SAINTS FOR ALL SEASONS
EPISODE 6 – OUR LADY OF THE ANGELS
During the past fifteen years, I have been truly blessed to be a part of twenty-six pilgrimage journeys to Italy, almost all of them to Assisi and Umbria. On these trips, we see countless images, icons, frescoes, paintings, and statues of Jesus, Saint Francis, Saint Clare, and the holy men and women who have led some to call Umbria the “land of saints.” We also see many images of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Assisi, for example, we are drawn to four depictions of the Blessed Mother: The Annunciation, the Madonna & Child, the Pieta, and the Assumption.
The Portiuncola’s Annunciation of Mary
The first image is located in the Portiuncola or Church of the Little Portion, which is dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels. It owes its name both to the devotion to Our Lady of the Assumption and to the sweet song of angels that could be heard coming from the ancient forest that once surrounded the little chapel. Either way, the Portiuncola is no bigger than the average suburban garage, but it was loved by Saint Francis and it remains the beating heart of the worldwide Franciscan community. Above its altar is a painting on wood panel that depicts the Annunciation of Mary. In this image, Mary sits on a gilded thrown. She is approached by the Archangel Gabriel who comes with the news that Mary has been chosen by God to be the Mother of his son.
This artwork was installed by the Franciscans to encourage God’s people to pray the Angelus, which commemorates how God sent an angel to deliver a message to a poor girl from Galilee. Centuries later, it reminds us of Mary’s humility, her devotion to prayer, and her open heart that was willing to embrace God’s astonishing plan for her life and for the life of the world. It also reminds us that the work of angels — the saving work of heaven — is nearer to us than we think.
Cimabue’s Madonna Enthroned with the Child Jesus with Four Angels and Saint Francis
The second image is located in the Lower Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Here we see Cimabue’s famous painting of the Madonna Enthroned with the Child Jesus with Four Angels and Saint Francis. It is eleven feet tall and ten feet wide. What most pilgrims remember after seeing this celebrated work of art is the depiction of Saint Francis, which many believe is the most accurate likeness available of the Poor Man of Assisi. All too many of us overlook the image of the Blessed Mother. She is seated again upon a golden throne. Jesus sits on her knee. She holds him in her arms. She gently holds his right foot. She looks upon him with a tender smile. And Jesus looks back, reaches up, and touches the collar of her cloak. Standing guard, surrounding the throne, protecting the mother and child, are four angels.
Think of it. For more than seven hundred years, this painting has spoken to the hearts and souls of scholars and pilgrims alike. It speaks of heaven and earth and the thin veil of time and substance that separates us from the choir of angels. It reminds us of a mother’s tender care for her son and a child’s innocent devotion to his mother. And it reminds us of a poor man in a brown robe who changed the world by preaching the Good News of Jesus to all of God’s children.
San Rufino’s Our Lady of Tears
The third image is located in the Cathedral of San Rufino, which dates back to the mid-thirteenth century. It is dedicated to the first bishop of Assisi, who died a martyr during the third century. Saint Francis and Saint Clare were baptized here. On the north side of the cathedral apse, a double door leads to the Chapel of Our Lady of Tears. Inside the little chapel, in a niche above the altar, is a small sculpture of the Pieta. The Blessed Mother lovingly cradles the crucified body of her son. Local tradition holds that the Madonna weeps bitter tears whenever the people of Assisi suffer during difficult times.
The sculpture of Our Lady of Tears reminds us of the abiding love between Mary and her only child. It reminds us that she watched her son suffer and die, naked and humiliated, on a cross. It reminds us that when a parent loses a child, the grief is unique and almost unspeakable. It can be understood only by those who have lived through it. And it reminds us that a mother’s love for her child is boundless and unbreakable. It endures and transcends the bonds of life here on earth. A mother’s love for her child lives beyond years, beyond time, for all time. A mother’s love for her child lives forever among the angels in heaven.
Cimabue’s Assumption of Mary
The fourth image brings us back to the Basilica of Saint Francis. In the Upper Basilica, we find a series of frescoes again attributed to the great artist, Cimabue. Unfortunately, these thirteenth century treasures have been ravaged by the effects of time and by the artist’s use of an unstable lead paint. The frescoes appear bleached and faded, almost like over-exposed photographs. But we can still make out scenes from the Old Testament, the Gospel of Christ, and the Life of the Blessed Mother.
In one of these paintings, we marvel at a magnificent depiction of the Assumption of Mary. We see a choir of angels singing God’s praises. We see four more angels lifting a mandorla into the clouds. The mandorla is an ancient symbol in Christian art and iconography. It is an almond-shaped, full-body halo. It conveys the Lord’s glory, majesty, and divinity. And inside the mandorla, Christ is seated beside the Blessed Mother. Mary rests her head on her son’s shoulder. Jesus enfolds his mother in his arms. He holds her close. She embraces him in return. United among the angels in heaven, they lean into each other. They lean on each other. Laboring in God’s vineyard, sowing his love and mercy, they are together forever.
Kelly Latimore’s Jesus Hugs His Mother (2022)
Eight centuries later, Kelly Latimore, a contemporary iconographer, recreates the scene within the mandorla. His icon is called simply: Jesus Hugs His Mother. Beneath and among the lights of heaven, Mother and Son seem to know that theirs is a shared journey. Jesus and Mary look joyful and peaceful, but ever-mindful of how far they have come, how much they have seen and suffered, and how much more they must do together. Again, they lean into each other. They lean on each other. Arm in arm. Head to head. Shoulder to shoulder. It is an embrace of love, caring, devotion, encouragement, and mutual support. It is an embrace that is both complete…and inviting. Kelly Latimore says: “This [icon] is a study, but I am thinking about doing a larger icon with the full depiction of Mary and Jesus surrounded by a starry and rainbow-colored mandorla…Christ looks out as if to invite the viewer; a promise that he will embrace and welcome them as well.”
These images of Our Lady of the Angels, both the Cimabue fresco and the Latimore icon, reminds us of God’s abiding love and universal welcome. They remind us of the communion between Jesus and his Blessed Mother. They call us to enter into this communion by loving God, loving neighbor, and loving all of creation. They call us to enter into a deeper communion with the Church through faith, prayer, and good works. These sacred images beckon us to grow closer to Jesus and closer to each other through the good example and numberless prayers of the Blessed Mother: Our Lady of the Annunciation, Our Lady of Tears, Our Lady of the Assumption, and Our Lady of the Angels.
For centuries, icons, paintings, stained glass windows, and all forms of sacred art have been designed to teach God’s people about the Gospel of Christ and the lives of the saints. These images are also meant to inspire our faith in the Good News, our veneration of the saints, and our devotion to the Blessed Mother. These images teach us about the joy and sorrow, glory and eternal light, of the life, death, and assumption of the Virgin Mary into the kingdom of heaven. They inspire us to embrace our own lives and the blessings and challenges that come with being a child of God.
These sacred images also inspire us to lean in and lean on Jesus, our merciful redeemer, friend, and brother. They inspire us to take comfort in the boundless and timeless gift of love between a Mother and her Son. It is a gift that is shared with each one of us. And it is a gift that we are called to share with each other. Today, tomorrow, and always. Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us! Saint Clare of Assisi, pray for us! Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
About the Author & Presenter
Cliff Garvey is a co-founder of the Assisi Project. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. Cliff is a writer, spiritual director, retreat leader, and university lecturer. He also serves as Associate Minister of the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport in Massachusetts where his ministry focuses on adult faith formation. Thank you for listening to Our Lady of the Angels: Lean In . The Assisi Project Podcast is produced by the Assisi Project, Inc. For more information about the Assisi Project: A Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit and our programs and ministries for adults of all ages and backgrounds, please contact Cliff Garvey at email@example.com. Copyright 2022. All rights reserved. May the Lord give you peace!
Art Credit: Jesus Hugs His Mother by Kelly Latimore – kellylatimoreicons.com
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Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with members, friends, and followers throughout the world. Our mission is to help believers of all ages more faithfully live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the spirit of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi.
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Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with friends and followers throughout the world. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. The Assisi Project is a non-profit, tax exempt charitable organization. All are welcome to support our ministry via PayPal or AmazonSmile (see links below); or by sending a tax-deductible donation to the Assisi Project, Post Office Box 3158, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01931-3158. For more information about the Assisi Project, please contact Cliff Garvey at email@example.com. May the Lord give you peace!
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