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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Happy Feast of Mater ~ October 20th

Mater in the house of St. John
 by Pauline Perdrau, RSCJ  in 1883

October 20th is the day in which Sacred Heart alums world-wide celebrate the Feast of Mater.  Many of you on this day, this weekend or this month will gather together for a reunion or perhaps at mass to celebrate in some way and remember Mater. And, some of you will wear pink today, some current students (and alums too) may gather and enjoy a cup cake with pink icing - all in celebration of this special feast day!  The Associated Alumnae/i of the Sacred Heart will celebrate its 80th year as an organization in 2013.  Just as Pauline Perdrau, RSCJ depicts Mater in her old age, I reflect and think,  "Is this what Mater would look like at age 80?" As I read what Madeleine Sophie Cooney, RSCJ writes (see below) her last paragraph comes to life and over 26 years later appears to be still very poignant. 

MER notes: I personally knew Madeleine Sophie Cooney, RSCJ who taught at Barat College.  Sr. Cooney and I last saw one another at Oakwood prior to her death in 1994. Earlier this week while having dinner with Donna Collins, RSCJ the image of Mater in her old age came up in our conversation and she gratefully forwarded the above image to me.  Upon seeing this image of Mater in her old age, I immediately recalled reading the article below which I found on-line at  I am reprinting it so all can enjoy reading it as much as I did earlier today.  Happy Feast day to one and all! :)

Mater in her old age
by Madeleine Sophie Cooney, RSCJ

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in RSCJ: A Journal of Reflection, Vol. VI, Winter, 1985, No. 1, pages 135-142. It was written by Madeleine Sophie Cooney, RSCJ, who was also the editor of the Journal at this time, and whose erudition and wisdom pervaded both its content and its organization. Pictures appear as full page illustrations on pages 136 (Mater window at Stuart Country Day School, Princeton, New Jersey, no photographer noted) and 139 (Mater in the House of St. John at Ephesus copy by M.M. Nealis, RSCJ (done in 1935) of painting by Pauline Perdrau, RSCJ (done in 1883); pictures here follow the article and the color version of Perdrau’s painting was provided the National RSCJ Archives.

In 1883, nearly forty years after she completed the fresco of Mater Admirabilis on a corridor wall of the Trinita dei Monti in Rome, Pauline Perdrau painted another study of Mary—one much less famous than her earlier work. Though its aesthetic qualities leave much to be desired, this later Mater, which is known in the United States chiefly through the copy made by Sister M.M. Nealis in 1935, rewards careful study and comparison with the Trinita fresco.

In both works we are faced with the puzzling paradox of a mediocre painter, a woman who seems to fit comfortably into the romantically pious atmosphere of the nineteenth century Church, an apparently childlike and innocent soul untainted by any critical or historical sense, who was at the same time a creative artist, integrating, by means of technically poor and quite amateur work, a complex of related themes.

These universal motifs revolve about primeval concepts such as mother, matter, material, maternity, and matrix; about divine, feminine, prophetic spinners of destiny, such as the Greek fates: Clotho, who spins the thread of each human life, Lachesis, who determines its length, and Atropos, who cuts the strand of life at the moment of death i; about Ariadne, whose saving thread led Theseus from the mortal danger of the labyrinth; about female competition in weaving and embroidery, such as the contest between Athene, patroness of womanly arts, and Arachne, who wove such a marvelous tapestry of divine love affairs that she aroused the jealous ire of the goddess and was turned into a spider doomed to spin a web from the stuff of her own body; about Penelope’s weaving and unweaving of a shroud, the obverse of swaddling bands, since grave wrappings swathe the body destined to be reborn from the tomb; about the ominous purple carpet of Clytemnestra and the flaming shirt of Herakles; about the peplos, or newly woven garment, gift of the maids of Athens, offered annually to Athene in the Pan-Athenaic procession; about the doomed Lady of Shalott and her magic web; about the harpweaver in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ballad; and about spindles, such as that which wounded Sleeping Beauty, the Spindle of Necessity in Plato’s Myth of Er, and the spindles, entwined with maidenhair, offered by the virgins of Delos to Eileithyia, weaver and midwife, helper of Leto, goddess of childbirth.

The act of spinning or weaving represents the temporal and the developing, the incremental and the cyclic, and is analogous to the growth of the child in the womb. One wonders whether, in her study of art history, Pauline Perdreau examined any of the thousands of Byzantine icons of the Annunciation in which Mary is holding a spindle from which a scarlet thread passes across her body. The spinning of red thread obviously suggests the development of the arterial system in embryonic life, especially when, as in some icons, the unborn infant is dimly seen through his mother’s flesh. In the Apocrypha, the young Mary is described as living in the Temple and weaving the Temple veil, and in the liturgical hymns for the feast of the Sacred Heart, the piercing of the heart of Jesus is equated with the rending of that veil on Good Friday. As the author of Hebrews reminds us: “Through the blood of Jesus we have the right to enter the sanctuary, by a new way which he has opened for us, a living opening through the curtain, that is to say, his body.”ii The “curtain” is, among other things, the veil of the new Holy of Holies to which generations of mystics have found their way through the wound made by the lance at that moment the Society of the Sacred Heart regards as the kairos of its own mystical conception.

A veil, not only a symbol of wrapping, of hiddenness, and of mystery, is, like the seven veils of Ishtar, related to the orbits of the planets and the structure of the cosmos, whose meaning is gradually un-veiled only through time and space and history. The climactic moment of the Incarnation occurs when God is veiled in the flesh woven by woman; surely the prime example of concealment/manifestation.

Many of the Journal’s readers have been familiar since childhood with the symbolically charged objects surrounding the young Mater Admirabilis: the distaffiii and the spindleiv; the lilyv of purity, innocence, youthful freshness, suggesting the Immaculate Conception of this child and the virgin birth of the Child to come; the book of the Scriptures, source of revelation, including the Messianic prophecies, surely the subject of this elected young woman’s profound meditation; the work basket, another example, both in its woven form and in its contents, of woman’s work of fashioning from the raw materials of nature fabrics and textures which protect, enhance, and enrich human

In the later painting one can observe the significant changes in the symbolic structure; these modifications assure us that the artist held a continuing and consistent view of the archetypal quality of the “woman’s work” of spinning and weaving.

Mary, looking as young and fresh as in the Roman fresco, is seated in the house of St. John at Ephesus, in a courtyard much like the first one. In the background is a chapel with altar, lamp, a vase of lilies, and a drawn curtain, which gives access to a little sanctuary. Behind Mater, and out of her reach, are the distaff and work basket of the earlier picture. She is seated as before, except that she is in the act of completing an altar cloth whose finished length is rolled up on a stool before her. In her left hand she holds a spindle attached to the final thread of the woven cloth. In her right hand she holds a small pair of scissors, with which she is cutting that thread. Her head is raised and she looks up with a joyful air, as if saying, “It is finished.”

The study of this aspect of the Mater tradition might bring many who have loved the earlier picture, as it probably brought Pauline Perdrau, full circle. The significant detail of the Atropos shears marks this work as a commentary on aging, retirement, diminishment, and death. The young Mater’s work, interrupted by a moment of profound recollection, could be interpreted as the spinning of the thread to be woven into the Temple veil, a symbolic pre-enactment of the spinning and weaving of the body, including the heart, of Jesus. The aged Mary, instead, fashions an altar cloth for the infant church. The light, rather than the dawn of the Roman fresco, whose rosy flush presages the coming of the Sun of Justice, is the sanctuary lamp denoting the Eucharistic presence. There could hardly be a clearer indication that the little Madonna of the Lily of Pauline’s noviceship days has become the fully mature Mother of the Church and is involved in the weaving of salvation history.

Overlook the obvious confusion concerning the actual processes of spinning, weaving, and sewing. The painter was not interested in technical details, or perhaps had not the artistic skill to portray them. What she very obviously achieved is a contrast between the young Mater and the old; between the student of the Hebrew Bible, looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, and the contemplative before the sacramental presence of the Lord, engaged in work related to the liturgical life of the growing Church. The pious fantasy, as in the case of the imaginative flights of Ste. Therese of Lisieux, is decked out in contemporary garb but reflects an authentic and ancient mystical tradition. Every revelation has a veil in the middle of it, and the contemplative spins her own fabrics and fabrications, all of which, of course, partake of the nature of the veil of Maya—the illusion and distortion present in all phenomena and in all interpretations of phenomena.

Are the two paintings of Mater really “about” these themes? Did Pauline Perdrau know the Greek Orthodox tradition concerning the Annunciation scene? Had she read in myth about the shears of Atropos? Was she acquainted with all the feminine aspects of spinning and weaving?vii  It is difficult, if not impossible, to know whether her use of symbolic motifs in the Mater paintings was studied or wholly intuitive, a result of her imagination’s being closely in touch with the anima mundi. But whether Pauline was conscious of the total content of her pictures is not really important. What is of consequence is that members of the Society of the Sacred Heart, of whose rich tradition these paintings are a part, should understand for themselves and share with others the meanings which Pauline Perdrau’s legacy yields to reflection, study, and prayer.

i The Roman parcae were also three, as were the Teutonic Norns who appear weaving history and destiny in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen.

ii Hebrews 10, 19.

iii Mary’s distaff, with its crown of pure wool (the golden Fleece of the Lamb who was slain), is related to many other forms of the cosmic or archetypal tree, such as the ladder of Jacob, the mystic vine, the sacred mountain (e.g., Fuji and Thabor), the ladder of perfection, the tree of life, the cross of Jesus.

iv In shape, the spindle is a mandorla, the oval form used in the great almond of light encompassing he body of Christ in medieval iconography. But a mandorla is originally the two intersecting circles that stand for heaven and earth and for the sacrifice that renews the generating force of the universe. All spindle shaped symbols represent this idea of mutual sacrifice and of interaction between heaven and earth. In The Republic, Plato recounts the Myth of Er – a description of the cosmos as the Spindle of Necessity, a mandorla shaped reality with an axis or shaft surrounded by a whorl consistent of eight concentric spheres. The outermost sphere is the universe of the fixed stars and the seven inner sheres are those of the moon and the planets, carried in a rotating motion within the movement of the whole. This imaginative scheme is related to Dante’s cosmic vision, beyond and above which he saw the Mystic Rose, a symbol of fullness and perfection. Both spindle and mandorla are powerful cosmic images.

v The lily of Mater is the lilium candidum, the campanulate or bell-shaped flower which holds a calyx or chalice of golden sepals surrounded by a corolla or crown of white petals. These protect the triple pistil, whose heart, in Trinitarian multiples of three, shelters the life-giving principle of the flower, which has always been a symbol of the virgo intacta, and is thus related to the gardenenclosed and the fountain sealed. In the Roman fresco the lily rises from a vase of blue crystal, like all containers of water, a primitive symbol of woman’s power to give life—and thus related to that living fountain appearing throughout the liturgy, the Scriptures, and the world of poetry and myth.

vi “The labor of the great material primordial mothers is likened to the skillful plaiting and weaving which lends articulation, symmetrical form, and refinement to crude matter.” Myth, Religion, and Mother Right, Selected Writings of J.J. Bachofen, translated from the German by Ralph Manheim, Bollingen Series LXXXIV, Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 56.

vii The roll of woven linen in the later picture reminds the thoughtful observer that the horizontal and vertical axes of woven material, as they meet at right angles, bear the same symbolic significance as the yin and the yang, the feminine and masculine principles whose intersection and interaction are the motive power of life and organic development. The Christian form of this meeting of vertical and horizontal is, of course, the cross, seen in the warp and weft of every woven fabric, as well as in the interweave of Mater’s sewing basket.

Pursuit of these themes leads to the notion of quaternity, the four directions of space indicated by the arms of the cross and by the outer limits of a woven fabric; the four elements; the four seasons; the four living creatures which evolved into the symbols of the evangelists; the two equinoxes and the two solstices, with their relationships to the quartet of zodiacal signs associated with the change of seasons and the four cardinal points; the intuited shape of things as the mind orders them in its need to capture in an intelligible pattern the ever-elusive flux. “Quantum theory forces us to see the universe not as a collection of physical objects, but rather as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of a unified whole.” Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, Shambhala, Boulder, Colorado, 1975, p. 138.

One last suggestion: Related to the themes of spinning and weaving is the strategy of networking, a typically feminine device for bringing about needed change in society. Perhaps networking, with all that it involves in the context of 1985,--social consciousness, concern for others, cooperation, communication, education, intelligent mustering of all the available forces for good—is the contemporary form in which women can engage in the weaving of destiny.

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