Advent offering: 8 December

Fresco of the Virgin Mary, Kariye Camii, Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul

I’d been intending to continue with my theme of “Advent” as Second-Coming and Judgement today, but, on reflection, it seemed a bit gloomy.

So, given that 8 December is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Catholic church, I thought I’d head down another arcane historical alleyway , and look at some of the iconography associated with the Virgin Mary in Orthodox art – specifically the inner narthex (a kind of porch) of the Chora Church in Istanbul, Turkey.

These mosaics (and the above fresco) were produced in the 13th century. In the early 16th century, the Turks turned the church into a mosque (Kariye Camii) and whitewashed over the mosaics. But the artwork was rediscovered after the Second World War. In the 1950s restoration of the frescos and mosaics began, and the mosque was turned into a museum.

The mosaics in the inner narthex show a sequence of stories about the Virgin Mary. These stories are probably unfamiliar to most western Christians – Catholic or Protestant – but are familiar to Eastern Christians, as well as to Muslims, through the accounts of the Virgin Mary in the Qur’an. They come from the so-called Protoevangelium of James or the Infancy Gospel of James, a 2nd century Jewish-Christian text written as a kind of “prequel” to the synoptic Gospels.

The Protoevangelium didn’t make it into the various canons of Scripture, but it was used by “orthodox” Christian writers like Clement of Alexandria (2nd-3rd cent.) and John Chrysostom (4th-5th cent) as a source of information about the family of Jesus, and particularly his mother Mary.

The first of these mosaics shows Joachim and Anna (or Anne) the parents of Mary cherishing their newborn daughter. Anna’s story in  Protoevangelium 1-5 parallels that of her namesake Hannah in 1 Samuel 1. She is barren and is promised by an angel that she will conceive. She promises to devote the child, male or female, to the service of God in the Temple.

A version of the same story can be found in the Qur’an 3:36. There Mary’s father is named Imran. His wife is given no name, but she likewise dedicates the child in her womb to the service of God.

Joachim and Anna cherish their new daughter, Kariye Camii, Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul

The second image shows Joachim and Anna presenting their daughter to Zechariah, the high priest in the Temple (Protoevangelium 7). The child Mary then dwells in the Temple, miraculously educated by a dove and fed by an angel (Protoevangelium 8) – that’s her and the angel under the canopy at the back.

Again Qur’an 3:37 refers to both the presentation to Zechariah and the miraculous feeding of Mary.

Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple, Kariye Camii, Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul

When the Virgin Mary reaches puberty at the age of 12, the priests become concerned that her presence in the Temple will “defile” the sanctuary, and so they decide that she must be married off. Zechariah assembles the “widowers of the people” and has them all bring their staffs to the Temple. The episode echoes God’s choice of Aaron and the tribe of Levi as priests in Numbers 17, except that in this case the widower Joseph’s staff doesn’t flower, as Aaron’s did. Instead, God chooses Joseph as a husband for Mary by making a dove alight on the staff. Joseph betroths himself to Mary, then goes away to build a house for her (Protoevangelium 8-10).

There is an oblique reference to this episode in Qur’an 3:44 when God mentions to Muhammad that he [Muhammad] was not there when “pens” or “lots” were cast to see who should have responsibility for Mary.

Joseph wins the hand of Mary in Marriage. Here, interestingly his rod seems to bloom like that of Aaron in Numbers 17. No sign of a dove. Kariye Camii, Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul

In the final image, Mary, together with the “undefiled virgins of the House of David,” are given wool to spin and weave a veil for the Temple (Protoevangelium 10). It is while she is weaving the veil that the archangel Gabriel appears to Mary and announces that she is to be the mother of the Saviour. At the same time, Mary learns from a new high priest, Samuel, that Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, is also to bear a child: John the Baptist (Protoevangelium 11-12).

The Qur’an does not mention the story of the spinning of the veil of the Temple, though Qur’an 19:1-11 does mention that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist was struck dumb (Protoevangelium 10; Luke 1:20-22). It also gives two accounts of the Annunciation of Jesus’s birth to Mary (Qur’an 3:45-51; 19:17-21), though with  details that differ from those in the Protoevangelium or the Gospel of Luke.

I could go on, but the other pictures I took in the Chora Church are not of a very high quality, and this is already a long post.

However, the reason I thought I’d show these images on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is that they give a sense of the incredibly complex typological readings of Scripture that puzzle or scandalise modern readers, but are so characteristic of Early Christianity.

The idea that Mary was conceived “without sin” (the Immaculate Conception) seems at arbitrary and improbable to anyone who assumes that Scripture is only to be read literally. To be fair, even Thomas Aquinas was sceptical about the Immaculate Conception, and Catholics weren’t absolutely required to believe in it until 1854.

Even so the idea arises out of an ancient and complicated Early Christian hermeneutic which connected the Virgin Mary symbolically with the Daughter of Zion, the Temple, the Holy of Holies, the Church as the new Israel and the Heavenly Jerusalem. To expand on these connections in any detail is far more than I can do here. Suffice it to say that, from the second century onwards, Mary began to stand for God’s eternal choice or “election” of Israel as the means by which redemption would come to the whole world, and for the heavenly Jerusalem which would mark this work’s completion.

Moreover, when we recognise the authority of the Protoevangelium in early and medieval Christianity, the passages relating to Mary in the Qur’an become less unfamiliar to modern Christians; it becomes clear that this was one of a number of common sources on which both religious traditions drew.

For more on the relationship between the Protoevangelium and the Qur’an, see: Hosn Abboud, Mary in the Qur’an: A Literary Reading. Routledge Studies in the Qur’an. London: Routledge, 2014.

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