She’s Got the Whole World in Her Womb

It’s called a vierge ouvrante, or opening virgin, and the name doesn’t need much explaining. Like a one-window Advent calendar, this statue of the Mother of God pops open to reveal the Holy Trinity: an anthropomorphic, bearded God the Father hefting the horizontal beam of the Cross on which His comparatively tiny Son is being crucified. A note from the International Marian Research Center of Dayton, Ohio mentions “the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering over both of them,” but I can’t find Him.

The figures painted on the insides of the lid can’t be the Apostles (too many womenfolk) or even saints (no halos, palms, or instruments of martyrdom). Instead, judging by the crowns, miters, and wimples gracing their heads, they seem to represent the better sort of people, gathered in worship.

Vierges ouvrantes were once fairly common stock images, like Fatima Marys are today. The oldest, the Madonna of Boubon, dates to 1200. According to the Marian International Research Institute, they first appeared in women’s religious houses, and owed a share of their popularity to contemporary mysticism, including the visions of Birgitta of Sweden, the Marian piety of the Teutonic Knights, “spousal” mysticism from the Rhineland, and the Cantigas de Santa Maria, written by 13th-century Castilian king Alfonso X (“the Wise”). The specimen in the photograph comes from Cluny, and dates to 1400.

They survived the Reformation, but not the Age of Reason. In 1745, Pope Benedict XIV came out against them on the grounds that seeing the entire Trinity incarnate in Mary might confuse people. And he had a point. If any Church dogma is more preposterous than a virgin giving birth — and to God, no less — it’s God being a single Being in three Persons. In the cool light of reason, offering a twofer by advertising both in a single image would seem to be pushing it.

But that weirdness is arresting. The big Jehovah and the little, adult-proportioned Jesus recall Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his son. (Could a vierge ouvrante have inspired Goya? Not impossible — they were popular in Spain.) Mary’s wearing an expression of almost inhuman detachment. She’s above it all, even though it’s taking place inside her.

Growing up in Manhattan will spoil a person for grandeur. After throwing up or making out on the steps of a few Renaissance-revival brownstones, you’ll never associate holiness with beauty quite so automatically as you might otherwise have done. A few weeks ago, a friend showed me a photograph of Rouen’s Notre Dame cathedral. A gorgeous blend of the early, high, and late gothic styles, it inspired Monet. Me, all I could think was, “How did we avoid bombing the flamboyant arch out of that thing during the War?”

But weirdness? That still gets me every time. Catholics in general are suspicious of too much innovation in sacred art, but this is good, wholesome medieval weirdness — nothing modern or post-modern about it. It hearkens back to the good old days when men were men and Cathars were nervous. That being the case, can we, pretty please, bring back the vierge ouvrante, if we promise not to get the Incarnation all wrong? Who do I have to talk to, anyway?

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