Marriage of art history and scripture enthralls

Kerry man publishes book examining a key Bible event in Irish stained-glass art

Listowel native Paraic Maher with his newly-published examination of the marriage of Mary and Joseph; and its many depictions in Irish stainedglass art
Listowel native Paraic Maher with his newly-published examination of the marriage of Mary and Joseph; and its many depictions in Irish stainedglass art

Dónal Nolan

The story of Mary's 'betrothal' to Joseph, as told in the magnificent stained-glass art of the nation is the focus of an enthralling new book by a Kerry man.

As much of the iconography of Christianity appears on the brink of losing its meaning in this increasingly secular age, Paraic Maher's new work Betrothed, does a remarkable job of reviving a key episode of the New Testament.

It is, after all, the most significant prelude to the arrival of the Messiah - as Mary and Joseph are formally brought together as a couple in Jerusalem in a betrothal ceremony led by the highest priest in Judaism (as depicted right - from the cover to Paraic's work - in a detail from St Teresa's Church in Clarendon St, Dublin). 

Now, in Betrothed, Paraic brings together his own personal and expertly-informed take on the story with its depiction in some of Ireland's most exquisite stained-glass art. It hits bookshops soon having been unveiled at the Pastoral Congress of the World Meeting of Families last month.

For the Listowel native, the Betrothal has long been a fascinating subject; it is something of a mystery; it was the subject of a number of misguided representations over the centuries; but at its heart is a deeply human story of a vulnerable young girl entering into a daunting contract at the behest of the elders of her religion.

"Almost everybody has heard of the betrothal, but few know what it is and part of the problem is that it was misrepresented or mistranslated in some translations of the Bible as an 'engagement'. It was not an engagement as we would understand it," Paraic told The Kerryman. 

Betrothed bears the apposite subtitle 'Glimpses of the Betrothal of Mary and Joseph', as that is all that is tantalisingly presented of the story in the Gospels. 

Based on research of the historic record, of the 'apocryphal' Gospels and of the theology surrounding it, Paraic presents what he feels is a more complete picture of the whole story.

"In my introductory essay to the book I clarify what betrothal meant; it actually was a formal exchange of marriage vows under Judaic law and not an 'engagement' as it has sometimes been translated. As with the Judaic custom, Mary and Joseph would have then waited a year before moving into a single home together as man and wife," Paraic explained.

It was, of course, to prove the most joyous union of Western tradition but initially presented Mary with the greatest challenge of her young life. For she was but a teenager, so devoted to her God she lived in the Temple in Jerusalem up until custom decreed she take a husband. 

"We celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple each year, from which the Presentation Order took its name, which celebrates Mary's arrival in the Temple where she would live. We know there was a tradition of young girls living in the Temple so she would not have been alone in this.

"However, as women could not leave the Temple single, she had to find a husband and this presented a huge problem as Mary had devoted her life to God.

"The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary's Conception as she was born without original sin; it's a difficult concept that can be understood as that which messes with our moral, spiritual compass, in terms of being able to distinguish and live that which is true. Mary's compass bearing was exact, however."

As Paraic's introduction has it: "Her human capacities for knowledge and love were in perfect alignment, so she had no interior impediments to pursuing truth and beauty. In effect, she grew in wisdom and tenderness beyond her years."

And how the story was brought to life on the stained glass of Irish churches - including Cahersiveen's Daniel O'Connell Memorial Church. What follows is a stunning presentation of the very best - including Harry Clarke - in a fascinating guide underlining just how diverse the stained-glass art of the nation is.