lost Him on the road from Jerusalem” (140). She comments that even from the time the Angel Gabriel had greeted her, she had to search for him in faith, “to believe that he was in her; to believe that this little child whom she rocked to sleep was God, that it was God whom she taught to walk, to speak, to hold a spoon,” and who, after the finding in the Temple, “was obedient to her and Joseph” (140). Later, she says, we find Mary again seeking Christ, now among the crowds that always seemed to surround him, “among those who are trying to get close to Him: therefore, she is among the sick, the crippled, the blind, the poorest beggars—outcasts of every description. For such are the people who follow Christ in every age” (140). She followed the crowds, content to be one among them, making their seeking hers, seeking him with them, all the way to Calvary, when she was finally able to pass through the crowd, “and at last came close to Him” (142). It is worth an extended listening session as Caryll Houselander tells the familiar story with poetic profundity:

The first great finding was in the Temple. The second great finding was on Calvary. [First,] “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” [and now,] “Father, I have finished the work that you gave me to do.” Mary found her lost Child on Calvary. The condition of finding Him was the loss of herself. She had to die, even out of her self-donation to God . . . simply because it was Christ, and Christ chose to die. On Calvary she saw herself die in Christ. She had seen her flesh and blood, her life, born in Christ, when she held Him between her hands shivering at the first touch of the night air. She wrapped Him in swaddling bands and laid Him in a manger. Now she saw her flesh and blood, her life, dead in Christ, when she held Him between her hands, frozen by the first touch of death. She wrapped Him in swaddling bands and laid Him in the tomb.

She goes on to observe, somewhat ironically, that

Now He was laid in the tomb, but she had found the lost Child. When Christ saw her standing by His Cross and near her the boy apostle, John, He said to her: “Woman, behold thy son.” There can be no doubt about His meaning. A few hours earlier, this boy had sat at table with Christ. He had leaned his head upon Christ’s breast and heard His heart beating. And that heartbeat was the music accompanying His prayer, the prayer offered on what was very nearly His last breath. He prayed that all those who loved Him should be made one with Him, that they should all live in Him, so that they would have only one life: His. From the moment when Christ told Our Lady to see Him, her son, in John, she saw Christ in all Christians. She took her only son to her heart in all people born. She saw now but one Man abiding in mankind. How far from her would it have been to say that because she loved Christ, she could love no one else: she knew the secret: there was no one else (142-44).

In other words, Mary had to give up the one thing that seemed to define herself, her identity, namely, that by the grace of God and her own immaculate will she was the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, and now what had it come to? When Christ died, in one sense, her identity died, and by her own will, for, no matter what, she would not hoard him to herself. She loved him too much for that. But in the death of the one identity to which even in her sinlessness she was tempted to cling, that identity was perfected. Her Motherhood was perfected. Her mercy was perfected. It burst forth and blew past the bounds and seeming restrictions of its former identity, or rather realized and filled those bounds most fully leaving all restrictions behind (144). She was to be, and in fact was, Mother to each and every one for love of whom her Son gave himself. And she loved each—loves each of us—with the same tenderly kissing love she had, and still has, for him. Each seemed to him worth his infinitely precious blood and her eyes of mercy see that blood in each and every one who turns to cry out to her. It is he crying out to her. And her mantle of mercy extends absolutely without fail over any who fly to take refuge in her mercy, to implore her help, or, like the bridal party at the wedding feast, seek her intercession. In their suffering she sees her own dear boy’s suffering. Mary’s eyes, therefore, those misericordes oculos, turn toward and “follow the destiny of every man and nothing can interrupt her look, nothing can stop the power of her maternal heart,” to repeat Evdokimov’s closing line.

And what about us? Have we learned the secret? Those of us who fly to the protection of the Mother of Mercy, implore her help and seek her intercession, do we allow ourselves, as she did, to be formed and trained by that very mercy which has given us refuge and always will? Do we learn by our ceaseless praying and imploring, by our contemplation of her tenderness, to begin to see the others under her mantle, praying too, and crying out in their suffering? Do we learn to see better with our own eyes, formed in her mercy and in our gratitude for it, into “eyes of mercy”? Do we know the secret, that each one is the beloved and long awaited son of Mary? Do we hear the way Mary says to each of us under her mantle, as she said to Juan Diego, “Am I not here, who am your Mother?” Do we hear her say it to each one?

Pope Francis says, in one of his writings collected under the title, The Church of Mercy,

Do we think that Jesus’ incarnation is simply a past event that has nothing to do with us personally? Believing in Jesus means giving him our flesh with the humility and courage of Mary, so that he can continue to dwell in our midst. It means giving him our hands, to caress the little ones and the poor; our feet, to go forth and meet our brothers and sisters; our arms, to hold up the weak and to work in the Lord’s vineyard, … and especially our hearts, to love and to make choices in accordance with God’s will.

The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar comments on the image of Mater Misericordia in a similar way. He notes that, since Mary is a figure, or exemplary realization of the Church, or the Church at its source, as Pope Benedict said, the image of the mantle of mercy applies to the Church:

And thus the image of Mary’s mantle of grace can be applied in a certain sense to the virginal and maternal fruitfulness of the Church. This mantle is spread over the whole of humanity, as far as God’s saving will extends, and it includes the apostolic action that is categorically demanded of the Church (Mary, The Church at the Source, 113).

Wow, who would have thought that a contemplation of Mary, Mother of Mercy, would have led us to a consideration of Catholic Social Teaching? There is a Marian dimension, a Marian warmth, to this doctrine that, with Pope Francis, is only just beginning to be explored, without, of course, reducing Marian doctrine into mere moralizing.

In the votive Mass for Mary, Mother of Mercy, the Prayer After Communion draws many of the themes we have considered. It reads: “Lord God, you have given us food and drink from heaven; grant that we may always praise your mercy in company with the Blessed Virgin, and rejoice in her protection, for we acknowledge her as our queen, compassionate to sinners and merciful to the poor. Through Christ our Lord.” And perhaps we could say together, in closing, the offertory prayer from the same votive Mass: “Lord, receive the gifts of your people, and grant that as we look up to the Blessed Virgin, Mother of mercy, we may show ourselves merciful to others and receive your pardon toward us. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Featured Image: Photo aken by , Piero della Francesca, Mater Misericordia, 1462; Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


John Cavadini

John Cavadini is the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life and a professor in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to a five-year term on the International Theological Commission in 2009. He is the recipient of the Monika Hellwig Award for Outstanding Contributions to Catholic Intellectual Life and is the author of Visioning Augustine.

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