Virgin Mary

Vienna, Stephansdom, Wiener Neustädter Altar
Vienna, Stephansdom, Wiener Neustädter Altar

Some people are surprised to learn that ‘Schubert’s Ave Maria’ (D 839) is not a liturgical prayer. They might be even more astonished to learn that the text was written by a Scottish Protestant.  Walter Scott’s long poem ‘The Lady of the Lake’, from which the text of ‘Ave Maria’ derives, evokes a pious, pre-Reformation Scotland, just as his novel ‘Ivanhoe’ created for 19th century readers an idealised image of Medieval England.

Schubert was also attracted to the work of a contemporary German Protestant writer, Novalis, who wrote a famous essay (Die Christenheit oder Europa) on the importance of restoring the ideology of Catholic Europe, which had fragmented at the Reformation. In his Marie (D 658) the pervasive image of a virgin (both a real woman, the author’s fiancée, and Mary the mother of Jesus) manages to represent Mary but also fails to capture her significance for the lover and devotee who wrote the text:

Ich sehe dich in tausend Bildern, 
Maria, lieblich ausgedrückt,
Doch keins von allen kann dich schildern,
Wie meine Seele dich erblickt.
I see you in a thousand images,
Maria, lovingly expressive,
Yet not one of all these images is able to portray you
In the way that my soul perceives you.

This attitude seems to reconcile the Protestant argument that inner devotion is more significant than outer show with the Catholic reliance on images and ceremonies to allow access to the spiritual domain.

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