Frail, but Powerful

In his 1898 painting of the Virgin Mary, Henry Ossawa Tanner depicts Mary as a young girl, seated on the rumpled sheets of her bed, looking vulnerable and afraid. She is looking toward a light-filled being in the corner of the room. The radiance of the angel seems to pull her face upward, toward some hope and purpose, as she is being told that she will bear the Christ child in her womb, risking alienation from her fiancé and community.

Mary must have understood the real risks of what was about to happen to her. As a betrothed woman, she could have been stoned to death for adultery. This is part of why Joseph, evidently a gentle man, planned to quietly end the relationship, to protect Mary (Matthew 1:19).

This painting also says something about the progression of the way Mary has been viewed throughout time. This image expresses an important truth about Mary. She is not a simple, one-dimensional character, aloof and separate from our struggles and experiences. She experienced the full complexity of human emotions and struggled for courage. Fear and wonder must have mingled on her face as the angel spoke, which is why she was told, “Be not afraid.”


In the early centuries, Christians often emphasized the ways in which Mary was set apart and holy. In more recent times, however, Mary has been better known for commiserating with the poor and oppressed and the ways she lived with empathy, compassion, and vulnerability.

But there is another side to Mary that is rarely emphasized in modern times. As much as she can be seen as vulnerable and frail, she can also be viewed as a woman of incredible strength and power because of her closeness with God. Her strength was seen as so great that entire armies — from Byzantium, through the Crusades, and up through the time of Imperial Russia — would ask for her protection before heading into battle. Mary was also seen as a protector for those heading out to sea, because she was viewed as able to quell the waves and storms as her son had.

When Christopher Columbus set sail for the Americas he named his ship the Santa Maria, for Mary. By naming ships after Mary, mariners often felt that they were evoking her special blessing upon them as they journeyed. It was widely believed that her prayers could hold back storms and protect those at sea in the midst of them, as her son did in the Scriptures.

The image of Mary as “Star of the Sea” or Stella Maris may be based on an error a scribe made when he was copying the works of Jerome. Although Jerome is often viewed as the first author to use this title, the title he actually used was Stilla Maris, which can be translated as “Drop of the Sea.”

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