Testament of Mary: fierce heroine


Irish writer Colm Toibin writes of a very different Mary, mother of Jesus, than most pious versions of the meek and mild virgin. From NPR interview

The Virgin Mary is one of the most familiar icons of Christianity. For centuries, artists have depicted her on everything from backyard statues of a rosy-cheeked innocent to paintings of magnificent Madonnas hanging in museums all over the world. But few writers have taken up her story or tried to create their own version of the events of her life.

Now, Irish writer Colm Toibin does just that. His novella, The Testament of Mary, raises questions about the life of Jesus’ mother and the stories that laid the groundwork for the creation of a church.

Toibin grew up in Catholic Ireland at a time when devotion to the Virgin Mary was widespread. But he found inspiration for his fictional account of Mary’s life in Italy, not Ireland. While on a trip to Venice, Toibin happened upon two very different works of art: Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, which depicts a red-robed Mary being taken up into heaven surrounded by angels, and Tintoretto’s The Crucifixion. “I was absolutely struck by the difference between the two images,” Toibin says, “one pure, the way they wanted her to be, arising into heaven; and the other impure, chaotic, cruel, strange, unforgettable.”

The Testament of Mary explores the space between those two images. It takes place many years after the Crucifixion when Mary is living in Ephesus, watched over by two of her son’s followers. From the first moment she saw Jesus preaching to his disciples, and heard a false note in his voice, she has had nothing but contempt for his devotees. “She calls them misfits, only children, stammerers, men who could not look women in eye,” Toibin says. “And they sort of appalled her because the language that they were using did not seem to her to be right.”

This Mary is neither pious nor pliant. Instead, she is filled with anger. Toibin says he based her voice in part on Medea, Electra and Antigone, the fierce heroines of Greek tragedies. Through her eyes we see anew familiar stories of the New Testament, including the wedding feast at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus. Toibin says he used the Gospels as a resource until the beginning of the Crucifixion, when Mary first sees the crown of thorns.

Listen to the interview here.

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