Woman of the World
The Other Faces of Mary
reviewed by David B. Kopel
Ann Ball’s The Other Faces of Mary presents pictures and texts of two dozen modern Marian devotions around the world. It skips past the globally known devotions such as Lourdes and Fatima to concentrate on ones barely known beyond their homelands. What she reveals about modern Marian piety is almost certain to surprise readers, regardless of their views about Mary herself.
Syncretist & Defender
Although intended for people who are already Marian pietists, the book’s vignettes will also interest a reader interested in the cultural development of religion, for Other Faces shows the Virgin (or devotion to the Virgin) continuing to play roles that many people thought had disappeared in modern times: on the one hand, a syncretistic figure with appeal even to non-Christians; on the other, a powerful—and sometimes combative—defender of persecuted Christians.
For example, in Trinidad, the Holy Shepherdess ( La Divina Pastora) is reverenced not only by Christians, but also by Hindus and Muslims. A highlight of the Hindu devotion begins on Holy Thursday, when families begin to gather at the parish shrine that houses the black shepherdess statue, which the Hindus call Sopari Mai. On the morning of Good Friday, Hindu pilgrims present recently born babies to the Virgin in ritual dances, and offer her the hair from their baby boys’ first haircut. Catholics provide the Hindu pilgrims with dinner on Holy Thursday, and then breakfast on Good Friday morning.
In Burma, the annual Marian feast at Nyaunglebin attracts many Buddhists, and smaller groups of Hindus and Muslims. Even in Lebanon, Mary is a figure of interfaith reconciliation. The triumphal arches erected in honor of “Our Lady, Queen of Lebanon” include inscriptions from the many Koranic verses about Mary.
In terms of total attendance, the world’s leading ecumenical Marian shrine may be “Our Lady of Health,” in Vailankanni, India, the nation’s largest Catholic shrine. Its annual two-week summer festival attracts Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, and Parsees (Zoroastrians), as well as Catholics. Vailankanni is described in one of nine supplemental chapters briefly summarized in the printed book and available in greater detail for free on the author’s website.
Perhaps the most striking photograph in Other Faces is of the image of “Our Lady, Queen and Protectress of Nigeria.” The subject is conventional: Mary and the little boy Jesus, whom she holds and presents to the viewer. But the pair are painted as black Nigerians, both in physiognomy and in clothing. Their bodies are semi-transparent, and they stand in front of a map of Nigeria, which bears the names of dozens of the nation’s tribes. Mary’s white dress bisects the green background of the painting, so that the painting as a whole resembles the green and white Nigerian flag.
The painting was commissioned by Jesuit missionaries in the 1960s. Originally shocking, the painting is now beloved by Nigeria’s Catholics, who constitute approximately twenty percent of the nation’s population. The image of the strong protectress has very direct implications for the place of women in Nigerian society. The nation’s Christian community, dedicated to the universal dignity of every human being regardless of sex, must contend not only with pagan traditions (which leave widows destitute, their homes stripped of every possession by their husband’s family), but also with aggressive Islam in northern Nigeria, which seeks to impose the hideous Sharia code on Christians, Muslims, and pagans alike.
Other Faces also shows Mary as a protectress of Christians in a directly militant way. One such vignette comes from Vietnam in 1885, where Catholics were attacked by a bloody anti-colonial movement known as the Can Vuong. In the small village of Tra Kieu (south of Hue), the Catholic community was outnumbered and besieged. They “nominated the Holy Mother as their supreme commander.”
During the next several weeks of the siege, several attackers saw apparitions of the Virgin, who protected the town church from cannonballs. Finally, the Can Vuong attacked the village with elephants; the Christian defenders included women with sabers and—visible to the Can Vuong only—“large numbers of children in white and red” who “came down from the bamboo plants” and marched in front of the Catholics. Today, an annual May 31 pilgrimage to Tra Kieu helps to fortify Vietnam’s persecuted Catholic minority.
The Other Faces of Mary never purports to be a scholarly book, but scholars of religious practice will find the book a goldmine of information, much of which, even today, cannot be found on the Internet. Where else are you going to find an English-language history of Argentina’s very popular contemporary revival of the old German devotion to “The Virgin Who Unties Knots”?
As for readers who have a personal interest in the Virgin, Other Faces is a non-p.c. celebration of diversity, of the amazing variety of cultures and places—and even faiths—for whom the Virgin is vitally present.
Author Ann Ball’s website, which includes nine chapters not in the printed book, is www.annball.com.
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“Woman of the World” first appeared in the April 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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