Madonna of Humility

One of the things that I have been wondering about for the last couple of months is… why are there so many medieval religious art of the Madonna of Humility?

After all, a lot of what I do is looking through fine art museum collections and picking out the religious arts. So I couldn’t help but notice that there was a trend. Some paintings were entitled Madonna and Child, with a picture of the sitting Virgin Mary with her child, Jesus on her lap, his hand usually extended in some sort of gesture of blessing.

But then there would be a picture of the Virgin Mary with Jesus on her lap. And, instead of being called Madonna and Child, it would be called the Madonna of Humility.

For instance! Take a look at this artwork!

The Madonna of Humility, by Fra Angelico, c. 1430. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., United States. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
The Madonna of Humility, by Fra Angelico, c. 1430. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., United States.

It’s a lovely artwork of Mary holding Jesus in her lap. Her arms are crossed across her chest and she looks at Jesus in adoration while He reaches up to her. Visible in the halo surrounding her head are the words, “AVE MARIA GRATIA PLENA DO[MINVS TECVM].” Or, in English, “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.”

Sure she is holding her hands in a way to signify that she is not worthy. But she does so in a variety of pictures that are entitled “Madonna and Child.” So of course, I had to wonder: why? What made this sort of artwork known as the Madonna of Humility, whereas another artwork that would look almost entirely identical would be named Madonna and Child. So I looked it up and found out.

The reason?

She’s sitting on the ground.

Sure, in this picture she is sitting on a bunch of cushy pillows. But still. She is sitting on the ground. Sitting on the ground is a humble position. When you sit on the ground, as opposed to sitting on a chair, you are deliberately taking a lesser position.

This is particularly true in the medieval tradition. In the medieval times, when the Western and Eastern sacred art traditions were still very similar, the Virgin Mary was typically depicted as seated on a throne. Even now if you looked up Eastern iconography, you would usually see her enthroned, even in moments where she is not holding Jesus, such as depictions of the Annunciation.

She is the Queen Mother of the King of Kings! To see her not in her place of honor as the Queen Mother of the King of Kings is to show her in a humble position. And so thus, when she sits on the floor in this sort of way, she is the Madonna of Humility.

Now, in our culture, humility is not necessarily seen as a fine and worthwhile trait. Just look at social media, for starters! It can often seem like a popularity contest in which you try to show off and try to get other people to like you. And! If you aren’t liked enough, then somehow you don’t feel like you’re doing something right. Or, if you are liked and do something dumb or are accused of something dumb, then there’s a chance that you may be called out… and then steamrolled by a sort of internet mob.

Basically: there is no way to win.

So, when I, an older millennial who has basically grown up with social media impacting my life, stumbled on the Litany of Humility, it felt like a breath of fresh air. It was like there was a huge reminder that Jesus was Lord and that, in the end, all that mattered was that I walk in holiness toward Jesus.

What is the Litany of Humility? It’s a beautiful prayer asking Jesus to make us humble. And it does so by asking Jesus to make us humble by helping us remove the desires of being praised and the fears of being rebuked. And it asks Jesus to help us look at those around us — who seem to be doing better than us — and asks that we desire it, so as long as we have Jesus.

And so, here is the Litany of Humility:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved…
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled …
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored …
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised …
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others…
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted …
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved …
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated …
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised…
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes …
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated …
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten …
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed …
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged …
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected …
Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I …
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease …
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside …
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed …
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything…
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

For those of you who read this prayer and thought, “Why would someone ask for that?” I completely understand. It does seem a bit odd why one would choose humility over power. It goes completely against what the world teaches us!

And yet, Christ asks for us to yearn for humility, not so that we could live in the misery but rather that we should live in Heaven with Him. Remember this parable?

NABRE

Luke 14

7 He told a parable to those who had been invited, noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, 9and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place. 10Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’ Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table. 11For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

And it was Christ Himself who was humbled by the Cross!

So, may we learn to love and serve the Lord, and may we learn to rely on Him and not our own egos through our difficulties. For it is in Him that we may find our strength.

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of three, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer

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