Mary, Throne of Wisdom: Twelfth Century Statue, Twenty-First Century Icon
January 05, 2009
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This is the Introduction to "Mary, Throne of Wisdom." The full text of this essay is available as a PDF: Click here.
The wood “Throne of Wisdom” sculptures of twelfth century France played a vital role in the religious experience of the Romanesque period of the Middle Ages and are for us powerful examples of the transcendent yet grounded connection that the icon mediates. These statues will be examined in their illustration of Marian theology, their role in the development of devotions and the cult to Mary, their contribution to the re-emergence of religious sculpture, as well as their function in liturgical and devotional practices. The artistic creation of the twelfth-century “Throne of Wisdom” sculptures will be explored, illustrated by the beautiful collection of photographer Dennis Aubrey. The Sedes Sapientiae statue known as the “Mabon Madonna” in the Abbey Church at St. John’s University in Collegeville MN, will serve as the specific example. The Latin term Sedes Sapientiae is properly translated as “Seat of Wisdom,” but the art-historical term is “Throne of Wisdom.” (1)
During the twelfth century when church architecture was massive and earth-bound and the liturgical celebration primarily clerical, the Throne of Wisdom statues provided a three-dimensional iconographic connection that helped diminish the gap between heaven and earth. In our churches today, though Christ is our primary symbol, do we have iconographic symbols that speak to us of the transcendent connecting to the immanent, the already and the not yet? Is there a gap between our experience of liturgy and the aesthetic? Lastly, do we experience Mary as the living embodiment of communion between the human and the Divine? Perhaps the following will allow us to better understand the role of sacred art as intermediary.
(1) This type of statue is encountered under other names as well: majesté or majesty, icona and imago, vierge reliquaire or vierge assise.
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Catherine Combier-Donovan is the Director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Richmond in Virginia, USA.
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