Written by Elizabeth Jane Hedges
Graphic by Ana Isaacs
The Testament of Mary: The Human Behind the Saint was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
Whether the Christian Gospels are read as a historical record or imaginative literature, they offer a portrait of divine beings that have left a lasting impact on society. Throughout history, figures in the Gospels have developed their myth, their constant shapeshifting ultimately leading to the deconstruction of their reality. Irish author Colm Tóibín, for instance, challenges the traditional perception of Virgin Mary, the Blessed Mother of God, in The Testament of Mary. Tóibín’s 2012 novella tells Mary’s first-person account of the disciples’ desire to collect stories for the Gospels, as well as Christ’s most famous acts: the raising of Lazarus, the transformation of water into wine, and his crucifixion. Tóibín, however, shows Mary more humanely, and in doing this, subverts the representation of her usual divine image.
Tóibin’s curiosity was initially sparked upon seeing Tintoretto’s 1565 painting of the crucifixion during his travels through Europe. Tintoretto’s scene is chaotic in its retelling of the different stories and events that surround Christ’s death at the cross, and as a result, Tóibín began to wonder how different these accounts of the crucifixion were in comparison to the account in the Gospels. Eventually, he became infatuated with unorthodox depictions of Mary. This led him to write The Testament of Mary,which sought to deconstruct readers’ understanding of the Gospels. This intent walks a fine line between respecting and disrespecting Mary, as well as the broader religion.
During the Renaissance period, Mary was the most depicted woman in Western art. Tóibín specifically notes Titian’s painting “The Assumption of the Virgin”as the most powerful image of Mary because she is portrayed as the link between Earth and Heaven. The painting alludes to the idea that Mary was at the foot of Christ’s crucifixion until his last breath, and praises her ability to watch her son die at the cross. Titian’s work goes beyond Mary as the mother of God, but a divine figure who is equally as powerful as Christ himself.
However, at the climax of Christ’s crucifixion in the Testament of Mary, Mary is not the hero the world knows her to be. Tóibín depicts Mary, not crying at the foot of Christ’s cross, but quiet and disguised among a sea of angry Romans. Mary recalls that she watched and “stood back as he howled out words” during his death, and proclaims that “maybe I should have moved towards him then, no matter what the consequences would have been. It would not have mattered …”. This apprehensive image of Mary contradicts the romanticised idea that she was by Christ’s side until his last second.
Instead, Tóibín seeks to humanise Mary, particularly through her reliance on the Greek Goddess Artemis. As a prominent female religious figure in the centuries before Mary’s lifetime, Artemis was the goddess of wild animals, the hunt, vegetation, and chastity, as well as childbirth, and Mary devotes herself to Artemis in the novella. At one point, Mary buys a “small statue of the goddess” as a physical reminder of a higher religion that is not Christ. When Mary is about to die at the end of the novella, she whispers to Artemis and reflects, “knowing that words matter … I say them to the shadows of the gods of this place who linger in the air to watch me and hear me.” Mary finds comfort in having devoted herself to Artemis, particularly as a mother who has lost her son.
There is danger behind Tóibín’s intent to deconstruct Mary’s divine image. From Titian’sto Tintoretto’s painting of the crucifixion, these works of art and literature have been constructed by a male perspective, and isolate Mary’s feminine voice. In other words, it is difficult to capture the complexities and multi-faceted image of Mary as a male. Despite this, Tóibín is successful in going beyond the cliché of Mary as a divine figure in an attempt to humanise her. Thus, there is a subversion in The Testament which is dangerous, as Tóibín challenges the conventional depiction of Mary.
Nevertheless, there is pleasure behind Tóibín’s use of Artemis – it disrupts the established image of Mary as a divine figure. To a certain extent, Tóibín empowers Mary’s maternal role by reiterating that she is a human with complex emotions, questions, and doubt through the depiction of Artemis as a spiritual guide. Furthermore, Christ is understood as fully human and fully divine, but Mary’s status is ambiguous: she is fully human, but is simultaneously depicted as something of a distant deity. There is subversive pleasure in Tóibín’s work, as it asks readers to consider the human side of Mary and the emotions she felt when she watched her son die on the cross.
Tóibín’s novella has had plenty of positive reception and success, as demonstrated by its development into a stage production. However, I believe The Testament of Mary is underrated feminist commentary, as it is scandalous for challenging the image of a holy female icon. Tóibín plays a dangerous game: he walks between disrespecting and respecting religion by reminding readers that Christian holy saints were once humans. Yet, this is the value behind his game – Tóibín’s novella asks readers to reflect Mary’s humanity rather than her divinity. Mary’s stoicism in suffering is the narrative that has been told to women throughout the centuries. Tóibín does not subvert this image of grief, but rather enriches it, as he is concerned with portraying Mary as realistically as he possibly can. By doing this, Tóibín normalises emotions like anger and grief – human nature that is inevitably a part of our own lives. It is this exemplification of humanity in The Testament of Mary that can ultimately help our own journeys in life.