Mary, seat of wisdom, pray for us.
Near the back of Saint John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville a small Marian chapel houses a 12th-century wood carving of Mother and Child, the “Throne of Wisdom” (see back cover). Mary sits on a chair. On her knees, the Child, a miniature adult rather than a baby, sits with right hand upraised in blessing and left hand clasped around a book. Both figures, regally dressed, wear expressions of profound serenity. One has the impression that in their stillness, everything has been known, everything said, everything accepted.
Mary as the sedes sapientiae, a Latin title translated either as “throne of wisdom” or “seat of wisdom” appears often in medieval iconography at a time when Christian imagery, both poetic and visual, often drew inspiration from court life. Mary as the seat of wisdom is a majestic figure who enthrones the Christ, called by St. Paul “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). She is often clearly seated on a throne herself. Her child is the adult Christ who has triumphed over sin and death by dying on the cross and rising victorious. The statue is a victory hymn in wood.
As a statue, a painting, or a line in the Litany of Loreto, the “seat of wisdom” offers comfort, hope, and strength at times when the defeated forces of sin and death seem to rise up again to threaten present peace. But at such times, I find that I turn not to the image of Mother and Son enthroned in majesty but to a different image of the seat of wisdom: the image of the Mother seated beneath the cross, her dead Son in her lap, commonly known as the Pietà.
Michelangelo’s depiction of the scene, carved in marble and displayed in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, is perhaps the best known and most beloved of many Pietà’s. Here too serenity prevails, but it is the serenity not of triumphant majesty but of human experience known to its darkest depths but accepted with the patient perseverance of love. The Son, tortured and murdered by the worst distortion evil could wreak through human beings, is not merely dead but has “descended into hell,” into the darkest place human beings have gone and learned our worst horrors. He bears the scars still, but he is undefeated and undestroyed. He seems to be sleeping after his ordeal, but we know somehow that from that marble stillness he will return for us, as he promised.
The Pietà assures us we will never be alone and unaided even in our grimmest moments. The Mother has understood, supported, and accompanied her son into the depths, spiritually though not physically. She too wears the peace of one who has refused nothing, not even her son’s death and descent into hell. And she, like us, cannot claim the protection of divinity we sometimes imagine he hid behind, though Philippians 2:5-11 assures us that he did not. He too refused nothing of the human condition, except sin.
In biblical literature, wisdom teaches us how to live fully but faithfully within the boundaries of mortal life. So when the waters of chaos rise around me and the dark waters of self-interest—mine or someone else’s—threaten to pull me down into lightless shadows, it is to the Pietà that I turn and pray, “Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.”
Genevieve Glen, OSB, is a contemplative nun of the Abbey of St. Walburga in northern Colorado. She is a retreat director, writer, hymn text writer, and poet. Her blog, Take With You Words, is at genglen.blogspot.com.