The Drama of Corpus Christi

Just as was seen in the liturgical poetry of St. Romanos the Melodist, the tradition of expressing the teaching on the Eucharist (the true presence of Christ in the bread and wine at communion) through the arts continued into the medieval period of the Church. What may be more familiar are the hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, Pange Lingua and Lauda Sion. The development of scriptural imagery to connect the life of Christ with the rest of salvation history was particularly connected to the special reverence given to the Eucharist in medieval age. “Given the growing centrality of the mass as a focus for lay participation…a feast celebrating this very ritual would generate some interest for its didactic potential” (Rubin, 172). This happened in response to the reformation, but also as the feast of Corpus Christi was established universally in the early 14th century. In this same time period, there was also a tradition of the use of drama and play that developed along side these the liturgical hymns to teach lay and religious alike, both the learned and unlearned, about the centrality of the Eucharist within the Christian faith.

In this blog, I will discuss the role of drama and play in the feast of Corpus Christi based on the works of the York Mystery plays. The role of drama and play with this feast extends beyond the annual liturgical feast of Corpus Christi and plays a large role in making the Eucharist apart of the the everyday life of a Christian. To begin this discussion, the content of these plays must be understood.

The York Mystery plays were developed in the vernacular, rather than Latin drama, and did not have a direct relation to the religious works of the time, but still had the same purpose to teach the local community. V. A. Kolve writes in The Play Called Corpus Christi, “in the middle ages, sacraments existed which could bring man to heaven—that was confidently believed—but their efficacy for any man depended in part upon his understanding something of their meaning…their authorization by Christ, their necessity and their future consequence” (Kolve, 3).

These dramas were also described as “a fresh beginning, unrooted in any formal tradition of theater” (Kolve, 8). Different from Roman of Greek drama, the persons who mimed were also the persons who spoke the script of the plays.

These dramas were also described as “play” or “game,” contrasting also to the Latin drama of the Church, which would have been much more formal, even so much as “an extreme liturgical decorum to grant it safety” (Kolve, 10). The significance of the York Mystery Plays being defined this way was its purpose to stand outside ordinary life but, still, “absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be fined by it” (Kolve, 19). In “The Crucifixion” part of the York Mystery Plays, the setting is that of four soldiers attempting to nail Jesus to the cross. There are having trouble nailing him to the cross and there is a little bit mockery that intends to humor the audience. This participation of the audience in a way, tricks the audience into getting wrapped up in the humor of the play. This truly puts the viewers in the place of the soldiers, along the rest of humanity who have mocked Jesus and participated in persecuting him.

The York Mystery Plays were also in cycle form. The presence of Christ is never gone in and throughout history. There are a number of cycle, or shorter acts that depict the various stories throughout salvation history. Although the Corpus Christi play developed out of the feast, the cyclic aspect of it drew it out of its feast to also be performed year-round. The York Plays were built on wagons, need to be mobile and quick transition.

The theology of the Eucharist was particularly present in the Corpus Christi plays that developed because of their purpose of being placed quite frankly, forced into the face of the public. The Corpus Christi plays were written in the vernacular so that they could be easily understood and contemplated. The drama of the Eucharistic playing out in the public square parallels the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. (Scripture on the Last Supper) “We profess this Bread from heaven to the Twelve by Christ  was given, for our faith rest firm in Him. Also the actors were from the community, so the viewers could identify with the people.

Advertisements

Romanos the Melodist: Leading Us to Deeper Contemplation of the Paschal Mystery

Saint Romanos the Melodist was a Greek hymnographer from the 6th century who used incredible imagery in his liturgical poetry. Specifically, he wrote kontakia that were used in association with specific liturgical feasts. In this blog post, I will share how six images from both “On the Victory of the Cross” and “On the Resurrection” function in order to lead one into a deeper contemplation of Christ’s death and resurrection.

The imagery in Romanos liturgical poetry recalls specific events in scripture that connect the reader or listener to the paschal mystery. This connection allows the participant in liturgy to connect to the historical events surrounding the end of Christ’s earthly life, but also the analogous relationship between the events in his life and the events in the lives of the Jewish people, the people of the Old Covenant. This also makes Christ’s life come alive in the present life of every Christian.

The first kontakia, “On the Victory of the Cross” is the dialogue between Hell and Satan. “The Crucifixion is a cosmic event, prefigured in the Old Covenant, which affects the whole of creation” (154). In this kontakion, Romanos compares the Cross to the Tree of Life. The first image with this is when Hell describes the Crucifixion as though “a wooden lance has suddenly pierced me and I am [he is] being torn apart” (155). This contrasts to what is written in the book of Genesis, “the sword of flame no longer guards the gate of Eden” (155). From this dialogue, the reader can see the pains of the crucifixion extend not only to the viewers of the time, but all of humanity AND Satan and Hell. The Cross is a type for the Tree of Life. The very tree where Adam and Eve committed their first sin against God was also the very thing that set them free, along with the rest of humanity, from sin. When Romanos’ Hell is arguing with the Satan, he notes, “behold that Tree, which you have call dry and barren, bears fruit; a thief tasted it and has become heir to the good things of Eden” (157). This theme is repeated through the kontakia as Romanos ends each stanza bringing humanity “again to Paradise.”

The second image I’d like to mention is the water and blood coming out of the side of Christ. Again, Romanos’ Hell is attempting to convince Satan when he says, “I saw the Tree at which you shuddered, crimsoned with blood and water. And I shuddered, not, I tell you at the blood, but at the water” (160). Hell goes on to say, “for the former shows the slaughter of Jesus, but the latter, his life, because life has gushed from his side.” The renewal of life is possible through death. One can recall the baptismal imagery that is here. When someone would have heard this kontakion, it would have been on or near Easter Vigil, where they would have seen the new Christians be initiated into the Church.

The second kontakia, “On the Resurrection” recounts the women coming to the tomb of Jesus; the dialogue is mainly that of Mary Magdalene. This is the third image to note in this blog, the women bringing the spices to the tomb. Romanos’ Mary Magdalene says to the other women, “Friends come let us anoint with spices the life-bearing yet buried body, the flesh which raises fallen Adam and now lies in the grave. Come, let us hurry like the magi…” (167). The women went to present myrrh at both the tomb of Christ as it was presented to him at Epiphany. The connection to Epiphany allows one to contemplate the resurrection on a deeper level as a rebirth as they are imagining Christ, again as a child, innocent and pure.

The fourth image is Peter as the shepherd and John as the lamb. Romano writes, “yet when he arrived he did not go inside the sepulcher, but waited for the leader, that as the lamb he might follow the shepherd. And this was indeed fitting, for to Peter it was said, ‘do you love me?’ and ‘Shepherd my lambs as you will’” (169). Already, one can see the institution of Church leadership taking place at Christ’s resurrection.

The fifth image is that of Mary Magdalene hearing the Lord’s voice: “knowing that Mary recognizes his voice, calls like a shepherd to the blessing lamb, saying, ‘Mary’. While she, recognizing him at once, said, ‘Truly my good shepherd’ is calling me that he may number me from now with the ninety-nine lambs…for I know well who calls me; for his is my Teacher and his is my Lord, who grants resurrection to the fallen” (172). This dialogue can allow one to ponder Samuel, in the Old Testament, who hears the voice of the Lord in the middle of the night, but mistook the Lord’s voice for that of Eli, “since the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Sam 3:7).

The sixth and final image is Mary Magdalene desiring to embrace Christ: “The maiden was seized with ardent longing and with the fire of love, and wished to grasp the One who fills all creation but is himself uncircumscribed.” One can imagine this to be very difficult, considering that what makes up humanity: both the physical and the spiritual…why would one not want to embrace the Lord of lords? The reason Jesus gives her is because of his divinity, not so much because of her mortality. Romanos’ Jesus character says, “Do not touch me. Or do you think that I am mere mortal? I am God; do not touch me” (172). This is very different from when Jesus allows St. Thomas to touch his side. Mary desires to embrace Christ because he is God, whereas Jesus calls to Thomas to “bring [his] hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe” (Jn 20:27).

In Romanos’ kontakia, there are many elements that lead one into imaginative prayer, very similar to what is also considered meditative prayer in Lectio Divina. When one practices meditative prayer, they are challenged to place themselves in the story as one of the characters. (For whatever time these kontakias would have been used in Lent/Easter) it can be seen that this poetry lends itself to this type of prayer. We hear the voice of Mary, we see the response of Peter as John runs to the tomb but waits.

Baptism as Cleansing, Rebirth and Recreation

This would be the narrative for a presentation of the post-baptismal mystagogy for those that recently entered into the church.

Now that you are baptized, an adopted child of God, there are many ways to live out the call to being Christian. The grace that was given to us by the Holy Spirit in baptism is a something we can be grateful for, to be the recipients of God’s mercy…but it doesn’t stop there!  The very words of the simple formula to baptism were taken from the gospel of Matthew when Jesus also commissioned his friends to make disciples of all nations and to “baptize in the name of the Father, in the Son and the Holy Spirit.” It is crucial to hold these two commands together. The desire for all people to be baptized is at the heart of why each one of you chose to be incorporated into the Christian community, to those those of us who are among the shepherd’s flock! It is the message of victory over death!

Cleansing

There are a number of motifs that can be drawn from the rite of baptism and I will attempt to cover a few here in this blog. The basic fact we know of baptism is its cleansing from sin. Robin Jensen covers this in her book Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity. The image Jensen alludes to is when Jesus cures the blind man. “Jesus’s use of spit to heal the man’s eyes… [is] symbolically incorporated into a Western rite known as the ephphetha, in which the bishop touches the nostrils and ears of the candidate, commanding them to ‘be opened.’ This ritual action offers a liturgical link between biblical story and visual image, underscoring the idea that baptism offered both bodily and spiritual healing” (28). This scene is depicted in the sarcophagus below that shows a number of stories from scripture.

Rebirth

The second motif to recognize from the rite of baptism is rebirth. This goes along with the washing of our sins, we die to our old selves and are reborn in a new life in Christ. “The close juxtaposition of Jesus’ identity as sacrificial lamb and as the bringer of the Spirit baptism implies that Spirit baptism transmits the benefits of Christ’s redemptive death” (139). The paschal mystery runs through the theology behind baptism; this is  much of the reason why neophytes were initiated on Easter Vigil. Jensen quotes St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “For if we have been united to him in a death like his, we will certainly be united to him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (6:5-6).

The theme of rebirth runs through both the Old Testament and New Testament. Particularly, the story of Lazarus is used frequently on early Christian sarcophagi, as can be seen in the following:

The story of Jonah is also a commonly used in baptismal imagery, as seen in the following sarcophagus:

Among the scenes, this sarcophagus illustrates Jonah on the belly of the whale.   Jensen points out his nudity here explaining, “like Adam’s nudity before his fall, Jonah’s nudity suggests, specifically an innocence resorted through the sacrament of baptism” (155). Jesus is also frequently represented as a child or smaller person, in comparison to John the Baptist, as you can see below. Jensen notes, “The nudity and diminutive size of certain figures signifies their resuscitation, thereby making them figures of baptismal renewal.”

Recreation

There is much comparison made between baptism and the return to original creation in the catechesis lectures given to those newly entering the early Church. Jensen’s points out from Cyril of Jerusalem’s first lecture, “Then may the gate of paradise be opened to every man and every woman of you; then may you enjoy the fragrant Christ-bearing water. Then may you receive Christ’s name” (178). There is a reference to paradise, also alluding the the original paradise, the garden of Eden, in the Genesis account of creation. The paradise that was lost due to Adam and Eve’s sin is restored in baptism. Jensen points out, “the candidate, dipped in the font and sealed with the Holy Spirit, is a re-creation of the first human being, once again a recipient of the divine breathing” (179). This can be seen in the top left section of the following sarcophagus:

“The features of Adam and Eve are not meant to remind viewers only of their fallen state. Their appearance also alludes to both the remed for that state (baptism) and that remedy’s further promise (resurrection)” (183).

Interweaving the Past, Present and Future in Liturgical Music

It is so easy to listen to music, while doing homework, riding in the car or running. So often spending time listening to music is simultaneously spent completing other tasks. Jeremy Begbie in the Theology, Time and Music challenges us to consider enjoying music not simply for pleasure but to also consider the experience of time, interweaving the past, preset and future. This temporality in music allows the worshipper to enter more fully into a liturgical experience, therefore entering more deeply into the union of the human and the divine.

In this post, I will be considering five pieces of liturgical music, chosen (very carefully by my professor) from across the history of the Church into the present. Although the liturgy of the Eucharist is the pinnacle of this participation in the “interwoven past, present and future,” music plays a crucial part in liturgy aiding our participation in the Mass altogether. For the Christmas nature of the songs that were chosen for this post, the nativity of our Lord foreshadows the presence of Christ as the Eucharist and also anticipates the future eschaton. Listening to the repetition in these five pieces reflects what Begbie points out as “a musical construal of the temporal character of the eucharistic repetition can take more adequate account of Jewish and Christian ‘rememberance’ (anamesis) and the Eucharist’s future anticipation than many eucharistic theologies” (171).

Tomas Luis de Victoria, O Magnum Mysterium (1572)

With this piece, I think there is the obvious that the language used in the music takes the listener to another place… Latin is a language not commonly used in modernity. It also sounds like the different voices almost respond to one another. The words in each verse are repeated within the piece a few times. There is a change in rhythm when the choir begins to sing “Alleluia,” but then it goes back in unity, a resolution (with the original equilibrium) with the former melody. The past is represented by the beginning of the song and the present by the first burst of praise as“Alleluia!” Then both the past and present are brought into the future with the union of the previous melody into the final exclamation of the Alleluia.

James MacMillan, In splendoribus (Communion Motet, Christmas Eve)

The contrast between the voices and the trumpet are striking. There is not a lot of variation in the tones used by the voices, but there is for the trumpets. The voices move in progression from tone to tone (whole and half steps). This contrast evokes a sense of the past and the future together.

John Tavener, Today the Virgin

The repetition in John Tavener’s “Today the Virgin” is very apparent. Considering this song would be sung on Christmas Eve, the song brings to the present the very sincere joy felt by Joseph and Mary on the night of the nativity. Begbie asserted Tavener’s theology behind his music saying, “there is a sustained attempt to still the perception of temporal motion” (131). The repetition in the music allows the listener to remain in the moment of gazing at the newborn Son, along with Mary and Joseph.

Gustav Holst, In the Bleak Midwinter (text by Christina Rossetti)

The type of repetition present in this piece exemplifies Begbie’s comments, “repetition in music is not a one-level succession of ever-receding events on a straight time-line but occurs only in a composite of metrical waves in relation to which musical events cannot be conceived as falling back into vacuity” (171). There are repeated bars in the beginning of the song and the voices are in unison. However, there is an abrupt volume change when the choir sings, “Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain…” The melody remains the same throughout, but there is a complex form to the parts that are sung in this piece representing the interwoven past, present and future.

Sufjan Stevens, ‘Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming”

This piece may seem simple compared to the other pieces mentioned in this post, but this cover a traditional Christmas hymn follows the typical style Sufjan Stevens’ music. There is unison in this piece with the guitar and voice singing the same melody. But just as Begbie would argue about Tavener’s music, the simplicity of the tonal structure of the piece does not necessarily mean a lack of depth to the musical piece itself. “Created time, we are affirming, has in some sense been enfolded, judged, broken, and re-fashioned in Jesus Christ, and our final destiny is nothing other than to participate fully in this redeemed temporality” (147). The first two verses of the song recount the foreshadowing of Christ’s birth in the Old Testament, using the imagery of a rose, symbolizing the Messiah. The third verse describes the night of Nativity of the Lord. This song very explicitly affirms, the “goodness of time is grounded ultimately in the coming of the eternal Son in Jesus Christ” (147).

Mozart’s Motet for Ave verum corpus

I was first introduced to Ave verum corpus by Mozart in college when my choir director decided to make it a part of the choir’s performance set. It has become one of my favorite pieces to sing but also a hymn I hold close to my heart, as the Feast of Corpus Christi always falls really close to my birthday and is a way in which I attempt to give honor back to the Lord. In this post, I would like to consider the theological themes that run throughout the song. Let’s first take a look at the lyrics to Mozart’s masterpiece.

Ave verum corpus lyrics

When you read these lyrics, you can see the importance the voice parts play in the performance of Ave Verum Corpus. It describes so beautifully the Paschal Mystery. The instrumental part of the song is lovely, but there is also something to be said about the participation of people, both men and women, in performing this piece due to the very nature of the lyrics. When you hear the song, the break down above does not seem so even. Different sections of the song are stressed in different ways. Begbie supports this when he says, “musical time is thus not essentially about a line split into equal parts but about waves of tension and resolution” (44).

Overall this song follows very well the concept Jeremy S. Begbie discusses in Theology, Music and Time, “equilibrium—tension—resolution.” There are waves of rhythm within the song that gradually bring the song to the final resolution, which we will look at by breaking down each of the four sections. These four sections were indicated, above, by color.

Ave verum corpus, natum
de Maria Virgine,

Before words are even sung, there are two measures of silence while the prelude is played. Throughout the whole piece, there are significant moments of silence for the voice parts. Begbie refers to St. Augustine, stating, “‘the alternation of sound and silence of coming into being and non-being which must characterize a universe created out of nothing’” (96). This can reflect the creation of mankind out of nothing, not as a precursor to the begotten Son but a statement of our own mortality. This sets up the necessity for Christ to come into the world as described in the first section.

For the first part, “Ave verum corpus, natum de Maria Virgine,” the notes of the four voices are for the most part in united in rhythm. This seems to signify the unison praise of all mankind to honor the that the Son of God would take human form among us.

vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine

In the second section, there is a sense of tension present. There is a stress on the beginning, “vere” which means truly, emphasizing the importance that what Christ endured was humiliating, suffering in its fullest. When we consider the life of Christ, we have to remember the fullness of both his divinity and humanity. What is being focused on in this part of the song is the importance of his human experience of pain. He would have truly felt pain as the most perfect human could. The climatic moment of this section in “cruce,” the cross. The soprano voices begin singing “cru-” and then the other three voices join in almost as if the word “cruce” is figuratively held up as Christ was held up on the Cross on Good Friday.

Right after this, there three measures of silence. I would consider the silence as a part of the second section and not the third to symbolize the waiting of Jesus’ mother Mary and his most beloved disciple.

cuius latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine:

The third section sounds like a lamentation. The last full measure of this section ends on the same notes from the end of the first section, signifying the resolution of the “water and blood” (John 19:34) flowing from the side of Christ as was to confirm scripture, “‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’” (John 19:36-37).

“Cruce” and “mortis” have a very similar drawing out over a long sequence of notes in each section. For the melody part, they both also are the highest notes in the piece altogether. The parallel between these two highlight the victory the Cross has over each person’s own death.

esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.

The fourth section starts out very soft opening, as the words “esta nobis praegustatum” petition to God “may it be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet].” At the end of the piece, the music reaches the second and final line, “in mortis examine”; all voices end on the same note of the key (D major) which completes the final resolution of the song.

Responding to the Military Chapel

The church that means the most to me and is also the church I would like to discuss in this post is the archetype of the military chapel. The Archdiocese for the Military Services actually only was one true parish church and the rest are identified as Catholic communities within in a military chapel. There is a special attention required in considering the military chapel because it truly challenges the worshipper, both as an individual and as a community, to “learn how to perceive the world around them, and in the case of a church the lesson is learned gradually, through experience of liturgy and by life within community, and by absorbing principles of interpretation learned from others” (p. 9)

Although I have not chosen a specific church and it is a church that may not be recognized to most people as “beautiful,” it is still valuable to look at the four categories of spatial dynamics, centering focus, aesthetic impact and symbolic resonance to help one “respond to this church” as discussed by Richard Kieckhefer in Theology in Stone.

How does the space function? The space in a military chapel, for the most part, is utilitarian. When an individual walks into a chapel, it maybe seem pretty bare. Because the chapel is used by many faiths, not just Christian denominations, it normally does not have scenes from the holy Bible in the stained glass design. Generally, you are going to see the military chapel with a medium-size nave (proportional to the size of the building itself). The inside of the chapel will have taller ceilings than most ordinary office buildings on a military base. The beauty of the way the space functions I would challenge is also held in the full use of the military chapel. By full use, I would include the other services that are held in the same space where the Catholics celebrate Mass. I got pretty used to seeing my Protestant friends getting ready in the connecting chapel annex for their own worship services. Yes, there were some instances of contention: one group maybe forgetting to clean up the annex kitchen after their fellowship…arguments over who and when will the additional rooms be used for religious education. But for whatever reason, the worship time was generally respected. The unique experience a military member has in worshipping in a military chapel is the fact that they get to experience the solidarity among all Christians. I mean, we all literally worship and praise God in the very same physical space! For me, this is a great example of the experience of the whole Christian community and only heightens my desire for greater unity.

What is the center of the Church? The center of the military chapel is always focused on the altar. Although not holding the same significance in each denomination, it still remains the focal point of the chapel. The chairs or pews are lined up in such a manner to direct the viewer to the altar. When I was stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy, the chapel offices (where all military chaplains and their staff, across all faiths, would work day to day) created a small space for daily worship. The local chapter of the Knights of Columbus built a small altar  with the chaplain that opened almost like a triptych. The two doors would open up on the side where the priest would celebrate Mass from, allowing for contents to be stored like the altar pieces. This came to hold even greater significance for our community when celebrating daily Mass there.

What is the aesthetic impact in the space? The beauty of a military chapel comes out of the people that are worshipping in it. Although, to the eye the chapel itself is not necessarily breathtaking, it is beautiful for the community that encloses the chapel during service. The photo you see above was taken my last week at the forward operating base where I was deployed in Iraq in 2010. Although, the space for worship was an old Iraqi military building, the space itself allowed enough light into the room to hold Mass without any artificial light. We were lucky enough to have someone on the base that also played piano, so we put together a rag-tag choir that would provide the liturgy music every Sunday. The whole community really enjoyed the addition of music in such a desolate location. This really touches to the point Kieckhefer makes when he states, “communities become communities by what they see together, by shared perception of objects and events that engage the senses as well as the mind and are richly charged with symbolic value” (99).

What symbols are in use? I have been in and out of military chapels. I grew up attending Mass at military chapels until I was 11 years old, when my dad retired from the US Air Force. Then, I started attending Mass again at a military chapel when I attended the US Air Force Academy for undergraduate school. But the memory that has stuck with me at every military chapel is “prepping” the chapel for Catholic Mass. This included opening the stations (of the Cross) “boxes” and opening the doors or pulling back the curtains that revealed statues of Mary and Joseph. Another example of symbolism in chapel was the stained glass windows at the US Air For Academy. The US Air Force Academy had multiple chapels within in the same structure. The ground level held the Protestant chapel and the basement level held the Catholic chapel and Jewish temple. The stained glass in the Catholic chapel was various shades of brown to symbolized the catacombs. The way the chapel was designed was to reflect the foundation the Catholic Church has in the whole Christian community along with the connection to the one true God also shared in Judaism.

Icon: St. Anne and the Virgin

SCALA_ARCHIVES_10310474031

The icon of St. Anne and the Virgin by Emanuel Zane, depicts the child Mary in the arms of her mother, St. Anne. This is an interesting pairing to consider in the long line of icons, originating in the Eastern Church. There is disagreement between the West and Eastern Churches on the Immaculate conception doctrine as confirmed by St. Bernadette, when the Blessed Mother appeared to her at Lourdes, which the East says actually referred the conception of Christ. “At the time of the apparitions at Lourdes, the Virgin is supposed to have said that ‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’ But since the event took place on the Annunciation, March 25, 1858, the Orthodox Church understands this saying as applying to the immaculate conception of the Word by his Mother” (The Art of the Icon, Kindle Locations 4127-4129). The beauty of this icon still stands to be reflected upon and analyzed. This post will explore the various themes, significance of color and geometric space present in St. Anne and the Virgin.

Lily in Mary’s hand — Lilies symbolize a number of things in the Church, Easter or purity. As already mentioned in this post, the significance of Mary’s life was her purity that was held intact at conception in St. Anne’s womb, as well as her perpetual virginity. The lily signifies this purity. When browsing around the Internet for what the lily symbolizes, I came across a Boston Catholic journal that reported, “in Biblical times Lilies, shushan was a collective term for all the various flowers of the field, lilies, crocuses, irises, tulips, narcissus, all of which came forth from a womb like tuber.” What a beautiful image for reflection! The lily held in Mary’s hand signifies the flower before the fruit that will be bore from her womb, the child Jesus.

The unity of the colors — Both women in the painting are wearing the color red and blue (although not as clear in the image now). The red signifies the love both women have, but the richness of the red color of Mary’s robe pops out, distinguishing the richness of her love. This is the same love that will endure the suffering and pain of watch her son be crucified. “It is an immense compassion , as big as the heavens towards suffering, that unavoidable fact of human existence which brings about the Cross, which is the only answer of God who ‘suffers ineffably’’” (The Art of the Icon, Kindle Locations 4241-4243). We can also to the colors worn by priests and bishops during a liturgy for the Lord’s passion, Palm Sunday, feasts of martyred saints.

The gaze of St. Anne vs. the gaze of Mary — Mary is looking into the eyes of her mother while St. Anne looks at directly at the viewer. This is very similar to the Theotokos, though the main object changing from Mary the Mother of God to her own mother St. Anne. This makes St. Anne the focus of the painting to the viewer but also displays Mary’s obedience.

Also, Mary is not painted as a child but as almost a small adult. This helps the image transcend time, for Mary’s perpetual virginity but also the timeless relationship between mother and daughter.

Resources: http://www.boston-catholic-journal.com/a-primer-to-catholic-symbolism.htm%23The_Lily