Several years ago, I came home from college and spotted a picture in my house that hadn’t been there before. I saw the small portrait on my mom’s nightstand while I was walking through the hallway, and from far away, I thought it was my own mother in her late 20s holding my oldest sister as an infant. “Why haven’t I ever seen that photo before?!”, I thought as I walked in her room to get a closer look. But as I got nearer, I noticed that either my mom was wearing a strange outfit (even if it was a photo from the 80s) or it wasn’t her at all - it was Mary. As it turns out, the picture was a prayer card from a monthly edition of the Magnificat featuring artist Stephanie Morris’ original painting titled “Visitation”.
After I told my mom about my mistake, she gave me the prayer card to keep, and it has hung in my own room ever since. As I’ve looked at it many, many more times since that first encounter, I’ve started to wonder how I mistook Mary for my mom. She shares the same dark hair and kind brown eyes, but the resemblance doesn’t go much deeper. I believe what made her seem so familiar was her gaze. Mary’s eyes meet the viewer’s with eagerness, love, and intensity. I am greatly blessed to have known the same warm gaze from my earthly mother, and it helped me to recognize, even from far away, Mary as Mother of my own life.
Mary isn’t alone in the painting, though. She’s holding a peaceful, sleeping child Whose gaze will come to be (and always has been) infinitely more tender than her own. In many works of sacred art featuring a madonna and Christ child, Mary’s gaze is directed towards her Son. Either that, or she’s pointing towards Him and making some motion to mark Him as the focal point of the scene. Here, Mary does neither of those things, but somehow Jesus remains as the heart of the image. When you meet Mary’s gaze, you’re invited into her heart, where Jesus lies full of peace and love. As always, we are led to Him through her.
And it doesn’t end there. A motherly gaze says not only, “I love you”, but also “I know who you are”. Mary knows we are not meant to stand paralyzed, even if it is in awe of something good. Morris (the artist) paints Mary in a stance that is full of forward motion. Her arms are wrapped around Jesus, sure, but they are poised to give Him over to the viewer. These hands are the same ones that handed her precious baby boy to Simeon in the Temple and laid her grown son in the tomb to soon be resurrected for our sake. She is forever holding Him and forever giving Him over to us.
If a friend or family member asked me to hold her baby for her, I would be honored. Truthfully, I always feel a bit intrusive asking to hold someone else’s baby (even though I always want to), so when a mother offers to let me hold her child, I consider it a huge privilege. There seems to be an unspoken acknowledgement of trust, intimacy, and freedom. This is the silent conversation Mary holds in her gaze as she draws us in nearer to her: “Will you hold my Son?”
And so, in these weeks after the Christmas celebration, as Jesus grows heavier and fuller in Mary’s arms, you and I are faced with her question. Will you hold Him? Will you help her show the fullness of His reality to the world? I invite you to meditate with this question and this image that has meant so much to me. I hope you, too, are drawn into Mary’s motherly gaze and left in awe as she shares her son with you.
"Visitation" by Stephanie Morris. © Stephanie Morris 2012. To visit Stephanie's website, click here.
Kathryn Hurd is a senior studying strategic communications and anthropology at K-State. She's a maker, a walker, a butterfly-spotter, and a lover of a good children's book. You can read more of her words, ramblings, and random interests here.