Mary in the Temple. Part 3.
After fulfilling this first religions duty with indescribable fervour, Mary and her young companions resumed their accustomed occupations. Some turned swiftly with their active fingers spindles of cedar or ithel,1 others worked in purple, hyacinth, and gold upon the veil of the temple, or the rich girdles of the priests; while groups, bending forward over a Sidonian loom, were employed in executing the varied designs of that magnificent tapestry for which the valiant women deserved the praises of all Israel, and which Homer himself has extolled. 2 The Virgin surpassed all the daughters of her people in these beautiful works, so highly appreciated by the ancients. St. Epiphanius informs us that she excelled in embroidery and in the art of working in wool, fine linen, and gold; 3 the Proto-Gospel of St. James exhibits her to us seated before a spindle of wool dyed purple, which turned round under her light hands like the quivering leaf of the aspen-tree; 4 and the Christians of the East have perpetuated the traditionary opinion of her unrivalled skill in spinning the flax of Pelusium, 5 by giving the name of the Virgin's thread to those webs of dazzling whiteness, and texture almost vaporous, which hover over the deep valleys in the damp mornings of Autumn. The serious and pure wives of the first faithful, in remembrance of these domestic occupations, which the Queen of angels did not disdain, never failed to consecrate to her a distaff surrounded with little bands of purple, and supplied with spotless wool. 5
But the talents and knowledge of the Virgin were not con-£ned to this. St. Ambrose attributes to her a perfect understanding of the sacred books, and St. Anselm maintains that she knew perfectly that ancient Hebrew, the language of the terrestrial Paradise, 6 in which God traced with his potent finger, on very thick precious stones, 7 the ten precepts of the Decalogue. Whether Mary, by studying the idiom of Anna and Debora, had been initiated, during her solitary vigils, in the sublime conceptions of the seers of Israel, or whether she received from that sanctifying spirit, who had so richly endowed her, a breath of poetical inspiration similar to those harmonious breezes which lightly touched the Eolian Harp of King David, 8 still we cannot deny that the young prophetess, who gave to the new law its most beautiful canticle, must have known the sweetest and most sublime inspirations of genius. Certainly, the woman who composed the Magnificat was no young girl of the ignorant common people, as some Protestant authors have not been afraid to say, and she combined with unequalled sanctity talents of the highest order. Nevertheless, this brilliant side of her intelligence was hardly perceived, so adroit was she in concealing it beneath her evangelical modesty. Knowing the delicate duties and true interests of her sex, she avoided display with extreme care, and passed along without noise, like a silent star, that pursues its course through the clouds. The rich treasures of her mind and heart have been but rarely and imperfectly revealed to the earth; they were the roses of Yemen, which the young Arab girl conceals beneath her veil, and the softened perfume of which is hardly perceived.
An ancient poet said with servility of Augustus that he was himself the work of several ages, and that, since the days of the creation, all the industry of nature had been put in request to produce him. What was an hyperbole carried to an absurd length in speaking of the sanguinary nephew of Cæsar, becomes a truth demonstrated when applied to the Virgin. Mary is the masterpiece of nature, the flower of the old generations, and the wonder of ages. Never had the earth seen, never will the earth see, so many perfections combined in a simple daughter of men. All was grace, holiness, grandeur in this blessed creature: conceived in the friendship of God, sanctified before her birth, she knew not those passions which disorder the soul, and sin which Corrupts the heart. Attracted towards good by a sweet and natural inclination, by favour of her immaculate conception, her pure and innocent actions were like those coats of snow which are silently heaped upon the lofty summits of the mountains, adding purity to purity, and whiteness to whiteness, till a dazzling cone is raised, on which the light darts playfully, and which forces man to turn away his eyes, like the sun. It has not been given to any second creature to present such a life to the sovereign Judge of men; Jesus Christ alone surpassed her,—but Jesus Christ is the Son of
Mary entered the temple of God, like one of those spotless victims which the Spirit of the Lord had shown to Malachy. Beautiful, young, nobly born, and qualified to aspire to every position among a people who often placed beauty upon the throne, 9 she attached herself to the corners of the altar by a vow of virginity. By this vow, unheard of before, Mary broke down the fence which separated the old law from the new, and plunged so deeply into the sea of the evangelical virtues, that it might be said that she had already sounded almost all its depths when her divine Son came to reveal it to the children of men.
God does not change his ways abruptly; he announces, he prepares long before, the great events which are to change the face of the earth: a precursor was needed for the Messias, and he found him in the person of St. John the Baptist; a preliminary was requisite to the new law, and the virtues of Mary were to the gospel what a cool and cheerful dawn is to a fine day.
St. Epiphanius, quoted by Nicephorus, has left us a charming portrait of the Virgin; this portrait, sketched in the fourth century, from traditions now effaced, and manuscripts which we no longer possess, is the only one which .has come down to us.
The Virgin, according to this bishop, was not tall of stature, though her height was a little above the middle size; her colour, slightly darkened, like that of the Sulamite, by the sun of her country, had the rich tint of ripe ears of corn; her hair was light, her eyes lively, the pupil being-rather of an olive colour, her eyebrows perfectly arched, and of the finest black; her nose, remarkably perfect, was aquiline; her lips rosy; the shape of her face a fine oval; her hands and fingers long.
All the fathers eagerly attest, with one accord, the admirable beauty of the Virgin; St. Denis the Areopagite, who had seen the divine Mary, assures us that she was a dazzling beauty, and that he should have adored her as a goddess, if he had not known that there is but one God.
1 The ithel is a species of acacia, which grows in Arabia; it is of a fine black, and resembles ebony: it is thought to be the setim wood of Moses.
2 See the Iliad, lib. vi.
3 In the middle ages, in memory of the Virgin working in linen, the weavers had placed themselves under the banner of the Annunciation. The manufacturers of gold brocade and silk stuffs had for their patroness Our Lady the Rich, and bore her image on their banner, heavy with magnificent embroidery.—(Alex. Monteil, Hist, des Francois des divers 6tats.
4 The church of Jerusalem had early consecrated this memorial by numbering among its treasures the spindles of Mary. These spindles were sent afterwards to the Empress Fulcheria, who placed them in the church of Hodegos, at Constantinople.
5 The vestments which the high priests wore in the morning were, says the Misnah, of fine linen of Pelusium, a town of Egypt, where the flax was exquisite.
5 This custom still exists in some villages of the north and west of Prance.
6 According to the rabbins and commentators on the Bible, the language of the terrestrial Paradise was the ancient Hebrew.
7 Hebrew tradition.—(Basn., liv. vi. c. 16.) According to some oriental authors, the tables of the law were of red rubies or carbuncles; but the most common opinion among the Arabs and Mussulmans is that they were emeralds, in the inside of which the -characters were so cut as to be legible on every side.—(D'Herbelot, Bibliotheque Orientale, t. ii.)
8 According to an ancient Jewish tradition, David had a harp which played at night when a particular breeze blew. Basnage ridiculed these strings which sound of themselves at the night breeze, and openly treats this assertion as an absurdity. The invention, or rather the re-discovery of the Eolian harps, the magic sounds of which enchant the parks of the English, has justified the rabbins.
9 "It is neither climate, nor diet, nor bodily exercise which forms the beauty of the human form; it is the moral sentiment of virtue, which cannot subsist without religion. Beauty of countenance it the true physiognomy of the soul."—(Bernardin de Saint Pierre, Etudes de la Nature, etude 10.)