MRA: Meaning in Art

Q: What do the letters MRA refer to in Marian art?

A: The Marian symbol alluded to falls into the general category of Marian monograms.

Marian monograms are abbreviations of Mary's name, sometimes also of one of her many titles. At other times, the letters of Mary's full name are attributed specific meanings, so when "Maria" stands for M(ediatrix), A(auxiliatrix), R(eparatrix), or A(djutrix). Byzantine art customarily abbreviates the name of Mary (=Mother of God) with the Greek letters MP (for Mater = mother) and THU (for theou = God's).

Although there is no official Marian monogram in Western tradition, the combination MRA (and its many variants) figures among the most commonly used ones. Western Marian monograms can be traced back to the eleventh century. They appear as ornaments carved on medieval bench-ends and bosses (for example, MR with a crown topping the two letters stands for Maria Regina (Queen), as cyphers and badges (for example, a wing-enclosed and pierced heart on a shield is known as the Arma Virginis (weapons of the Virgin).

Marian monograms attain special fame during baroque times when the devotions to the names of Jesus and Mary are widespread and popular. Jesus (IHS) and Mary (MRA, MR, M) monograms are frequently juxtaposed. As mentioned, there exist a variety of Marian monograms. The Marian monogram with an M topped or traversed by a cross is likely to have originated with the apparition of the miraculous medal (Rue du Bac, 1830). On the reverse of the medal (commissioned by the apparition) we find --among other symbols-- the cross surmounting the monogram of Mary.

There are religious communities which have chosen this monogram as coat of arms or "logo," (for example, the Marianists). Similarly, John Paul II's coat-of-arms is made up of a golden cross and M on a blue backdrop. However, the M for Mary is tucked into the angle between the vertical and horizontal crossbeams. The combination of cross and M has a biblical connotation. It refers to Mary's station at the foot of the cross and symbolizes her vocation as Mater Dolorosa (Mother of Sorrows), her loving participation in the suffering of Christ. Likewise, it points to the special mission Mary received from her son which is a direct consequence of Christ's death on the cross. Thus, the M surmounted by the cross stresses Mary's association --then and now-- with Christ's redemptive mission, and, where this monogram is used as coat of arms or logo, it becomes the symbol of a Marian apostolic spirituality. The pope's monogram and motto ("Totus Tuus") reflect the Marian spirituality of Louis Grignion of Montfort marked precisely by the icon of Mary's standing at the foot of the cross.

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