Monday, April 19, 2010

Seven Sorrows of Mary

It was in 2005 that St. Michael’s Church restored its art, with a grant or loan (I’m not exactly sure) from the archdioceses of Newark for at least $250,000. As the work began and its full scale became apparent another infusion was required. One of the older churches in New Jersey, it began in 1868 as a convent and a school, servicing the immigrants, which at the time were arriving in increasing numbers. The church was built, holding its first service in 1873.

According to a 1947 Jersey Observer article available in the Jersey Room at the Jersey City Library, Main Branch: “A crowd of 12,000 saw the ceremonies at which the cornerstone of the new church was laid on September 29,1872. The First Service was held in the church on August 17th, 1873.”

St. Michael had a school attached; it closed sometime in the 1980s although surviving classmates hold a reunion annually. Also in the Jersey Room are two existing copies of Parish Priest, by Reverend Leroy E. McWilliams—co-written with Jim Bishop, a local reporter. McWilliams was the pastor at the Church from the 30s into the 50s, a hey-day of sorts for Jersey City and the book, an insightful and entertaining read, is about the life of a big city pastor during Mayor Frank Hague era. It’s a snap shot of American City Machine politics from a unique perspective – the pastor of a church.

The book is also the only place to find some information about the paintings of the Seven Sorrow of Mary’s. These images are uncommon. I can’t seem to find out if there are other churches in New Jersey with them, but I don’t know of any and it doesn’t seem that the Newark headquarters keep an icon catalog. The Seven Sorrows of Mary are a devotion especially popular in Italian culture. Unlike some other images of Mary, the Blessed Virgin, such as the Assumption, which are based on Catholic Dogma, the Seven Sorrow are taken directly from Gospel stories of Mary’s role as the mother of Jesus, and not the fun ones like getting frankincense from a Wiseman or coercing his son to make more wine for a wedding (apparently there is an even more obscure devotion, the Seven Joys of Mary).

The Seven Sorrows remind us of the sacrifice of this woman, especially the tragedy of witnessing her son’s unjust execution. You don’t have faith to appreciate that purpose, or to appreciate how these stories and images provokes reflection on the totality of motherhood. People have strength and wisdom form that reflection for centuries. I had never seen them before seeing them at the church on 9th street. Before the restoration, you could barely make them out. A thick film from decades of candle smoke as well dust and grime covered the paintings. They were obscured almost entirely. Ever since the restoration clarified the images, sharpening the colors and the scenes depicted, they’ve beguiled me. The paintings are beautiful and fascinating.

McWilliams seemed to have a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, which was sort of uncommon for an Irishman, or an Irish-American. The matriarchal leanings of Roman Catholic worship tend to be the domain of Latin language based countries. That might be an unfair generalization, and this was just likely the personal taste of this particular cleric, but at the time there were waves of Italian immigrants alongside the Irish immigrants and they were all coming to the same church and school. I can’t help but see this as a kind of bridging of cultures during that era.The images were installed in 1939, a hectic year of growth for the Parish.

The timing makes sense. The era of immigration was coming to an end, but that also meant in Jersey City, a major beneficiary of the massive influx of new citizens, now had established residents—raising families, paying taxes—for two or three decades at least. The depression also had ended, thanks to the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of our great Presidents.

The industrial infrastructure was being built, unions were strong, and the factories were gearing up with the Lend-Lease program as a prelude to the industrial production required by World War II. Jersey City was at or at least near the center of this boom. But, as the McWillaims points out, a side-note development had occurred. St. Michael’s was in litigation with the Erie Railroad Company. The church was suing the company for damages due to soot and other aspects of the railroad.

Eventually the company settled out of court, but only after intercession by Mayor Frank Hague. “I hope the fact that Hague could have enacted crippling ordinances against the railroad and nothing to do with the settlement.”This settlement spurred donations. In the next paragraph, McWilliams says, “I appealed to the people and the people gave.”The church was refurbished, and McWilliams – this is 1939 – transformed the “west transept” into Our Lady’s Chapel and started a weekly Novena to “Our Sorrowful Mother in August and attracted 1200 people every Friday.”

Also in 1939, “The Via Matris was also put up over the Stations of the Cross. They were reproductions in oil, of Jansens’ original work in the Cathedral at Antwerp.”

The Via Matris is of course is the Latin term for the icons. The crosses that appear in front of the lower portion of each Seven Sorrows painting are actually the top of the large, ornate Stations of the Cross McWilliams refers to.

Seven Sorrows sounds familiar to me but I don’t know anybody who had a devotion to them or what that devotion entailed. It’s customary to say a Hail Mary before each according to one website, and according to another there is also a special Seven Sorrows rosary, which I have actually asked a priest or two about and they were unaware of such a thing, or whether it is a special way to say the rosary or a distinct set of beads. The novena McWilliams mentions is no longer held and I have no information as to when it was discontinued. The Cathedral he mentions is Cathedral of Our Lady, which took 170 years to complete, opening in 1521 – although according to Wikipedia, a church devoted to the Blessed Virgin had been on the same site as early as the 9th century.

Abraham Janssens van Nuyssen, was born in Antwerp—either in 1567 or 1576 and died in 1632, was a Flemish Baroque painter and was considered one of the best historical and religious painters of the era, although he was over shadowed by Rubens. “In correctness of drawing Janssens excelled his great contemporary.” The Seven Sorrows are part of Mariology, which is the theology of the Virgin Mother with Christian theology. It’s pretty Catholic. The protestant denominations aren’t as obsessed with the figure of Mary, and don’t believe in Intercession. Then again, they don’t have this cool art. Four of the Seven deal with the crucifixion of her son. Only one is Mary directly mentioned in the scripture--#5, the crucifixion. In John’s Gospel, Jesus basically orders the Apostle—the only Apostle to have died, not as a martyr, but of old age—to take care of his mother, then he dies. Sorrows 4, 6 and 7 while based on Scripture regarding the execution of Jesus Christ—Mary isn’t specifically mentioned.

The crucifixion—and the resurrection for that matter—are in all of the four, but there are differences in the accounts. Mary of course appears in all four, so it is logical to conclude she was present for the entire crucifixion, even if she isn’t mentioned. So the artist—and the faithful who first started this devotion—had to ask themselves when contemplating this particular line of scripture: “what about the mother?”

1 – The Prophecy of Simeon over the Infant Jesus.

(Gospel of Luke 2:34-35)

And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary, his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;

(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.)

I wondered why this was a “Sorrow.” The holy day is known as The Presentation, and is the circumcision of Jesus. Joseph and Mary take their new born to the temple—I guess they came right from the manger. Simeon, an old man (and Moyle I guess), sees the infant Jesus, declares him the messiah, and thanks the Lord for letting him see this day. What is so sorrowful? It’s the parenthetical comment (at least in mine, Disolcations readers might know by know I prefer one of the original King James translation), which is prophecy—a sword shall pierce your soul—in other words, you will witness the death of your son.

2 – The Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family. (Gospel of Matthew 2:13)

And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word:

For Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.Fleeing with a newborn.

What Herod did is known as the massacre of the innocents, where he ordered all males two years or younger to be killed.

3 – The Loss of the Child Jesus for Three Days. (Luke 2:43)

And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.

This story—the only one in the Gospels depicting a Jesus as a young boy—actually goes on for several lines. Mary and Joseph searched three days in Jerusalem even going to their families before winding up at the temple, where Jesus is bedazzling the religious scholars with his scriptural knowledge. It shows a while has passed before the famous line: “How is that you sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” Both the loss and the #1, presentation are also Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. That shows the two sides of the story, two ways to take it. The loss of the child the sorrow, and the finding of the child, joyful.

4 – The Meeting of Jesus and Mary along the Way of the Cross. (Luke 23:27)

And there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him

5 – The Crucifixion, where Mary stands at the foot of the cross. (Gospel of John 19:25-27)

Now, there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas and Mary Magdalne. When Jesus therefore saw his mother and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold they son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.

If you notice the first sorrow, you see two young people, a girl and a boy. The girl has red hair. In this depiction, Mary is at the foot of the cross, and she has the same color hair. Are these the same in the first picture, or a visualization of the prophecy by Simeon, that is where your soul will be pierced, seeing your son die on a cross?

6 – The Descent from the Cross, where Mary receives the dead body of Jesus in her arms. (Matthew 27:57)

And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him When the evening was come, there came a rich man of Arimathea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple. He went to Pilate and he begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered.

7 – The Burial of Jesus. (John 19:40)

Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.

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