Saturday, August 22, 2020

Mary the Gate of Dawn, the Mother of Mercy

On the feast day that one might call the "Octave of the Assumption" - the celebration in which we honor the "Queenship" of Mary - I have found myself drawn to to an icon that is little known in the West, but that represents an important "meeting place" for Baltic peoples and Slavs, for Latin Catholics and Byzantine Orthodox.

Some years ago, I obtained an inexpensive print of the icon of the Virgin Mary called "Ostrobramska." The image was fascinating and distinctive, but the accompanying description - unfortunately for me - was in Russian.

Today that wouldn't be too much of a problem; I could just scan it with my phone and use the app of my choice. The English that popped up wouldn't be pretty, but I'd at least be "in the ballpark." But this was long before Google Translate. In fact, it may have been before "Google anything"!

I probably used "the World Wide Web" to search for information, with the dial-up modem and the dong-dong-bidong noises and the waiting and waiting... and hoping no one else needed to use the phone (because there was only one "phone line" in the house, but... never mind: kids, ask your parents and they'll tell you what it was like😉).

One way or another, I found out more about this beautiful icon. It was (only) about 500-or-so years old, and was in a chapel in the eastern gate of the city of Vilnius... or Wilno... or Вiльня (Vilnya) depending on what language you are speaking (Lithuanian, Polish, or one of the Eastern Slavic languages - with variations that I can't go into here). It was probably originally painted (perhaps on commission) in a Western European Renaissance style for this important city in a remarkable kingdom that flourished for several hundred years, but that we don't learn much about in school: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The "original" painting
This was the golden age of Polish culture and political power, when the Jagiellonian dynasty - who ruled as Kings of Poland and Grand Dukes of Lithuania - consolidated the dual monarchy into a confederation.

Like most "golden ages," it didn't last very long (historically speaking) and by the end of the 18th century, Russia, Austria, and Prussia - through a series of partitions - had removed it entirely from the map.

Nevertheless, although the population of Vilnius was diverse and existed under various political regimes, the icon was always honored. Popular devotion had long credited the Virgin of Ostrobramska with intercessions that brought miracles. At some point (18th century) it was "clothed" in the gold and silver exterior it has today - in the fashion of Russian Orthodox icons.

A miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary, not visibly holding the child Jesus, but in a more "Apocalyptic pose" - with the the sun, the moon, the stars ... then the crowns (at various stages worked into the iconography). Here is Mary, at the crossroads of peoples and cultures, responding to the needs of all her children, gently working for peace and reconciliation.

Does that sound "familiar"? No wonder I loved this image. Obviously it's not the same as "La Madrecita" (nothing is quite like Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe) but there are some symbolic correspondences. Above all, there is the fact that Mary - being a good mother - is never far from her children, especially those who have great need of her.

Here she has been honored in a popular pilgrimage destination for Lithuanians, Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Russians - both Catholics and Orthodox. Let's just say, these are not peoples who have been inclined to like one another under ordinary circumstances over the past several centuries (or more). But Mary is Queen! And she brings peoples together and makes peace.

And not just any kind of peace: She bears God's gift of himself to the world, God's peace, God's compassion for our brokenness, who comes to save us in his mercy.

Painted Russian Orthodox icon 
When the smoke of the early 20th century's "Great War" finally cleared, the Ostrobramska icon was for a couple of decades in "Wilno" in a temporarily independent Poland. Once again, Poland was a borderland for "Western" Europe. Just as they had once held back the imperial ambitions of the Swedes in the north and (crucially) the Ottoman Turks from their south (think 1683), so Poland had kept the Bolsheviks and their revolution confined to Russia... at least temporarily.

Meanwhile the devotion to the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Gate of Dawn had spread among the peoples of the region (with copies of the icon "written" in various styles) and was taken by emigrants to the rest of the world.

In 1927, the Pope gave special recognition to the icon, giving it the title "Mother of Mercy." This is particularly striking, given the fact that on April 28, 1935 - the Second Sunday of Easter (the Easter Octave) - Mass was offered in the Ostrobramska church for the first time in the presence of a new image (not of Mary, but of her Son), which was presented through the collaboration of three relatively unknown people: there was an artist and professor at Wilno's Art Academy who painted it, then there was the priest who said the Mass, and finally there was a sister from a convent in Wilno of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. Not much note was taken of this event at the time.

This new icon of Jesus with the luminous rays of red and white coming forth from his side was destined to become much more widely known than Wilno's/Vilnius's Ostrobramska, the Gate of Dawn, the Mother of Mercy. For it was an icon of him who is "the Divine Mercy," painted by Eugene Kazimierowski according to the precise directions of the sister whom we now honor as Saint Faustina Kowalska. The Mass was offered by her spiritual director, Blessed Michal Sopocko, who guided Saint Faustina in the following and the written expression of her singular, extraordinary charism, and who later himself became its faithful promoter.

It was the Mass of the Octave of Easter, which today is known as "Divine Mercy Sunday." And today, in the city of Vilnius in the small but independent country of Lithuania, the original image painted by Kazimierowski has been restored. It is the model for all the essential elements of the many stylistically varied icons of the Divine Mercy, through which the merciful Jesus is presented throughout the world.

The Mother of Mercy leads us to... Mercy. That's what Mary's Queenship is all about.