Mother of Us All – A Brief Pondering of the Question, "What does Mary look like?"

It is a notable fact that our Lord and his Mother lived in a time long before photographs, even at a time, and among a people, where drawings and portraits of people were almost unknown. Also notably absent in the Sacred Scriptures are any details regarding the physical appearances of most Biblical figures, unless a detail is necessary for the story (e.g. Zacchaeus being short, Goliath tall, Leah being less attractive due to her misshapen eyes). But generally there seems to be an almost complete lack of preoccupation with such things in the Biblical narrative. And even when we are told that David was handsome or Bathsheba was beautiful, we are not really told how.

We live in a polar opposite world when it comes to images. Everything is visual, and we are quite obsessed with appearance and looking acceptable and good, and how other people look.

We attach great meaning (for better, but usually for worse) on our physical appearance. We divide out over race, skin tone, hair etc. We also prize thinness and ridicule fatness, we worry if we are tall enough, pretty enough, if our hair is too straight or not straight enough, if we are tan enough or too dark skinned, and when age sets in many head for the cosmetic surgeon.

Instructive! Thus when we wonder as to what Jesus or Mary “looked like,” it may be instructive for us to reflect on why the Lord would have them live in a time and place, where this data would NOT be supplied us. For, in the end, they look like us. And some historical sketch or painting, had one ever been made, would only tend to limit our vision, rather than allow us to identify with them.

To the question what did Mary look like we may garner five possible answers:

  1. None of your business.
  2. Why do you care?
  3. She looks just like you think she looks.
  4. She looks like you, because she is your mother.
  5. She is far more beautiful than you ever imagined (My favorite answer).

But answer four is probably the most helpful when it comes to accepting the diverse ways she is depicted.

Most of us American Catholics see her in very European terms. Historically this may be dubious, by why shouldn’t we see here as looking like us. She is after all our mother.

As I walk though the dozens of chapels in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, I see her as Chinese, American, Lithuanian, Mexican, Filipino, Korean, African, Lebanese, Irish, Ethiopian, and so on. And why shouldn’t these various Ethnicities  see her as looking like them, she is, after all their mother.

In her various apparitions her look varies too. La Virgen de Guadalupe “La Morena”  (= dark skinned) is surely different than the descriptions we have from other sights such as Fatima or Lourdes. But here too, why can’t the heavenly beauty of Immaculate Mary, so brightly reflective of God’s glory, not refract through the prism of human experience in different colors and ways?

What does Mary look like? She is our Mother, she looks like us. Jesus is our brother (and Lord), he looks like us.

Happy Feast Day

27 Replies to “Mother of Us All – A Brief Pondering of the Question, "What does Mary look like?"”

  1. Actually, there are two different questions here, which we should not conflate —

    What DID Mary look like? and What DOES Mary look like?

    These are different questions and provide different answers. They are different questions, Mary can have a different appearance now than she did 2000 years ago because she is different now. Her body is different now. Having been bodily assumed into heaven, she now has a glorified body, not merely the earthly body she had before.

    What did Mary look like? She most definitely looked like a typical Middle Eastern woman of that era — light brown skin, dark hair, etc.

    What does Mary look like? What she looks like now in her bodily assumed glorified state — which give us some clue as to what our own bodies will be like — is indicated, as stated above, by her very different ethnicities in various apparitions, from Guadalupe to La Vang to Lourdes to Fatima, etc. Her body is no longer static, but dynamic, she is no longer bound by one race, but encompasses all.

  2. Evangelization comes to mind. Mother Mary unites us to the Church. She calls us to answer our vocation in the world. Unfortunately, man in his humanity has depicted her in the visuals art of the Church as European. through portraits, statues, icons and the like. This visual portrayal can be uninviting to those of other ethnic backgrounds. I don’t in this present time see the Church in America trying to evangelize other ethni backgrounds by portraying Mary as other than European. This imagery does not send a message of inclusiveness. Let us pray that here in America that families can easily go to bookstores, gifft shops, and parishes and see Mary as their Mother.

    1. It should be noted that that same Europe has produced a number of Black Madonnas in art.

    2. That’s an interesting point. A parish near me has a statue of Mary surrounded by children of various colors and ethnicities (suggesting that Mary warmly embraces all) but she herself is pale skinned, blond, and blue-eyed. There’s a subtle message there. I agree with Msgr’s point that we personally ought to imagine her as our mother, but physical representations can create divisions…

      1. I think the reality is is that Mary was middle eastern so her skin would of reflected that. We always make everything about color and Mary was born most likely with brown skin and dark eyes and dark hair. But who cares. She is the mother of Jesus and that is her role. The scriptures have been careful not to make her God or someone to be worshipped. She is given a special role as Jesus’ mother. By going back to the bible I have learned so much about the real Jesus and real Mary and it was nothing like what I learned in Catholic school. The word “Christian” only appears 3 times in the New Testament but the word “Disciple” appears 270 times. God wants us to be a disciple which is a student and learner. Don’t worry about being Catholic but follow the Jesus of the bible. I learned that there is no infant baptism at all and it was born out of fear. In the book of Acts and other gospels you must hear the word, believe the word, do what it says, repent and be baptized an an adult. Babies can’t have faith. Acts 2:37

        You receive forgiveness of sins at baptism as a result of your repentance and faith. Follow the real Jesus and not the deceptive Catholic version that leads so many stray!

        Peace with be you and I felt compelled to write so perhaps you need to study more!

    3. If you are ever in the Washington D.C. area, by any chance, go to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Had been there years, but it has since has added so many chapels to Our Lady from so many groups of different ethnic backrounds, including those from Asia. You would be very happy and suprised.

  3. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, what God has prepared for those that love Him.” I only pray that the ways in which I have lived my life my life will allow me to gaze upon and enter into the Kingdom, where being in the company of Our Mother, words will not adequately describe the vision. Perfection.

  4. During a time I was in a prayer group several years ago I envisioned in a dream our Blessed Mother. Never before or after have I seen anything like it. Her head and shoulders with clothing were all I saw. As if we were poised for an intimate conversation. The vision showed her image most radiantly, so much so that even where shadows existed from contours of her face these were more radiant than I had ever seen.

    Her beauty far exceeded any beauty I had seen before. My response to the vision was in awe. No words were exchanged, but there was a profound peacefulness in our interaction. Time and space seemed to be suspended, and then she smiled a smile just as powerful as experiences noted earlier. I live with this wonderful reflection in my heart, mind and soul. I thank God for this wonderful blessing and grace.

    As an aside, in the next prayer group meeting after this vision our priest asked us if anyone envisioned our Blessed Mother, and a majority of the group raised their hands. He thanked God and Blessed Mother for granting his prayer of revealing her in the divine presence.

  5. I will tell you what she definitely did NOT look like while she was on earth: the most physically attractive woman who ever lived, as Taylor Marshall and Dr. Mark Miravalle have expressed – the former on his blog and the latter in a class I took with him.

    1. Wade St. Onge:

      You are incorrect. As I heard one priest comment, St. Bernadette–who saw Our Lady at Lourdes–said that the Blessed Virgin was so beautiful that, if you saw Her once, you would die to see Her again. And all saints–Padre Pio, St. John Vianney, the children of Fatima–have said the same.

      1. The glorified Mary, certainly. Every fully-hallowed saint in heaven will overpower us with his glory if we were to see them in that state, even if not to the extent Mary would. When they were on earth, that glory that comes from grace is “veiled”. I doubt Mary was knocking people over dead when she walked the earth.

        You did not read my post closely enough. I said, “what she … look[ed] like WHILE she was ON EARTH”.

        1. But how do *you* know she wasn’t the most physically attractive woman who ever lived “WHILE she was ON EARTH”. Were you there?

          Personally, I think she looked like Olivia Hussey, but I watch to much t.v. .

          1. God never chooses the most physically attractive. Look at Scripture. King David was overlooked, but Samson said that “God does not judge as man does. Man chooses based on physical appearance, but God looks upon the heart” (1Samuel 16:7). King Saul was not God’s choice for king – God didn’t even want a king. But God called the “handsome” Saul because that is what the stubborn, faithless, stiff-necked Israelites were expecting.

            Christopher West says we need to re-discover “Mary’s abundant breasts”. Many flat-chested women were very offended by this. In a world which values women based on their cup sizes, I doubt God would have created Mary with “abundant breasts”, but rather, with modest size, to be in solidarity with the “poor in chest”.

        2. Wade St. Onge,

          As another poster pointed out, you have absolutely no grounds for making the (frankly absurd) declaration that you know what was “definitely” not the case. St. Thomas Aquinas, speaking of the resurrection of the body, says the following: “For we cannot call it resurrection unless the soul return to the same body, since resurrection is a second rising, and the same thing rises that falls: wherefore resurrection regards the body which after death falls rather than the soul which after death lives. And consequently if it be not the same body which the soul resumes, it will not be a resurrection, but rather the assuming of a new body.” (ST Suppl., q. 79, a. 1)

          Note the words “the same body,” not a different one.

          1. I don’t see how the quote from St. Thomas contradicts what I said.

            If the glorious body looks exactly the same as the human body, why did the Apostles not recognize the Risen Christ?

            Now, care to actually address my arguments? Specifically, about God never choosing the most physically attractive? Not even Jesus – Isaiah said he wasn’t exactly Brad Pitt.

  6. Saw a similar video on the faces of Christ.This one was only OK. All the images were either from icons or from European paintings. In fact, all the images are well known, not a surprise among all of them.

    Producer must not be acquainted with all the other less well-know European images, not to mention all the other cultures that have “local” images of the Blessed Virgin. I live in Hawaii and we have many Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hawaiian, Filipino, Tongan, Portuguese, Mexican, versions of her which are truly beautiful beyond belief. Video maker seems to be only Euro-centered and focused only on well know images, so he loses 99% of the other images from around the world. I felt he was more interested in the morphing process than in the actual art and representations of Mary.

  7. Interestingly we may have something like a photograph of Jesus in the image on the Shroud of Turin. Some may doubt what the image of the man in the Shroud represents, but it is fascinating that we have an image of a Crucified man bearing the wounds of Jesus, which was produced before photography existed, but whose details would only be visible in our time via the use of modern photographic imaging technology.

    In terms of Our Lady, I am always a little disturbed by the “inclusiveness” nonsense being applied to actual historical figures. Obviously if the Blessed Mother was a real person, who walked, and breathed, ate and drank in the Middle East of 2000 years ago she could not look like everyone… What real person can be described this way? In fact to the extent that we do not want to mythologize her, then we must be grownups and realize that she probably did not look much like an Asian woman from say Korea, or an African from the Congo, or even an Irish woman from Belfast, She probably looked something like an Israeli woman of today who maybe lives in Haifa True the private revelations of Mary have seen her in various ways, but when it comes to private revelation the image is always filtered through the human medium, as Fr, Benedict Groeschel has pointed out. Even if we accept the revelations, which in many cases I do ( Guadalupe, Fatima, Lourdes) The actual description of the Blessed Mother probably is not exactly like seeing her as she looked standing in her home in Nazareth next to the 25 year old Jesus.

    I would try to get away from the idea that unless someone looks like our ethnic group we can not “identify” with them….. This is fine for children dealing with fantasy figures, so you can feel free to depict Santa Claus fat or thin, young or old, and belonging to whatever group you fancy. But with real people, than well… they were what they were…. To the extent we start depicting the figures of salvation history anyway we like so as to make them easier to “identify with” we tell the rest of the world they are really figures not of salvation history but of salvation myth.

    1. “To the extent we start depicting the figures of salvation history anyway we like so as to make them easier to “identify with” we tell the rest of the world they are really figures not of salvation history but of salvation myth.”

      But this is something Catholics have always done, particularly if you look at the artwork of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque period. Depicting Our Lady as a European peasant or noble woman was never a problem before, why should depicting her as Asian, or African, or Latin American be a problem today?

      I suppose the answer is something similar to what Bender wrote above, about what she did look like and what she now looks like. Her glorified body is not like ours and not limited the way ours are now. If you accept the truth of certain apparitions you accept the reasons why and in what way she appeared in those places to those visionaries. Surely she did so in the knowledge that she would be depicted as she appeared in those visions and could have appeared as she was in First century Galilee if it were necessary for our devotion.

  8. I believe you just need to look at our Lady of Guadalupe to see the true picture of what Mary looked like at the age when she conceived our Lord, for this is her Self Image. Our Lady of Guadalupe’s portrait is that of an approx. 14 year old Jewish girl.

  9. Msgr. Charles Pope:

    Since we have both been to the National Shrine to Our Lady, it always makes me wonder, how all the different groups have been able to find space in that really big shrine for the many different chapels to honor Our Blessed Mother. I hope in the future that can still be done.

  10. The Venerable Mary of Agreda gives a detailed and vivid description of Our Lady in her classic “Mystical City of God.”

  11. She is pure love and in our imperfect state it would be imposible to comprehend that. I would agree that she comes to us in ways we understand but she is not some sort of changelling. God always gets and gives us the best and I believe we have the most wonderful intecessor just waiting to bring us to Her Son’s kingdom where the veil will be removed and we will rest in God’s heart with Mary and all those we have loved and gone before us. It doesn’t matter “exactly” what she looks like to me. I just want to be with her and her son for eternity.

  12. First, I don’t think that Jesus thought that personal appearance had a great deal to do with anything and the is why there is no emphasis on it. Jesus constantly seems to want us to look below the surface for the deeper meaning.
    Second, Mary is an amalgamation of all women. Thus the reference to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. and the various images of Mary. She is all things to all women (and not just women). Our Lady of Guadalupe is a Mexican native American and responsible for the conversion of Mexico just through her appearance.
    Mary was around 13 years old when she became pregnant with Jesus. And this news brought to her by an angel whom she was initially afraid of but not afraid to speak up and ask questions, “How can this happen…” What courage it must have taken for one so young in a situation that was a little scary to ask for qualification.
    Her fiance’ doesn’t know about the pregnancy and she has to tell him. She must have some hint that this is a special birth and that her son will be unique. She then marries her fiance’. She takes on the role of Mother of the family and takes care of the hard work to which this demands, i.e. hauling water, cooking, etc. She goes with her husband to Jerusalem and then heads home only to discover that Jesus is with neither of them after walking down from Jerusalem to Jericho. It is night and everyone knows that stretch of road is very dangerous, i.e. robbers, muggers, etc. and no one would make the journey at night. Mary and Joseph immediately turn around and go back to Jerusalem where they find their boy. She goes to weddings. She parties. She has friendly relationships within the tiny village of Nazareth. She drinks wine. She grooms Jesus. Then she must endure the unbearable pain of going through the passion and death of her Son. How strong must this woman of been. Watching the scourging, standing at the foot of the cross, watching the agony of His death, taking the body down. Knowing all of this, what image of Mary comes to mind?

  13. i just read an account that Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, who actually saw Mary in person, thought she was the most beautiful woman on the planet and would have worshipped her as God had he not been restrained from doing so!
    Personally I think Mary was a beautiful woman–objectively beautiful–and this physical beauty coupled with a sense of virtue that was off the charts made her persona all the more…heavenly!

  14. You Catholics are such pagans. Why do you WORSHIP a 14 year old Jewish girl from the middle east? Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Mary is Queen of Heaven, Queen of the World, or was born without sin, These appelations of Mary are taken from pagan mythology. Jesus also had sisters and brothers and NOWHERE in the Bible does it say Mary ascended into heaven. I have ONE mother and she lives in Erie, PA. Idolators!

    1. But we’re not idolaters because we don’t worship her. But we do honor her in accord with scripture in Luke 1 which says all generations will call her blessed for the almighty has done great things for her, and holy is his name. As for her being mother, Jesus said from the cross, behold your mother. Don’t you read scripture?

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