Visions of Mary is a well-produced little book that attempts to do two rather different things at once: provide a full catalog of the Marian imagery at Chartres Cathedral, France, and offer a guide to devotions associated with those images. As such it is neither a history nor a full description of this imagery, but rather something in-between: a taster for those unfamiliar with the complexities of Marian imagery aimed more at Protestants like Jill K. H. Geoffrion (an American Baptist) than at scholars or those already familiar with devotion to Mary as Our Lady, whether Orthodox or Catholic. It follows in the footsteps of Henry Adams’s great masterpiece, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904), with much of the same affect: these images are curious, worth studying, but hard to place in the full tradition of Christian theology and devotion.
Geoffrion began from the list of 175 images provided by Yves Delaport in The Three Marys of Chartres Cathedral (1955). Her catalog, compiled with the help of Alain Pierre Louët, adds some 136 more. The images include not only glass and sculpture, but also vestments, chalices, and other liturgical vessels, manuscripts, and reliquaries, along with the reliquary of Mary’s veil. The images are listed in a twenty-page table with dates, locations, and short descriptions grouped according to the stories of Mary’s earthly and heavenly life which they illustrate. While making it difficult to study the images in the contexts in which they appear in the cathedral, this method of grouping does highlight the prominence of particular types of images at Chartres: for example, there are twenty-six images of the Annunciation as compared with ten of the visit of the Wise Men, nine of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and thirteen of Mary at the foot of the cross, as well as six Pietàs. The seventy-three photographs illustrating the devotional meditations that form the body of the book, taken by the author, are more contemplative than documentary, better for capturing the details of the images than for reference. The meditations on the images follow the life of Mary from her nativity through her assumption (chapters 1 to 3), her miracles (chapter 4), and devotions offered to her in the 21st century (chapter 5).
Given the purpose of Visions of Mary—to showcase images for those looking to understand the tradition of devotion to Mary as represented at Chartres—it is unfortunate that Geoffrion was not able to place them in their fuller liturgical and exegetical context. This in itself is a formidable undertaking, as Margot Fassler has shown in her Virgin at Chartres: Making History through Liturgy and the Arts (Yale University Press, 2010), but it is nevertheless necessary to attempt at least in part. By far the greatest stumbling block for most modern readers, particularly but not only Protestants, is not ignorance of the stories associated with Mary (although there is that) but rather the extent to which this devotion was grounded in scripture. The most prominent representations of the Virgin at Chartres were not narrative, but typological or, as Geoffrion labels them, “non-historical”: Mary seated or standing holding the Child, of which Geoffrion lists seventy-one examples. Geoffrion’s appendices include a glossary of terms and fuller versions of the scriptural references not given in the body of the guide, but the scriptural citations are taken only from those books now read by most Protestants as referring to the Virgin Mary (mainly, Isaiah and the gospels), not from the ones which the designers of the medieval imagery would have had in mind for many of their representations of Mary. Particularly significant are the omissions from the Old Testament (Septuagint and Vulgate versions): Proverbs, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Solomon, and above all the Psalms, but there is also no index entry for Revelation 12. Why does the image known as Notre-Dame du Pilier (49) include an inscription taken from the Song of Songs? “Tota pulchra es, amica mea, et macula non est in te” (Song of Songs 4:7). The Marian imagery at Chartres is impossible to understand without this context, particularly the references to Mary as Wisdom and the Temple in which Christ becomes present.
Geoffrion talks in her preface about the insight that she gained from meditating on the relic of Mary’s veil, given to Chartres in the 9th century by Charles the Bald (823-877). Geoffrion says that in praying with the veil, she came to understand Mary as a mother as well as a sister in faith, while the cloth relic became for her a “bridge, inviting me to feel and express greater love for God, to receive comfort and hope from Mary, and to connect me with my Christian faith and with the faith of all those who have prayed near it for centuries” (xxiii). As I have shown in my Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought(Columbia University Press, 2017), Mary’s medieval devotees focused on Mary rather differently, as the one in whom God became present; not just a fellow human being, but the creature made by God in order to become his dwelling. As Geoffrion herself notes in commenting on one of the most famous images at Chartres, the Blue Virgin Window (Notre-Dame de la Belle Verrière), “While Mary is honoured and venerated throughout the cathedral, this early image of her as the Sedes Sapientiae [Seat of Wisdom] reminds viewers that although she had a unique place in divine history, her role as the Mother of God always involved revealing her son, who was also the Son of God” (51). At the beginning of the 20th century, Henry Adams described the Virgin as represented in her great window at Chartres as sad, looking down through the centuries over a dead faith. Unlike Adams, Geoffrion hopes to revive that faith. It will be interesting to see whether Visions of Mary with its catalog and beautiful photographs can.
Jill Geoffrion is an ordained pastor with the American Baptist Churches. She has written many books and articles, particularly on the study of labyrinth as a form of prayer. Jill is also an accomplished photographer. She lives with her husband in Chartres, France.
Reading Religion Newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on new books, new reviews, and more.
You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never share or sell your e-mail address.