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Legends of the Madonna - The Descent of the Holy Ghost

( Originally Published 1895 )



THE DESCENT OF THE HOLY GHOST is a strictly scriptural subject. I have heard it said that the introduction of Mary was not authorized by the scripture narrative. I must observe, however, that, without any wringing of the text for an especial purpose, the passage might be so interpreted. In the first chapter of the Acts (ver. 14), after enumerating the apostles by name, it is added, " These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren." And in the commencement of the second chapter the narrative thus proceeds : "And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place." The word all is, in the Concordance, referred to the previous text (ver. 14), as including Mary and the women : thus they who were constant in their love were not refused a participation in the gifts of the Spirit. Mary, in her character of the divine Mother of Wisdom, or even Wisdom herself, did not, perhaps, need any accession of intellectual light ; but we must remember that the Holy Spirit was the Comforter as well as the giver of Wisdom ; therefore, equally needed by those, whether men or women, who were all equally called upon to carry out the ministry of Christ in love and service, in doing and in suffering.

In the account of the apostles [Sacred and Legendary Art], I have already described at length the various treatment and most celebrated examples of this subject, and shall only make one or two observations with especial reference to the figure of the Virgin. It was in accordance with the feelings and convictions prevalent in the fifteenth century, that if Mary were admitted to be present, she would take the principal place, as Queen and Mother of the Apostles (Regina et Mater Apostolorum). She is, therefore, usually placed either in front, or in the centre on a raised seat or dais ; and often holding a book (as the Mater Sapientice) ; and she receives the divine effusion either with veiled lids and meek rejoicing; or with uplifted eyes, as one inspired, she pours forth the hymn, Veni, Sancte Spiritus.

I agree with the critics that, as the Spirit descended in form of cloven tongues of fire, the emblem of the Dove, almost always introduced, is here superfluous, and, indeed, out of place.

I must mention here another subject altogether apocryphal, and confined to the late Spanish and Italian schools : the Virgin receives the sacramental wafer from the hand of St. John the Evangelist. This is frequently misunderstood, and styled the Communion of Mary Magdalene. Bat the long hair and uncovered head of the Magdalene and the episcopal robe of St. Maximin are in general distinguishable from the veiled matronly head of the Virgin-mother and the deacon's vest of St. John. There is also a legend that Mary received baptism from St. Peter ; but this is a subject I have never met with in Art, ancient or modern. It may possibly exist.

I am not acquainted with any representations taken from the sojourn on earth of the Blessed Virgin from this time to the period of her death, the date of which is uncertain. It is, however, generally supposed to have taken place in the forty-eighth year of our era, and about eleven years after the Crucifixion, therefore in her sixtieth year. There is no distinct record, either historical or legendary, as to the manner in which she passed these years. There are, indeed, floating traditions alluded to by the early theological writers, that when the first persecution broke out at Jerusalem, Mary accompanied St. John the Evangelist to Ephesus, and was attended thither by the faithful and affectionate Mary Magdalene. Also that she dwelt for some time on Mount Carmel, in an oratory erected there by the prophet Elijah, and hence became the patroness of the Carmelites, under the title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (La Madonna del Carmine or del Carmelo). If there exist any creations of the artists founded on these obscure traditions, which is indeed most probable, particularly in the edifices of the Carmelites in Spain, I have not met with them.

It is related that before the apostles separated to obey the command of their divine Master, and preach the gospel to all the nations of the earth, they took a solemn leave of the Virgin Mary, and received her blessing. This subject has been represented, though not by any distinguished artist. I remember such a picture, apparently of the sixteenth century, in the church of S. Maria-in-Capitolio at Cologne, and another, by Bissoni, in the San Giustina at Padua.



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