National Poetry Day: The Virgin Mary lights our way

Cropped virgin‘Heyl, levedy, se-stoerre bryght,
Godes moder, edy wyht,
Mayden ever vurst and late,
Of hevenriche sely gate.’

[Hail, lady, sea-star bright, / God’s mother, blessed creature, / Mother ever first and last, / of the heavenly kingdom the blessed gate]

(The Assumption of the Virgin, St Peter and St Paul, East Harling, Norfolk. Image from Simon Knott’s fantastic Norfolk Churches website)

This is the opening of an early fourteenth century Middle English lyric, translated from the Latin hymn Ave maris stella [Hail, star of the sea] by the Franciscan friar William Herebert (d.1333-37). The theme for National Poetry Day this year is light and here the Virgin Mary is addressed as ‘se-stoerre bryght’ or lodestar. She is a star that shows the way and guides us to safety.

In his homily on the Virgin Mary, St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) explains this image further (quoted by Karen Saupe, editor of the TEAMS edition of Marian Lyrics):

Star 1Surely she is very fittingly likened to a star. The star sends forth its ray without harm to itself. In the same way the Virgin brought forth her son with no injury to herself… She it is whose brightness both twinkles in the highest heaven and pierces the pit of hell, and is shed upon earth, warming our hearts far more than our bodies, fostering virtue and cauterizing vice… O you, whoever you are, who feel that in the tidal wave of this world are nearer to being tossed about among the squalls and gales than treading on dry land, if you do not want to founder in the tempest, do not avert your eyes from the brightness of this star.

Devotion to the Virgin Mary was hugely important to medieval Christians and in art and literature she was regularly associated with imagery of light. Herebert’s poem continues:

Thylk Ave that thou vonge in spel
Of the aungeles mouhth kald Gabriel,
In gryht ous sette and shyld vrom shome,
That turnst abakward Eve’s nome.
Gulty monnes bond unbynd,
Bryng lyht tyl hoem that boeth blynd,
Put vrom ous oure sunne
And ern ous alle wynne.

[That same Ave that you received in speech / from the mouth of the angel called Gabriel, / in peace us set and shield from shame, that turns backwards Eva’s name. // Guilty man’s bonds unbind, / bring light to them that are blind, / put from us are sin, / and procure joy for us all.

Here the Virgin is asked to bring light to the blind, to save us fBL Harleyrom our sin, and to set us in peace and security, recalling the image in the first verse of the sea-star that guides us to safety. The poem also draws on important Marian traditions, such as Mary’s role as a second Eve (Eva backwards is Ave, the first word of the ‘Hail Mary’ or Ave Maria). As Herebert’s poem explains, Mary was addressed ‘Ave’ or ‘Hail’ by the angel Gabriel when he appeared to tell her that she would give birth to the Son of God (an episode known as the Annunciation, see Luke 1:28-33).

[the Annunciation from British Library Harley 3181, complete with beams of light]

Imagery of the Annunciation in stained glass also makes use of light to represent the descent of the Holy Spirit at Christ’s conception. This is a gorgeous example from All Saints Church at Bale in Norfolk in which the Holy Spirit descends as a dove and the beams of light point towards Mary. (This image is used as the frontispiece of Barry Windeatt’s edition of The Book of Margery Kempe)

Bale knott image(Image from Simon Knott’s Norfolk Churches site, here)

In this image from St Peter Mancroft in Norwich, the light becomes a pathway, almost like a little slide, along which the Christ child travels on his way to Mary’s womb. If you look carefully you can see that he is bearing a small cross on his shoulder, a reminder that his birth is the first stage in his Passion, culminating with the crucifixion.

anunciation st peter mancroftshute

(Images from Simon Knott, Norfolk Churches website, here)

The association between light and stained glass is important in Marian iconography because the metaphor of light travelling through glass is used as a way of explaining the Virgin birth.

Ase the sonne taketh hyre pas
Wythoute breche thorghout that glas,
Thy maydenhod onwemmed hyt was
For bere of thyne chylde.
[As the sun makes its way / without breaking the glass, / your maidenhood was unblemished / in bearing your child]

Mary’s virginity is ‘onwemmed’ which means intact, without imperfection or spot. Her body has been entered by the Holy Spirit without its virginity being damaged, just as a beam of light shines through a window. (Mary’s unblemished state comes from the Song of Songs in which the bride is described as ‘all fair’: ‘Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee’, Songs 4:7).

In a final fifteenth century lyric, this time a carol that is accompanied by music, the imagery of light, stars, and glass comes together in a meditation on the nativity:

An angel of cunsel this day is borneEgerton
Of a maide y seide beforne,
For to save that was forlorne,
Sol de stella.
That sunne hath never doun goynge,
Nother his lyght no tyme lesynge;
The sterre is evermore shynynge,
Semper clara.
Right as the sterre bryngeth forth a bem
Of whom ther cometh a mervelus strem,
So childede the maide withoute wem,
Pari forma.

[Image of the Nativity from British Library Egerton 1070, with beams of light descending from the sun onto Christ]

[An angel of counsel [Christ] this day is born, / of a maid as I said before, / for to save that which was lost, the sun from a star. // That sun never goes down, / nor ever loses his light, / the star is shining ever more, / ever bright.// Right as the star brings forth a beam / from which comes a marvellous stream, / so the maiden gave birth without blemish / in like manner.]

Christ is the Son/Sun of God whose light never goes out and Mary gives birth to him without blemish like a beam of light shining from a star.

References

Marian Lyrics, ed. Karen Saupe, available online via TEAMS here

Simon Knott’s Norfolk Churches website, http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/

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