Ladies, Unicorns, Sacred Marriages,
and a Good Book
The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry series that hangs in the Cluny Museum in Paris is a sensuous work from the late Middle Ages. In its six panels it has the same woman each time, with some subtle variation in what at first appears as the the same collection of plant and animal life. Each panel addresses a different sense in the first five, and depicts one's “sole desire” in the sixth and largest panel. In one panel a woman is holding a mirror reflecting the ever present unicorn as a celebration of sight. In others she is playing a musical instrument as a celebration of the sense of hearing, taking a piece of candy as a celebration of taste, holding or caressing a unicorn's horn to celebrate touch, and making something with flowers to celebrate smell.
Obviously these are sensuous, sense-celebrating, scenes. But they are not sensual, they do not address the physical senses while purposely excluding the spiritual. The very fact of the green trees and flowers with the peaceful presence of animals including bunnies and dogs and birds coexisting peacefully with the lion and unicorn gives each scene a spiritual context in which the physical sense is celebrated.
The unicorn in mythology can be a fierce animal, and at the same time can be a symbol of pureness and chastity. So in the very large sixth tapestry, with a tent that says over the entry "a mon seul desir" (my only desire) the woman is seen taking off her jewelry and presumably doing so to enter the tent of her only desire. So is this an indication of an ascetic ideal, where worldly riches need to be renounced to meet the true need of the soul? It may seem to be the case that this greater tapestry is a check on the others, a final word to remind the owner or admirer of these works of wall art that sense are to be celebrated in a sensuous but not a sensual way.
I had my doubts on this and thought there was something heavily sensual about this scene. Judge for yourself:
NOTE: To have your own copy of this picture, there is a website on
the bottom right corner of the image showing you where I obtained it. The address for obtaining it large
enough to be used as a computer desktop background, is: http://www.softseek.com/Desktop_Enhancements/
Then along comes Margaret Starbird’s book “The Woman With The Alabaster Jar,” subtitled “Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail” (Bear & Company, Santa Fe, 1993). She makes a case that is quite convincing for there being a pervasive heresy in France. A heresy concerning the blood of Christ having been carried in the form, not of a physical blood sample in a chalice or cup, but of a young girl, the daughter of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ.
Mary escaped the scene of her husband's execution with help from Joseph of Arimathea. He took her to friends and relations in Egypt where her child was born. A boy was expected who would return triumphantly and fulfill prophecies obviously left unfulfilled at the death of his father. The child being a girl was a big disappointment, but in a fictional reconstruction masterfully told by Margaret, Mary was assured in vision that this was all in accord with the Divine plan.
They escaped across the Mediterranean, to the southern part of what later became France. There Mary lived to old age and her daughter married into the Merovingian noble family, and preserved the blood of Christ, the Sangraal, among the human race.
Margaret makes a very good case for what she acknowledges to ultimately be unprovable, by looking for and finding clues to this underground belief in various places. Especially convincing to me was the set of illustrations of themes that were part of this heresy in art. And imagine my thrill at her validating my feelings about this Lady and the Unicorn series of tapestries, at the same time showing it partakes of the heresy of the Holy Grail, or bloodline) of Christ.
Margaret makes a compelling case for the themes of the tapestries being grounded in the symbols used in the Song of Songs (Canticle of Canticles). She suggests convincingly that the unicorn is a symbol of the kings of Israel, and that this was well known because of Psalm 92 (verse 10 in King James Version) in the Greek version discussing God's anointing the “horn” of the king (David) with fresh oil to exalt him like the horn of a unicorn is exalted. So, concludes Margaret quite logically, in these tapestries the unicorn is either the Christ or the blood(line) of Christ.
Margaret takes great pains to describe the sensuous, suggestive purpose of the last panel. Its showing the lady removing her jewelry is simply a reminder of Song of Songs 4:9, and the tent is the invitation of Song of Songs 4:16 for her lover (the unicorn) to come into the garden and “taste its choice fruits.” The tent is the setting for the mythical Sacred Marriage, reenacted by Jesus and Mary, and reenacted by every newly wedded couple (the tapestry, after all, was a bridal gift for a noble lady)! The bride (symbolic of Mary) will await her bridegroom (symbolic of Jesus) in the tent of her only true desire, and the context suggests this is to be an experience involving every human sense!
This description, of course, connects the story of Jesus and Mary with the more ancient religions of the Near East in which the Sacred Marriage was celebrated ritually as a coupling between the God (through the king as proxy) and the Goddess (through a priestess as proxy). And Margaret making this and many other connections makes her book a real delight to me. Many items of belief and ritual in ancient religions, including the Sacred Marriage (Hieros Gamos) to assure fecundity, and the ritual or actual sacrifice of the king to assure continuity and fecundity, are connected with the Christian story as Margaret interprets it.
Other historical occurrences such as the religion and conversion success of the Cathars; the Troubadours and their celebration of a Divine, idealized lady (or a real one) in their Religion of (Courtly) Love; the Order of the Knights of the Temple (Templars); and even the Freemasons and their lore, are all connected by Margaret with the heresy of the blood(line) of Christ. Connected is a strong word, she actually suggests these groups were all aware of the Grail heresy to a greater or lesser extent and used its symbolism and beliefs to one degree or another.
She suggests the Cathars were purposely made out to be near-crazy dualists and wiped out through fire and preaching because they really felt they were the true Christians, the true bearers of the Christian message of a Christ who was a lot more human than the establishment found comfortable. Their insistence on the Bible being available to all believers in their own tongue was a very profound violation of the establishment's concern over its portrayal of Christ. The blood of Christ heresy can not be refuted from the Bible, and the fact that Jesus is spoken of as having brothers and sisters in that book, when his mother according to the new tradition remained virgin until death, was a real inconvenience.
The secret purpose of the Templar Knights, believers in the heresy, had become the protection of the blood(line) of Christ, the Holy Grail, and their very existence thus became an embarrassment and they were also disbanded and exterminated. Troubadours’ Courtly Love poetry was declared heretical, and they were guided into changing their tune(s). The cult of the Virgin Mary provided a convenient and worthy substitute for the other Mary probably the object of the Religion of Love, a Mary who was said to have spent her life in the same region in which these heresies took root and flourished. Finally, Masons use symbolism and life stories from the Templar Order and its violent demise to illustrate some of the life principles taught in its ceremonies.
She also finds art by heretical artists containing symbols and messages
betraying knowledge and even approval of the heresy. I will include here a painting NOT used in Margaret's
book, by the artist Sandro Botticelli, who, in the paintings after 1483, shows evidence of knowing of the
grail heresy, and approvingly so. Margaret discusses sources saying he was involved in this heresy.
She shows and discusses five paintings to point out these symbols. I am adding a sixth here because I just
like it very much and because her rules of interpretation work for this one also. It is called the Lamentation
Over the Dead Christ and was painted over the years 1490-1495. It hangs in the Alte Pinakothek Museum in
Munich. I obtained this copy from a website (no longer accessible):
The three gentlemen are Saints Peter, Paul and Jerome seeing this scene as if in vision. Really present are the beloved Apostle, John, holding the swooning Mary, mother of Jesus, whose body is resting on her lap. Turning away in horror is Martha, standing to the right of Mary.
Now look at the woman at Jesus' head, caressing, kissing and supporting it. She is dressed in red denoting passion. She is Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha. The woman at Jesus' feet is Mary Magdalene, caressing his feet with her hair. Most significantly, she is dressed in green, the color of fertility. Even more significantly, to me, Botticelli is well aware that the wisdom of the time was that these two Marys were one and the same person, just labeled differently by different New Testament gospel authors. Thus we have one woman called Mary, depicted passionately loving and also fertile, and in very intimate association with Jesus. She is ministering to his body from head to foot, and is obviously overcome by both love and grief!
In conclusion: When it comes to some of the topics discussed in Margaret's book, I have read and written on these topics in the past and felt they all held a strangely similar attraction for me. But they were fuzzy attractors for me, I never could define a unifying theme. Margaret has done that for me. And I recommend her book highly. Not that every assertion is true and believable, she herself does not believe all of it as historical fact, but as she says in her Preface, the purpose of the book and of her personal quest is not to prove these things to others, but to suggest there were people who believed these things strongly, whether they were true or not.
As important, a strong reason for that belief was the innate human need for a balance of the male and the female in the Divine, the notion of the Divine Nature they internalize and believe in. I have tried, through my picture and text page on the Divine Feminine, and several of my essays on these websites, to say the same thing. Men and women both would be well served with a Divine that is as balanced above, in the ideal projected into the heavens, as the human race is below, in the reality that is often very short of the ideal. With an unbalanced ideal being generally believed in as the Divine rule of association between the sexes, there is no hope for achieving balance in reality, among believers.
It is only with the relatively recent historical separation of church and state, and in more recent times with the demise of religious influence, that legal balance is beginning to be achieved between men and women as equally valid and empowered human beings. It was not very long ago that women were given the right to vote in Western nations, and it is still being debated in some Swiss Cantons, or so I understand!
And how often do we hear of a man abusing a woman in marriage or similar relationship, or in a work setting, with the man assuming it his birth right, if not Divine right, to direct the thoughts and works of women in his domestic or work domain, solely because he is man and she is woman? This is till a serious and ubiquitous problem, and could be helped by redefining human nature by redefining the Divine nature from which human nature derives, in some religions, or which directs human nature and behavior in other traditions.
If the Godhead were male and female in the belief systems of humans, their institutions would come to reflect that ideal. The most recent Papal declaration on why women are not to be ordained to priesthood in Catholicism fell back on the fact that Jesus (the human embodiment of the Divine) was a man.
Yet, what are we to make of this wonderfully empathic sculpture of Mary holding Jesus' body on her lap, and reaching out to comfort Mary Magdalene, who is obviously also suffering the loss of a closely related person. Mary M. sits with her head touching, and at the same level as, Jesus, at least suggestion relationship. To me the scene is suggestive of mother and daughter (-in-law) mourning their mutual loss, and the mother reaching out to comfort the daughter. To me, there is too much depth of feeling coming from the work for it to be less than that, to be a depiction of just a good friend of Jesus mourning with her good friend's mother. This sculpture is on display in the St. Sulpice church in Paris (the brown part is where I covered up a bright, sunlit window that made it hard to see the sculpture).
And what are we to think of the wonderful treatment of Mary Magdalene in the church of the Madelein in Paris, where she is the main focus of the entire church, the altarpiece, surrounded by four angels, and placed to suggest she is a worthy object of contemplation?
In the photo above you can see the feet of a wonderful, but hard to photograph (for me) depiction of Christ and the important people in his life. I attempt to capture the central part of this display in the photo below, showing the scene as something related to the altarpiece directly below it. This is a beautiful church, by the way, well worth a visit.
To Christ's immediate left stand Martha and Lazarus. In a position of reverence, on one knee, at Christ's immediate right, is Mary M. Again a suggestion of a very special relationship existing between these two persons.
Margaret's book suggests that what was being done in the songs of the Troubadours and the art and beliefs of (secret or open) Grail heretics was elevating Jesus’ wife in stature as Lady, consort and equal to the Lord, without whom he could not be who he is and vice versa.
She suggests this was a very good start at balancing the concept of the nature of the Divine in at least one very influential and important branch of Christianity. And, as the non-heretical art depicted above suggests, there is still room to contemplate Mary Magdalene as a saint and as one who had a very close and special relationship with Jesus. But the explicit viewing of Jesus as married, and Mary having his child, was a heresy, in the orthodox view, and it was dealt with.
The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages dealt with this heresy with a fierceness and bloodiness that has become the stuff of legend. The heresy was uprooted , it went underground, and was no longer of consequence. Margaret seems to suggest it needs to be revived. I second that motion and recommend her book to you as a good start in coming to appreciate what this is all about, historically, mythically, psychologically and spiritually.