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Columns as a Marian Symbol

Columns as a Marian Symbol

Our Lady of the Column

The architectural motif of the column symbolizes Mary's eminent place in salvation history as well as her personal rectitude, strength and fortitude. More specifically, the column announces Mary's trust in God and her unwavering faith. One of the sources for this motif is to be found in the Meditationes (~1300) of Ps-Bonaventure. It is used in representations of the Nativity. In some of them Mary is shown leaning against a column signifying birthgiving without dolors.

In others, the column anticipates Christ's (and Mary's) future suffering and Passion. Still another significance, especially in representations of the Flight into Egypt, points to the end or decline of pre-Christian culture. In this case, the column(s) are broken or fall in ruins as the Holy Family is passing. A further connection between Mary and the column or pillar rests on Ex 13.21 (pillar of fire and clouds directing the people's journey). Now it is Mary who becomes the sure guide for those who err. The miraculous translation of the icon of Good Counsel from Scutari to Genazzano is sometimes depicted surrounded by a pillar of clouds pointing out that Our Lady is protecting her own image. The marian column is also assimilated with Sirach 24.4 which makes of her a wisdom figure. The apparition of Our Lady to St. Bernard and St. James (Our Lady of the Pilar) frequently show her on top of a column. Our Lady of or on the column has a long but little explored history. Among the oldest reported examples are those of Clermont-Ferrand (tenth c.) and Frankfurt (fifteenth c.). Little is known about this type of Mary statues during the Middle Ages. The genre becomes more prominent during the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries, when popular miraculous images were placed on pillars (f. ex. The Pietà of Steinhausen/Schwaben; Kirchberg/Niederösterreich; Notre Dame du Pilier in Chartres) in order to allow pilgrims to walk around the statue or image (see "Schöne Madonna" in Regensburg/Germany). Marian columns can be found in and outside of churches. They are popular even today. Some are placed on fountains in cities, others are combined with freestanding little shrines in rural areas. The Marian columns achieved special prominence during the long period of Counter-Reformation. One of the first baroque columns stands erected in front of Santa Maria Maggiore. It was built under Paul V in 1614 by Carlo Madernas (bronze statue by William Berthélot). The column is dedicated to Mary, virgin and mother, who gave the world the true Prince of Peace. This column served as model for the famous Patrona Bavarial column in Munich, erected during the reign of Maximilian I of Bavaria in 1637/38. The bronze sculpture shows Our Lady standing on the crescent moon in the posture and role of Queen of Heaven. This column, and many others represents triumph and honor, but also a visual and artistic program of Catholic counter-reformation, and of dedication of the whole of Bavaria to Our Lady. Other cities such as Vienna (Ferdinand III, 1647, Immaculata) and Prague (Johann Georg Bendl, 1650, Immaculata) followed suit, as did most of the countries of the Habsburg monarchy. The iconographical themes most frequently expressed were those of the Immaculate Conception and Queen of Heaven, as well as that of "Maria Victrix". Many of these marian columns have votive character, that is, they were the object of a votum in times of war, famine and epidemics. They were rallying points of politics and patriotism, and the reason and destination of pilgrimages. Special confraternities were founded to care for maintenance and restoration. The following pages show some examples of columns crowned with the effigy of Our Lady. They are all from the region of Burgenland in Austria. The photos were taken by Fr. J. Levit, S.M. Various themes are represented, among them most prominently those of the Immaculata and the glorious or victorious Queen of Heaven.

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