Like figures on a tapestry, images of inspirational and inspired women named “Mary” are woven in the fabric of the European psyche, and figure prominently in the literature, visual art, and music of that (and our) civilization. These personae, in large part because of their femininity, are charged with emotion of a particular kind. Our program, presenting only a small selection of these wonderful and powerful “Maria” works from the Middle Ages and beyond, nonetheless attempts to suggest the impact of these female icons, drawing of course on Church liturgy but also on songs and texts from the secular and popular imagination. And as the title of our program suggests, we have favored the up-close and (first) personal view whenever possible and appropriate.
A principle means of transmission concerning the figures of Mary the Mother and Mary Magdalene was the Church, its doctrine, its liturgy, its art and music. One aspect of medieval church practice of particular interest and value to us are the sacred plays conceived for and performed at key points of the liturgical year. Most especially around Easter season, Passion plays, showing the extreme 'physical and human reality of the sufferings of Christ', were a moment shared by all, clerics, lays and all believers to enter more deeply into the teachings of the Church, and to render it accessible and emotionally palpable. The Virgin Mary quickly became a central figure of these medieval plays, even though, of the four evangelists, only John mentions her presence at the Golgotha scene, accompanied by two other Marys. Her motherly tenderness, despair, and pain makes this drama of a rejected, despised, crucified and abandoned man/son/father more tangibly human to an audience. The numerous monologues by Mary at the foot of the cross, bequeath to us from various places in medieval Europe, attest efficacy of this approach. Most of these plays were composed in Latin, but many include vernacular (here French and German), or occasionally a melange of Latin and vernacular. This recourse to daily language also attests to the 'realistic expression' that these plays carry. In the Origny play, the Marys complain in French that they have lost their comfort, - 'he was handsome and full of love'. In such simple words we recognize the universality of human pain.
Musically, this approach to real-life emotion is also embodied in the overlap of different genres and styles, sometimes within the same piece. Ja por yver , by Gauthier de Coincy, is an example of such a conflation of several worlds. Its strophes are composed in an aristocratic trouvère style, while the refrains are simple sung dance pieces ( caroles ), recycled from a more popular background. This kind of tension between “high” and “low” genres is very clearly present during the Advent/Christmas period and around the story of the Annunciation, most particularly in the dialogues between the Angel and Mary. Think of her question in the Gospel -- a very human response indeed -- 'How can this be?' Within the later, song repertoire, Mainte chanson uses the same melody as a dance-like piece ( Au renouvel du temps que la violette ); Maria unser frau is a narrative of the annunciation in German, mixing some refrains in Latin.
But perhaps the clearest overlap of genres and worlds coalesces around the figure of Mary Magdalene. The Magdalene of medieval culture is a conflate of three Marys named in the gospel of the New Testament: Mary of Magdala, cured of the demons, present at the foot of the cross and to whom the resuscitated Christ is revealed in the garden – Marie of Bethany, who through her tears buys the resurrection of Lazarus – and the unnamed sinner who throws herself at the feet of Jesus, wipes his feet with perfume and her hair. For the medieval believer, she is one Mary, and she incarnates penitence. Gregory the Great in 600 speaks of her: 'she burned human flesh in the fire of divine love.' In France, eleventh century Vézelay founded the renown of its Abbey around her cult. Her medieval legend depicts her, after the Resurrection of Jesus, as a traveler by sea, from the Holy Land to Marseilles, and finally, alone, to a grotto in the Sainte Baume of Provence -- where she is still revered, to this day. The popular image of Magadelen and her place in medieval music and literature oscillates between that of the courtesan/whore ('Young man, let me please you' in the Carmina Burana Passion Play), a woman who chooses the pleasures of life, openly; and that of a repentant sinner. In each of these aspect of her being, she is a passionate woman. Her quest for the ultimate matchless in love ('my heart burn for my Lord' in the Origny Passion Play) is extremely powerful. Her words are reminiscent of the Song of Songs, or of fin' amor , the secular lovesong of the middle ages. Mary Magdalene contains within her persona at once the elements of sensuality and renunciation, earthly love and divine transcendence. Her conversion, through tears ( Qui dabit ) and solitude, is meant to guide believers. That is why she is frequently depicted, not only at the foot of the cross along with Mary the Mother, but also as a hermit in the Provençal desert. Within her legend, that of an imperfect being who nonetheless draws close to God ('A repentant sinner, beloved of God.'), we find a profound echo of the deepest human yearnings.
Anne Azéma, 2010
Translation: Joel Cohen