The Virgin Mary

Few women are so cloaked in mystery as the Virgin Mary, mother of God. This limewood statue of the Virgin, made around 1700 in the southern Netherlands, offers many clues. The figure, restored in 2013, has traces of its original colouring; the blue of the mantel is especially clear.

Mary had reigned supreme over Heaven for centuries (as her crown testifies), then after the Reformation the cult of the Virgin became a source of contention between Catholics and Protestants. The new Christian movements denounced the worship of saints, which included Mary. At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), at which many questions of Catholic doctrine were decided, it was established that Mary occupied a unique status as an intermediary between worshippers and Jesus Christ. Protestants dismissed this, and all declarations of sainthood, as papist idolatry. In response, supporters of the Catholic Counter-Reformation emphasised Mary’s role as victor over heresy, epitomised here, where she tramples a snake underfoot.

Of course this also alludes to the biblical book of Genesis in which God curses the serpent which seduced Eve, the mother of all mankind. The creature, trampled underfoot by Mary and the worse for wear after many years, has the forbidden fruit in its mouth. In Christian theology, Mary is the new Eve, come to redeem the original sin. Ave, the Latin for hail, the greeting for Mary, is a reversal of Eva, the Dutch name of Eve.

In addition to trampling a snake, Mary is also standing on a crescent moon. This is a reference to the Apocalypse, described by St John in a vision of a woman ‘clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet.’ The crescent is an ancient symbol of chastity - remember the virgin lunar goddess Diana - and it also refers to Mary’s immaculate conception: her pregnancy was not contaminated by the element of sin that affects the rest of mankind’s procreation - an item of Catholic faith that was not declared dogma until 1854.

Yet for Catholics who imparted their cares and desires before this statue of Mary in the attic church, those references were probably of little importance. Mary’s principal role has always been that of comforter. In a treatise written in 1791, we find that this statue of the Virgin, surrounded by thirty or forty candles ‘is visible to everyone at the back of the church.’ Perhaps then, the statue was removed from the chapel on holidays, since Mary normally stood in the intimate setting of the Lady chapel around the corner from the altar.