Two life-size brass statues flank the sanctuary (bema) at the chapel of St. Mary’s Seminary. Commissioned in 1954, these statues represent the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist. Their images remind us that the altar represents the hill of Golgotha in Jerusalem, so that every Eucharistic meal is not only a representation of the Crucifixion, but that every Holy Communion allows participants to be present, in both a metaphorical and real sense, during Christ’s sacrifice.
At first glance, these statues’ formal beauty may distract us from the splendor of the message they proclaim. Why are these saints given such a place of prestige, while the other gospel figures are not? The answer to this comes from the gospels, which describe the Crucifixion of Jesus:
“…standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother… When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved [John the apostle] standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:25-27, RSV).
This passage provides the last commandment that Jesus gave before he died. Imagine Jesus, covered in blood and gasping for air, using this particular moment to teach us more about his mission!
Mary was present throughout Christ’s life from his birth and ministry to his death. The young maiden who cradled the Christ Child in her arms was also the widow who caressed the dead body of the God-Man—the scene known today as the Pieta. In a world that persecuted, mocked, and ultimately tortured Jesus to death, it was Mary alone who cared for him and gave him true love (αγάπη) all his life. In other words, Jesus’ experience here on earth was brutal and cruel; the only consistent acceptance and comfort offered to him came from Mary. Jesus’ words to John “Behold, your mother!” is a command that he has given to every believer. By centering our gaze on Mary, we are focusing on the very Body of Christ—the Church, the Mater Ecclesiae.
It was only natural that at the end that Jesus made sure that Mary would be cared for after he died, so he arranged her adoption by the beloved disciple, John. According to tradition, John was the youngest of the apostles and was cared for by Christ as if he was his younger brother; hence why during the Last Supper, John rest’s his head on Jesus’ shoulder at the very moment when Judas was announced as a betrayer (John 13:23).
Like Mary, John was at the foot of the cross until Christ’s death, when all the other apostles hid from shame and fear—his loyalty has always inspired Christian devotion. It is not merely a coincidence that the Pope’s Cathedral in Rome is dedicated to St. John and was the first church to be built after Christianity was legalized by the Emperor Constantine in the year 313.
At St. Mary’s Seminary as we join with the priest in offering the bread and the wine, the crucifixion and bloodshed of Christ on the cross are made present to us. The sculptures of Mary and John remind us that we are present with them, joining in the Holy Communion of saints which transcends space and time. Every Catholic altar is Golgotha, just like every host and drop of precious blood is the Body and Blood of the Risen Christ. These works of art assist us in obeying Christ’s commandment: “Do this in remembrance of me”. We must always remember the atonement for our sins and that our salvation came at a steep cost. As we contemplate the Eucharist that we are digesting, we must sympathize with Mary’s and John’s sorrow as they witnessed Our Lord dying for us.
Written by Charles A. Stewart, Ph. D. (Chair, Art History at University of St. Thomas)
For further reading on this topic:
- Pope Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth. Volume 2: Holy Week. From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius), Pages: 219-222.
- Scott Hahn. Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God (New York: Double Day, 2006), pages 37-46.
- Timothy Verdon. Mary in Western Art (Rome: Filippo Rossi, 2005)