Mary as Intercessor
Some of the most ancient images of the Virgin Mary come from the catacombs in Rome (catacombs are underground burial places found in many parts of the world) where Christians would hold their services during times of persecution. Most of the images from the catacombs do not directly show Christian themes because the Christians needed to keep their identities hidden.
One of the images of Mary recovered from the catacombs dates back to the fourth century. She is shown with her arms raised in the “orans” position. The image of raised arms symbolized prayer, and there were many depictions in the catacombs of figures in the orans position from the period during the persecution of Christians in the first few centuries after Christ. But in this fourth-century fresco image, a child is shown in the woman's belly. In contrast with the less defined images of earlier times, this would have been a more explicit reference to the Virgin Mary bearing Christ in her womb. This image demonstrates the classical relationship between the Virgin Mary and the Church.
Mary's arms are raised in prayer as a demonstration of her ministry of ongoing intercession, as she is praying for the good of the faithful. In this position, Mary demonstrates not only who she is, but what all Christians are called to become — intercessors for the sake of the world.
Another, more contemporary Western image of Mary that demonstrates her role as intercessor was first manifest through an apparition experienced by Catherine Laboure in France in 1830. This image was later engraved on the Miraculous Medal, which has been distributed all over the world (you'll learn more about the Miraculous Medal in Chapter 14). In this apparition, the Virgin Mary lifted up a golden globe topped by a cross, as if she was praying for mercy for the world. Then, the globe disappeared and she spread out her arms. Her fingers shone with luminous rings from which streaks of light poured down about the earth, illustrating the blessings that she pours upon those who seek them.
There are so many images of Mary as intercessor that it is impossible to detail them all here. But it is helpful to understand that all images of Mary are connected. Her role as intercessor is also connected to her role as Mother of the Church, demonstrating to all what it means to live a life of prayer, love, and action.