Mary, Our Muse

Mother Mary painting by Holly Schapker

Many people look to Mary for spiritual guidance and nourishment. She’s also a source of inspiration for this artist.

On the night the angel Gabriel visited Mary, as the biblical story goes, he asked her to bear a child who would be called Emmanuel, a name that means “God is with us.” Perhaps a pause ensued until she answered Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). I find personal transformation in Mary’s simple yes and believe this story gives us all hope.

This incredible moment is inspiring to me because it is still alive and with us today. The same story occurs multiple times a day as we say yes to God’s will ourselves. It is important to remember that when Mary spoke to Gabriel, she was speaking for all of us. Engaging with art through the lens of the Catholic imagination has occurred throughout Church history and since the earliest apostles.

Turning to Mary has allowed me to approach her state of humble relinquishment in my painting studio and outside of it in my personal life. The paintings included in this article derived from my interpretation of our Blessed Mother’s life and her ultimate mission of bringing us closer to Christ. I present this work as a woman on her own pilgrimage to spiritual understanding.

My personal path is filled with several detours leading to many self-inflicted grievances. As flawed as my pilgrimage has been, I have found that her mantle embraces us all without limitations. Going to Mary with my weaknesses as a human being and as an artist has turned even the worst mistakes I have made into a measure of profound healing and peace.

The Blessed Mother consoles us with the assurance that there is nothing to be afraid of and shows us how we are all one body and privileged members of a remarkable family in eternal union.

In the end, my study of Mary has further reshaped my image of our creator from one of dominance to a God of overflowing goodness, loving kindness, and unending mercy. It is my hope that each of you experiences this same devotional joy in recognizing the good news.


When I trust the unfolding creative process before me, everything I need is there serving me. This pilgrimage of faith before the blank canvas teaches me many lessons.

Notice this painting is focused on her eyes with the most care and tightest detail. Looking forward, Mary knows us and she knows our Lord. What better advocate could we align with? The rough, unfinished brush marks around the edges help guide the viewer’s eye to her gaze. They also show us that her story is unfinished. Just as the servants were needed to perform Christ’s first miracle at Cana, she asks us to “do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).

Christian Spirituality invites us to imagine what it would be like to know Mary—or even to be her.

St. Maximilian Kolbe said that the greatest way we can give glory to God is to unite oneself to the creature who glorifies God most perfectly. She is the loving example of fulfilling God’s will in humility. Mary pondered in her heart the good things that God was doing in her life. With her example, we can develop the same attitude of gratitude.

Surrealist painters taught us that the unexpected and unbelievable can happen in art. The same can be said of a life of faith.

The Assumption

To create the illusion of space on a two-dimensional surface, the painter builds up texture and contrast in the foreground of the composition. The background then fades away.

Mary focused her life on Christ’s mission. All other concerns faded away in the distance as she pondered her daily experiences in her heart. When we honor Mary, we are celebrating the mystery of the living God and the perfect disciple. It also reminds us that God wants a similar graced relationship with us.

Tasked with giving spiritual birth to Christians, Mary helps us grow closer to Christ. In Mary, we can find hope for humankind. It is interesting to notice that the flowers are placed among the angels. Perhaps they are metaphors for us and our own “flowering of the soul.” May we, too, be able to join the Virgin Mary and say, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord” (Lk 1:46).

My study, based on The Assumption, by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), enlivened and embellished by roses and lilies, shows the radical nature and accomplishment of her life as a humble handmaiden of the Lord.

Then Jesus came to her and said, “Come, my chosen one, and I shall place thee upon my throne, for I have desired thy beauty!” Mary answered, “My heart is ready, O Lord, my heart is ready!” And her soul went forth out of her body and flew upward in the arms of her son.

Mother and Child

When on the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother to the care of the “disciple whom he loved, ” and him to her. This holy gift before Christ’s final act of self-emptying love has inspired many of us, including countless artists, to claim her as our own spiritual mother and express our devotion to her in various ways. My life has changed dramatically for the better since I took her into my heart, home, and studio.

I now get to experience the many surprising moments of joy on the canvas and witness an unfolding of art that I know comes from the Holy Spirit. My day revolves around repetitive relinquishment and prayer, which opens me to the mystery of God.

This Mother-and-Child painting is a study based on the work of Pompeo Batoni. Mary is looking to Jesus. The brushwork signifies constant motion. Going to Mary is not an end in itself, for she is the trusted way toward her son. When I see Mary looking at her child, it reminds me that we can draw on her perfect love to look toward others in the same way.

The Visitation

How wonderful it must have felt for Mary to be validated by her cousin, Elizabeth, who truly understood the extraordinary circumstance of her life: being pregnant with God’s child! This may be one of the most beautiful connections shared in human history.

When I mix a color and have it on the tip of my brush, I try to move the same color around the canvas to create a rhythmic harmony. Everything within the composition is connected, and the whole painting changes with every mark. Without knowing how the artwork will manifest, I try to take the next right action. Eventually, I am given a new creation to be shared with others.

Many of my works pay homage to the masterpieces of great painters. It is my desire to honor these artists for their work and to continue their efforts of celebrating creation with my own contributions. This painting is inspired by an early French Renaissance painter, Jacques Daret (c. 1404–c. 1470), who created an altarpiece of the Virgin in Arras, which includes Visitation.

Legend has it that the tiny columbine flower sprang up wherever Mary’s foot touched the earth while she was on her way to visit Elizabeth. The columbine flowers expand beyond the borders as they remind us that God has no boundaries.

Trustworthy Guidance

Our Lord trusted Mary when he was at his most vulnerable. Just as he came to us through her, she is the portal back to God.

The blank canvas teaches me how much I rely on God. First, the journey begins with an act of faith in hope of a successful painting. Then comes the dark stage of vulnerability, where I feel lost, frustrated, and afraid. In art, reflections and perspective change everything. A miracle can happen in an instant, simply because of a new perspective. Finally, the work gets resolved beyond my abilities. This ritual shows me God deserves all credit as the end result does not come from me.

My paintings in this collection portray Mary in a multitude of times, cultures, and ethnic characters to show her omnipresence through the Holy Spirit. Mary is not limited by our constructs. She is forever ancient and forever new in the face of every woman.

The great theologians, saints, and artists honor Mary with good reason. She is us!

I take my place in union with them as we all do every time we go to Mary and dispose ourselves to God’s grace. She shows us how to have the deepest relationship with God, which is simply described by St. Teresa of Calcutta: “Do little things with great love.”

Our Lady of the Way

When I completed the Spiritual Exercises, contemplations, and meditations laid out by St. Ignatius, I got the feeling that I was a part of a royal family. And I am not the only one: We are all invited to be intimate members. I was also taught that our value is not based on the conditions of this world or anything we have done in it. Rather, it is because of God’s love, which is inside every one of us.

During a recent visit to an elderly friend in a nursing home, she shared with me that she can always feel God’s presence with her. She is a holy woman with much wisdom. “All people are God’s children,” she instructed. When employees of the nursing home are more disruptive than kind with her, she understands that they are carrying their own burdens. How do we see others as God’s children? We cannot will it, but we can ask Mary to take our blindness to Christ and ask for his miraculous assistance.

Ignatius Meditated for hours on a small fresco called Madonna Della Strada at the Ges√π Church in Rome. Perhaps he saw an invitation in it for us all.

Our Lady of the Way derives from Madonna Della Strada, with the addition of faces within the garb of Mary and Jesus, which represent all of humanity in Christendom. It has gold leaf, symbolizing the royalty of our inheritance.

Star of Bethlehem

I was once asked what my North Star is. What is it that guides me to Christ? As Pedro Arrupe, SJ, said about falling in love: “It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Following the Gospel each day with millions of other Catholics is my North Star, which gives me the constant opportunity to circle back from my daily concerns to the good news of Our Lord. This is my divine direction. Teaching us how to live fully in our earthly life and even conquer death, Jesus’ story is one about the greatest holy act—to die to self.

The Star-of-Bethlehem Flower is said to resemble the star in the east that pointed to the birthplace of Jesus. The star shone brightly in the night and guided the shepherds to the place where the newborn Jesus lay, then broke into little pieces, scattering white blossoms everywhere.

When we look to the heavens for inspiration, we, too, receive an abundance of gifted guidance from above. I used my brushwork to show movement, as we are always in a state of flux, and repetition is key on our spiritual path in hand with the Virgin Mary.

About the Artist

Holly Schapker resides and works in Cincinnati, Ohio. A 1992 graduate of Xavier University’s art program, she continued her painting education by studying under allegorical painter Michael Scott for 10 years. Her work has been featured in many publications and on television and radio. Schapker has been invited to demonstrate her painting techniques and creative process to universities throughout the nation. She has taught beginning, advanced, and thesis painting at Xavier University. In addition to her painting demonstrations, Schapker travels to give lectures as a creative Catholic and hosts spiritual retreats.

Schapker’s paintings and drawings can be found in corporate collections, universities, private schools, and churches throughout the world. Beyond that, Pope Francis has accepted a portrait of his mother painted by the artist that was given to him in Vatican City.

Schapker found new inspiration for her works after completing the Spiritual Exercises laid out by Ignatius Loyola and attending a pilgrimage based on his life throughout Italy and Spain. She later researched the Renaissance painters who honored Our Blessed Mother.

Learn more about her artwork at

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