The garments of the Madonna in Marian shrines

And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars
(Apocalypse 12:1)

The garments and clothing of the Virgin Mary have been imagined in numerous ways by faith, devotion and artistic inspiration. Of the "garments" of the Virgin Mary none has ever surpassed in beauty and pricelessness of the only "attire" attributed to the Madonna in the Bible in Revelation 12,1. She is "clothed with the sun". The image is powerful and, literally, dazzling. The Madonna is dressed in the sun itself, with all its splendour and symbolic reference to the very presence of God.

It is also thought provoking to examine how the Christian faithful have, throughout history, "adorned" the image of Mary, looking at the clothes she wears in countless paintings, icons and statues.

Dress has symbolic value in real life and in the world of artistic representation. From the most ancient garments to the most modern forms of "dress code", the clothing people wear "says" a lot about the wearer. There is a vast religious symbology that translates theological concepts and even dogmas of faith into "fabric".

Colours are an ancient codification for understanding the figure of Mary. Colours that emanate from "above" her, from an archetypal intuition that the world of God is blue (The Sky) and that the world of man is red (the colour of blood). Thus, in the icons Jesus is represented with a blue outer garment and a red inner garment, to symbolize how divinity clothes his humanity. Consequently, Mary is represented with a red outer dress and a blue inner one, representing the fact that she brought divinity into the humanity of her womb. However, in some images she is clothed in blue above and red below, to show how she is invested with divine grace by the work of the Holy Spirit (blue), giving "flesh" to the Word who becomes "blood ”(Red) inside her. Interchangeable symbols, with profound theological meanings.

Any study of the garments of the Virgin Mary should note that "tota pulchra" (all beautiful) is sewn on clothing that tend to be beautiful, noble, sometimes regal, to highlight her dignity as Mother of God and Queen of the Angels and Saints, as well as Queen of the World. But, at the same time, especially in more recent times, a simpler and more essential form is also used: a white and blue tunic ("purity" and, again, "Heaven"). Thus, for example, Mary is described by Marie Bernarde Soubirous in a white-blue dress in the context of the apparitions in Lourdes, the clothing depicted in the statue of Our Lady of Fatima is of a very light blue, and in the current Catholic Christian liturgy, the festivities dedicated to Mary require priestly vestments in blue (and white).

The absolute beauty of Mary is exalted through the elegance of the clothes, a sign of her inner beauty and the richness of the divine grace from above. One can speak of "Mariological aesthetics" and a theology that runs along the so-called “via pulchritudinis” (way of beauty). With the figure of the Virgin the revealed mystery of the totality of Christian life appears visibly (and "must" be seen), precisely in its fullest form, as a prefiguration of the "Beauty" that all the faithful in heaven will enjoy for eternity.

In the more specific context of the most famous Marian sanctuaries, there is often the case of a "double dress" of the Madonna. That is, an icon, or picture or statue that depicts the Virgin Mary (clothed) is in turn "covered" with an "overcoat". In the case of a statue, for example, we witness the devout action of the coating of precious fabrics and in the case of paintings or, more often, icons. A coating of precious metal (silver, for example) is applied which constitutes a new dress that replaces the one painted below (leaving some parts "perforated", i.e. visible, certainly the face). Especially in the latter case, a protective, as well as purely religious, function of the covering garment can also be denoted.

These coverings have a special meaning - often diversified according to the place - which may highlight a particular date or solemnity, or which highlights a symbolism depicted in the covering itself. Furthermore, it should be noted that the application of an "over" dress does not detract from the underlying natural figure, on the contrary, it embellishes it just as it hides it. In a sanctuary, when the covering is removed, the original form is unveiled before the eyes of the faithful in an evocative climate of faith and devotion that allows us to grasp the presence of the divine and of Mary.

The robes, for example, of Our Lady of Altötting, in Germany, with gilded fabrics and precious stones on an elegant black background are magnificent. The dress of the Virgin of Loreto, in Italy is equally precious. The garment holds a rigid form which hides the arms, with play of colours between black and gold that contrasts with that of the figure in German sanctuary. In both cases, precious rigid crowns are placed on the heads of the Madonna and Child Jesus.

In the case of Czestochowa, on the other hand, we have “garments” of precious metal laminate placed over the famous ancient icon depicting Mary in a dark mantle studded with small golden decorations. Over this image, different flat, rigid "garments" are applied. Each is richly and finely decorated and leaves the faces and hands of Mary and the Child uncovered.

In Einsiedeln, Switzerland, the statue of the Madonna holding the Son of God in her arms and holding a sceptre with the other hand, shows exquisite vestments with priestly adornments that vary from gold, to red, to white and blue.

Finally, the small wooden statue of the Virgin of Mariazell, the "Great Mother of Austria", at the altar of “Grace” is wrapped in a white mantle, according to tradition.

In all these Marian "images", statues and icons, the divine eternal Beauty that envelops the Mother of God is splendidly visible. There are variations in artistic expression, but the same light envelops them all. The light that in. Revelation 12,1, shows to the world a woman, or rather "the" Woman clothed with the sun.

DIEGO MECENERO | theologian, author and journalist | Italy

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