Behind the Image of Mary

Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary

Penguin, 112pp, £7.99, ISBN 9780241962978

reviewed by Željka Marošević

The virtual absence of the Virgin Mary from the New Testament is so at odds with the proliferation of her myth and image in Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism, that it is almost to be disbelieved. The most famous woman in Western Culture, and the paragon of virginity, womanhood and motherhood, the perfect symbol of Christian love and obedience, and, to borrow a description of Artemis from Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, ‘radiating abidance and bounty, fertility and grace, and beauty maybe, even beauty’, is, as Marina Warner writes in Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, ‘passed over almost in silence’ during the retelling of Christ’s crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension in the Gospels.

While other Marys abound at various retellings of the crucifixion only in the Gospel of John is Mary the mother of Jesus present at the foot of the cross. In this scene, Jesus looks down from the cross and, seeing his mother, cries out, ‘Woman, behold thy son!’ before turning to John and entrusting Mary into his care: ‘Behold thy mother!’ In Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, a retelling of the events in John’s Gospel from Mary’s point of view, the moment is altered. Jesus ‘howled out words that I could not catch.’ In biblical terms, the moment when Jesus calls out binds Mary to Christ through his suffering, and enjoins Mary to John and to the rest of mankind. It is an act that joins her to God and Man, and thus places her at the centre of Christianity, with Christ. It is Tóibín’s intention to sever this connection and present the reader with a version of events that casts Mary in less selfless and more human terms.

In The Testament of Mary, the mother of Jesus steals away before her son has died on the cross so that she can escape her own death:

It was my own safety I thought of, it was to protect myself… despite the desperation, the shrieking, despite the fact that his heart and his flesh had come from my heart and my flesh…I would leave the others to wash his body and hold him and bury him when his death came. I would leave him to die alone if I had to. And that is what I did.

Two disciples, one of whom we assume is John, visit Mary to transcribe her memories of her son. Mary is only capable – and willing – to relate to Jesus as her son; in fact the name ‘Jesus’ is not used once throughout the novel, so we do not know what Mary called him: ‘I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name’.

Mary remembers his ‘innate goodness’, he could have ‘done anything’, knew how to be quiet, spend time alone, ‘he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent.’ But in his mother’s eyes he wasted these capacities to lead a group of ‘misfits’, ‘his voice all false, and his tone all stilted’. Mary’s lack of understanding should seem ignorant, but instead we feel the particular hurt of a mother whose son has outgrown her. Her disapproval of Jesus stems from how caught up he is in the zeal of his own ideas, which carry more than a hint of modern-day extremism.

Mary follows the old order she has always known – a hierarchy and system of belonging that is simple because she has never questioned it. What we witness in this novel is a tension between old and new orders, depicted with a similar energy to slanging matches between adolescents and their parents today. This age-old conflict is trickier when the two parties are disagreeing over the established teachings of Judaism and a new world order that has not yet become Christianity. Trickier still when it is your son who is purportedly the namesake and originator of this new religion, and is calling himself the Son of God. But Mary seeks to protect him nonetheless.

If we chose to, it is not difficult to find bristles between mother and son in the original texts. Tóibín revises the miracle at Cana, where in the original text, Mary encourages Jesus to transform the water into wine. Tóibín employs the same utterance used by Jesus, ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ but alters the details of the narrative. In the novel, Mary does not care about the wine; she has drawn her son close to her to beg him to leave Cana with her because his life is at risk. By inserting this new moment into the scene, Jesus’s words ring harshly, not just because he dismisses Mary’s plan of escape, but also because we know Mary is realising the futility of her enterprise.

From this point on, we understand that the distance between mother and son is irrevocable. Mary notes his ‘displayed manliness’ and how he is ‘radiant like light is radiant, so that there was nothing we could have spoken of then in those hours, it would have been like speaking to the stars or the full moon.’ The reader might know Jesus as ‘the light of the world’ but that same light’s radiance hinders intimacy, and while it gives out, it cannot receive or share Mary’s earthly concerns.

Giotto di Bondone, Madonna Enthroned, 1306-10, tempera on panel

It is perhaps in the visual arts that we can learn the most about the history of Mary. There we witness a personal metamorphosis, as well as Mary’s gradual domination over Christian imagery – a walk through any church or gallery in Florence or Rome will confirm this. In Giotto’s c.1310 Madonna Enthroned altarpiece, which dazzles the viewer with its gold, Mary is regal in a throne, her face almost Egyptian in likeness. Her body is huge and bountiful, dwarfing the saints that surround her, and Jesus too is a little prince rather than a swaddled baby. There is nothing meek or cutesy about this empress, who is grand and untouchable. But by contrast da Vinci’s Annunciation of c.1472 presents Mary as if transposed from a Botticelli painting, her pale delicate hand twisting a strand of hair as she is caught reading her scripture like a good Renaissance maiden.

Elsewhere, it is remarkable to come across the rare depictions of the Virgin Mary suckling Christ, because it is surprising to see a breast being useful as well as erotic. These paintings indicate the shifting perspective of what is permitted to the myth and image of the virgin mother at different points, and remind us that Mary is never a fixed entity and is malleable according to our needs and that of the church. In Jacob Epstein’s 1926 bronze The Visitation Mary is quite terrifying. Just short of life-sized, she seems to be weighed down by the heavy metal of her form. Her eyes bulge out as she leans over her pregnant belly. As a statue, this Mary could be placed and encountered anywhere; she has been freed from her frame.

Jacob Epstein, The Visitation, bronze, 1926

There is hardly any mention of Mary’s appearance in The Testament of Mary and in this sense we go behind the image. In their pressing need to record all of Jesus’s miracles and teachings, the apostles do not much care what Mary is up to, which is about right for the time. So our proximity to Mary in The Testament of Mary becomes precious, as Tóibín gives his Mary a consciousness and a voice not afforded by gilded altarpieces and painted statues.

Twice in the Gospel of Luke we are told of Mary’s reaction to her son’s preaching: she ‘kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19; 2:51). In The Testament of Mary we are in the presence of these thoughts as Mary has much time to be silent and think, or try not to think, as she hides away in Nazareth while Jesus’s arrest takes place. Her voice is plain and because she cannot read her allusions are borrowed from what can be seen in nature and felt in the body; ‘I am like the air on a calm day as it holds itself still’; ‘It came like something in my heart that pumped darkness through me at the same rate it pumped blood.’ Repeated references to the elements carry a feeling of symbolism in translation, as though Tóibín is translating into English from Mary’s own Hebrew, to ensure it is truly her own testament, unlike how her visitors are altering her memories. And just as in Flaubert’s ‘A Simple Heart’ where the most plain can reveal the most pure, so Tóibín’s Mary succeeds in her ability to capture the wonder of pregnancy:

I know that my own happiness in those first months when I was with child felt strange and special, that I lived in a way that was different…Later I learned that this is how we all prepare ourselves to give birth

Tóibín’s delicate craft is shown in how closely Mary’s memory approaches doctrine, or the germ of feeling which inspires doctrine. Mary believes her visitors have finally understood ‘what had happened to me at my son’s conception’ but the happy misunderstanding does not last long as they begin to speak of eternal life:

They caught one another’s eye and for the first time I felt the enormity of their ambition and the innocence of their belief.
‘Who else knows this?’
‘It will be known,’ one of them said.

The novel’s tension originates between what Mary remembers and what her visitors want her to remember. These two irrepressible narratives overlap and turn against one another, Mary’s perspective emerges from the novel’s narration, while her visitors’ narrative weighs on the text from the outside, along with our own inherited knowledge of the story. The line between the two narratives wobbles when Mary recognises that ‘What is hard to understand is that our dreams matter’.

After Jesus’ death, when they are living as vagabonds to escape death, Mary mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene share a dream:

We both dreamed that my son came back to life…He had come back to us, he was rising with the water, its power pushing him up from the earth… she placed him across my lap…It was the whiteness we both noticed, a whiteness that is hard to describe.

Mary recounts this dream near the end of the novel, and its considerable power comes from meeting a story we know told from another witness and within a context we had not considered. Even if we are not religious, there is a bathetic quality to the revelation that it was all just a dream. Upon hearing of it, ‘something changed’ in John who commits it to memory. The dream solves something in his story; it answers a question: how can we overcome the greatest of sorrows; what can take away the deepest pain? ‘And that seemed right for some days and maybe both of us hoped that the future would be coated in dreams too,’ says Mary, while John is diligently ensuring it will.

It is too easy to say that Tóibín’s novel is radical because it gives us a Mary for the modern age, her belief drained out and the faith of her son akin to the religious fundamentalism we recognise today. The testament Mary gives does not take away the possibility of Christ being God; paradoxically, by complicating the story and allowing for doubt the reader no longer feels shackled by the didacticism of the Gospels’ story units and neat symbolism. Doubt, cowardice, regret and nostalgia – Mary should not be in possession of these things, and yet she is, and we like her even more for it:

I want to be able to imagine that what happened to him will not come, it will see us and decide – not now, not them. And we will be left in peace to grow old.
Željka Marošević works in publishing. She writes fiction and poetry.