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Friday, 10 May 2013

Our Lady of the Landscape

It’s a little-known fact – an increasingly little-known fact since the ecumenicalisation of the Catholic Church – that the month of May is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Like many of the more ‘earthy’ and Marian Catholic celebrations it has its origins in popular belief rather than Vatican dogma which is reason enough for the excruciatingly handsome María Inés de la Cruz and me to pour ourselves a couple more girt, humungous G&Ts.
It was a subject we pondered during an exquisite, sun-baked hike that took us over the deliciously horizontal levels of Somerton Moor then up and along the Polden Hills where we followed the almost-eponymous Polden Way and reminisced about last year’s Camino. It was, observed María, a year to the day since we set out on the long journey – we took the train, then the boat, then the train to get to St Jean Pied de Port; something else to celebrate.
You don’t have to be a student of Mariology to work out the connection between May and Our Lady. Several years ago I wrote a paper entitled – with more than an eye for the controversy – Our Lady of the Libido: Towards a Marian Theology of Sexual Liberation which was published in the Journal of Feminist Theology. In it I mused that ‘a fortnight after Easter the earth was finally involved in its own delicious and sensual resurrection and in popular tradition, of course, May is the month of Mary.’
The relationship between Mary and the month of May emerged in Medieval and Tudor England and flourished throughout Europe from the eighteenth century. I can even recall celebrating May pageants at my own, fervently Catholic primary school in the mid-1970s but within a decade the custom had all but died out. The passing was only part-mourned by one parish priest who wondered if it were not wiser ‘to encourage people to have a strong devotion to Mary through imitating her in their own lives instead of focusing on statues’ (The Tablet 2001:577). Such thinking seems to permeate a strand of contemporary thought that seeks to rein in the more pagan aspects of Marian devotion – and with garland and petal strewn processions and maypole dances there can be little doubt that there exists within these May revels a strong link to fertility rites.
Dr Sarah Jane Boss of the Marian Study Centre suggests that the identification of Mary with the month of May was an attempt to rescue it from the pagan festivities that marked the beginning of summer. In her seminal – and I do mean seminal – work on the Cult of the Virgin, Alone of all her Sex, Marina Warner writes ‘all over medieval Europe on May Day, the Queen of the May was crowned and sometimes married to the Green Man, in an ancient fertility rite, that in some places, has survived all bans, Catholic and Protestant alike.’ It was, she suggests, this ‘frivolous’ aspect of Catholicism the Reformers loathed and tried to stamp out (Warner 1976:283).
And if the Reformers loathed it, you can bet your bottom Euro that the insufferably handsome María Inés de la Cruz and I will love it to bits.
'Les Tres Riches Hueres du Duc de Berry: a hunting party of elegent and decorative young courtiers set out in a wood bright with new young leaf. They\wear budding branches in their broad-brimmed hats and some wear bright green surcoats too - the vert gai - the traditional leit-motif for the beginning of summer on the first of May' (Warner 1976:283).
In Our Lady of the Libido I argued that the discontinuation of these syncretistic practices has been to the detriment of a feminist Mariology as they represented an intimate communal celebration of the fecundity of nature: fecundity and desire, Our Lady of the Landscape, imbued with a sensual, erotic magic.
But before I come over all Glastonbury-ish, an important caveat from Ms Warner: ‘The fact that the cult of the Virgin was capable of assimilating so much classical fertility worship reveals that much thinking on the connection between mother Goddesses and matriarchs is erroneous: it is conventional wisdom among some mythographers and feminists to invoke a golden age when the social power and position of women were recognised and reflected in mythology and worship’. There is, insists Ms Warner, ‘no logical equivalence in any society between exalted female objects of worship and a high position of women’ (Warner 1976:283).
   Sadly, both Maria and I feel compelled to agree. No Golden Age, not yet, anyway. And as Ms Warner admits, ‘a goddess is no better than no goddess at all, for the sombre-suited masculine world of Protestant religion is altogether too much like a gentleman’s club to which ladies are only admitted on special days’ (Warner 1976:338).  

Sarah Jane Boss – Empress and Handmaid: On Nature and the Gender of the Virgin Mary – Cassell (2000)
Marina Warner – Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary – Vintage (1976)