Visiting Ephesus and Florence will give a new glimpse into why the Virgin Mary is worshiped. Linking the Council of Ephesus declaration labeling her the mother of God that results in a hidden Savior on her lap.
When I saw the churches of Italy and the artwork in the Accademia Gallery, I commented to my wife that there seemed to be a hidden Savior on the lap of Mary. Artistic depiction placed Mary front and center while displaying a dependent, helpless baby Jesus on her lap. Orcagna’s depiction of the day of Pentecost is the ultimate front and center. His rendition made me look again at Acts 1 and 2. At the end of chapter one, yes, Mary is among the crowd of witnesses, but in Acts 2, there is no mention of her presence. The day was not about her but the birth of Christ’s church with the coming of the Holy Spirit. The disciples took center stage, declaring the resurrected, mighty Savior. Orcagna’s portrayal eliminates the need for Jesus because he mistakenly had the disciples bowing to Mary. Why is the Virgin Mary worshiped?
Ephesus’ Influence on Mary
What were the possible sources of the worship of Mary? The Council of Ephesus in AD 431, decreed by the Roman Emperor Theodosius II, debated what to call Mary. A remnant of the former glory of the first church named after Mary still stands in the northern section of ancient Ephesus. The church is called the Church of the Virgin Mary and not the Catholic House of Mary, located north of Selçuk. The remains in ancient Ephesus display the earliest public church building from a very early period (the 3rd to the 6th century).
Only speculation leads one to think that Mary came to Ephesus since the Apostle John cared for her (John 19:26), and later, John came to Ephesus. However, most likely, Mary was older than John, and history knows John came to Ephesus later in life, dying close to 90 years of age. Right after the Ephesus council meeting, Juvenal, the Bishop of Jerusalem in 451, states that Mary died in Jerusalem, maybe to counter any thought that she died in Ephesus.https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14774a.htm This article gives the main points of debate on this subject.
At the Council of Ephesus in 431, the key supporter for honoring Mary with a title more than the Christ-bearer came from Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria. In his homily to those present, he substitutes the holy Godhead as front and center to include the “holy, ever-virgin Mother of God.”https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/media/articles/mary-mother-of-god-theotokos-cyril-of-alexandria/ His intent to honor slips toward worship, as Mary’s humanity takes on traits of deity. Cyril’s respect for Mary came from St. Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 297-373), who mentions that Mary declared God as her Savior while also avoiding declaring her an ever-virgin.https://classicalchristianity.com/2012/04/07/st-athanasius-on-the-mother-of-god/
Why is the Virgin Mary worshiped, seemingly at this council? Cyril may have other doctrinal issues correct, but his emphasis on Mary, learned from his mentor St. Athanasius, seemingly pushed him toward the extreme. His sermon at the Council demonstrates his intent to exalt Mary beyond what church history believed until that point. His motivation encouraged the Council to declare her the mother of God. This viewpoint will lead the church to center faith on Mary and not with the Savior on her lap.
Ephesian History of Exalted Women
“The city had a long tradition of religious worship of female deities. The first of them had been a local Anatolian goddess Kybele who was later merged with the Greek goddess Artemis. The temple erected to the latter – the Artemision of Ephesus – was once considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World.”https://turkisharchaeonews.net/object/church-virgin-mary-ephesus
The Scriptures elude to this difficulty in 2 Timothy 2:11-14 where teaching, authority, Adam, Eve, and childbearing are present in the passage to counter the goddess worship of Artemis. Sandra Glahn’s blog on this issue is a must-read. Ephesus traditionally exalted a goddess they believed was a perpetual virgin and a savior from childbirth. Concerning Mary, could this mean that the audience of the 5th century in Ephesus wanted to state their respect for Mary was greater than what the followers of Artemis believed? Thus, they placed on Mary what the worship of Artemis stressed.
The Council of Ephesus in 431, just 30 years after an Ephesian mob destroyed Artemis’ temple, was known for its political maneuvering between Cyril and Nestorius. The exaltation of Mary as the mother of God filled the social and religious void left by the recently destroyed Artemis’ temple. The Bishop Memnon of Ephesus supported Cyril and this declaration.https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Council_of_Ephesus The context of Ephesus encouraged this exaltation of Mary, who soon became more central than the Lord himself.
Furthermore, the politics in the church threatened any opposing views of those with power. Cyril’s uncle Theophilus killed 10,000 monks to force his way and deposed John of Chrysostom as the archbishop of Constantinople. Patriarch John of Antioch denounced this Cyril-controlled Council, eventually leading to a division by the Assyrian Orthodox church soon after. The result of this Council begs consideration when these historical insights come to light.
Before the Great Schism of 1054, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church shared theology. Also, before this period, the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire took over the Latin-speaking Roman Empire (330 AD). Their diverse languages eventually developed diverse thinking on worship protocol, leading to the Great Schism. However, their mutual admiration for Mary continued on both sides.
Why is the Virgin Mary worshiped – and is this found in Scripture? Here are some things we know about Mary based on her own words found in Scripture:
Luke 1:47-48 – “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
- Her words demonstrate God-centered worship, and she rejoiced in Him for the miracle of her birth.
- God is her Savior. A sinless person does not need a Savior. She knew she was not the Savior but trusted God as her Savior. She needed a Savior as much as anyone else does. The difference is profound; she was the Virgin Mary, not the sinless Mary.
- She saw herself as a servant of God’s miraculous work. She echoes the words of her status mentioned previously in Luke 1:38, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (ESV).
- She was blessed, and many generations will call her blessed. However, to elevate her as the Queen of Heaven goes beyond these words.
Galleries and Churches
The Accademia Gallery is famous for the human exaltation in Michelangelo’s David. Likewise, the place seems to hint at the exaltation of a woman through the many artworks that developed the worship of Mary from the 12th to the 15th century. The Renaissance, called the rebirth of humanism, honored both genders. So why does that period seemingly worshiped the Virgin Mary?
The similarities in Trinity depictions, Mary’s exaltation, and the Birth of Christ mark the use of imitation these artists used. Similar scenes and images display a cult following of Mary, so artists borrowed from each other more than looking at the biblical text. Nevertheless, their intent seems to replicate since imitation was a high form of flattery. Also, observing Latin Catholic and Byzantine art, the exaltation of Mary flourished greatly under Latin-controlled areas. This observation encourages me to study more Church History to determine potential root causes.
The Catholic depictions of Mary highlighted how she overtook the Lord Jesus in art depictions. In addition, the churches and museums visited in Italy demonstrated Mary’s enthronement, coronation, and strategic placement in the center of key events – an emphasis not found in Scripture.
Please note the influence of the affluent Italian families, such as the Medici family, when walking through the many rooms. These influential individuals swayed public artwork projects, especially in churches. Therefore, almost every picture references these wealthy families who initiated their secular or religious perspective.
An essential picture not to miss for anyone interested in intellectual and biblical critique is in the image of Giovanni Antonio Sogliani, presenting the debate of the Church Fathers concerning the Immaculate Conception. This picture hints at some reasons for the Protestant Reformation, which occurred during Sogliani’s lifetime. His artwork places the issues front and center – who will we listen to – Artists, theologians, tradition, or Scripture?
|https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14774a.htm This article gives the main points of debate on this subject.