5 October 2019


Thinking as I so often do about Typology, particularly in this Rosary Month, and especially about the biblical typological basis of devotion to our Lady, I am wondering if anyone can help me out with information about that lovely invocation in the Litany of Our Lady, Turris eburnea, ora pro nobis.

The litany of our Lady (of Loretto), we learn from standard reference books, is first found in the sixteenth century and bears a close family resemblance to a number of late fifteenth century litanies to her. We know, too, that Tower of Ivory appears to be derived from the Song of Songs, where the beloved bride is said to have a neck like a tower of ivory.

In 1957, writing about Eucharistic Reservation, two theologians (SJP van Dijk and J Hazelden Walker) discuss the practice, common in the first millennium, of keeping the Blessed Sacrament in a tower made of ivory; the tower being designed to resemble what was taken to be the appearance of the Sepulchre in which the Lord's body rested. They write: 'the purity and whiteness of ivory was much favoured. Up to the present day, this preference is preserved in the litany of the blessed Virgin, who is invoked as the Tower of Ivory'. They make this statement obiter and without references.

My problem is that as far as I am aware, this method of Reservation did not survive until the middle of the second millennium. So was the idea of vD and HW just an attractive guess? Or is there evidence for this title being used of our Lady in the centuries before the sixteenth? I would very much like to believe these writers. The symbolism of relating our Lady, as 'container' of his natural body, to the vessel within which his sacramental Body is kept, is, surely, devotionally very attractive.


Banshee said...

Helinand of Froidmont has a nice sermon for Mary's birthday where he compares her to the neck of the Body of Christ, because food passes through the neck and intercessory prayer passes through her. Also, she is like a tower because of her strength and rectitude and the refuge she provides; and she is like a tusk of ivory because of her shining white virginity, her firm integrity of mind, her cool chaste reverence, her pure contempt for the world, and her armed zeal for chastity. Also she is like an ivory throne. And a bunch of other stuff.

Banshee said...

Bede compares the tower of ivory to how learned teachers beautify and strengthen the Church. Along with a bunch of other stuff in the chapter of his commentary on Songs. Heh, not what I expected after his commentary on the Valiant Woman, which is also Church-centric but not so much about learned guys.

I see some references in Google Books to medieval Mary/ivory references, but nothing easily seen in context. You do see medieval carvings of Mary done in ivory, so it would be natural. And there is the Mary/unicorn thing, which sometimes has a tower of ivory or tower of David in the picture somewhere.

Banshee said...

Apponius says the neck of the beloved is the normal people of the Church, who through martyrdom are set right next to Christ the Head, and who send out a jeweled radiance of beauty over the whole Body. They are like a tower of ivory because of their height of virtue and fortitude. They are not considered beautiful until separated from the flesh, just like tusks are not pretty until separated from the elephant. And they are also like a throne of ivory.

I like that. Gotta do Apponius, like I have been saying I would.

Banshee said...

Rupert of Deutz has Mary's neck being like a tower of ivory because her strength is her humility. She is strong and lovable for God, but terrible and inaccessible to the Devil.

Banshee said...

The Glossa talks about the neck being connected to the head, and to food and the voice
passing through it; and being connected to the power to bind and loose. Ivory and towers are about chastity; and a tower is armed and decorated like the example of a good life.

St. Greg the Great is like Bede, but talking about preachers. High through contemplation, strong by stirring up good works, and precious by having divine knowledge.

Friedlon said...

Wikipedia teaches that the ivory tower was used as symbol of the Virgin starting with Bernhard de Clairvaux, citing Walter Dürig: Die Lauretanische Litanei. Sankt Ottilien 1990, S. 50f.

frjustin said...

There is indeed evidence of the Tower of Ivory being used of Our Lady in the centuries before the 16th. Its origin is believed to be a medieval rhymed litany influenced by Eastern Marian devotion, in particular by the Akathist Hymn first performed in Hagia Sophia in the 7th century when the Avars siege had ended.

Fr McNabb in his introduction to the Akathist Hymn writes:"Such memories of victories won clung to the Mother, in whose arms her Son was safe, that their gentle highland Maid was looked upon a thing invulnerable-a tower of the hardiest ivory". He translates: "Rejoice, unshakeable Tower of the Church".

And of course Newman in his "Meditations and Devotions" for May 23 comments: "In this magnanimity and generosity in suffering she is, as compared with the Apostles, fitly imaged as a Tower. But towers, it may be said, are huge, rough, heavy, obtrusive, graceless structures, for the purposes of war, not of peace; with nothing of the beautifulness, refinement, and finish which are conspicuous in Mary. It is true: therefore she is called the Tower of Ivory, to suggest to us, by the brightness, purity, and exquisiteness of that material, how transcendent is the loveliness and the gentleness of the Mother of God."

Dale Crakes said...

Fr I don't understand 'did not survive until the middle of the second millennium.' Are you saying didn't survive past or did exist until or something else? Walrus and elephants are not hoping for a resurgence of the practice though.

Steve Perisho said...

Would any of the studies of the Litany as a whole—which most date, as you imply, not to 1558, but to the 12th-16th centuries more generally (ODCC, 3rd ed. rev. (2005): “its use is attested for the year 1558; but it is doubtful whether it was first sung at Loreto and did not rather arise under Dominican influence in the confraternities of the Rosary and thence make its way to the shrine. It is a simplified version of older Litanies of our Lady, which first appeared in the 12th cent.”)—trace each title from the point added back through the previous centuries, e.g. those studies cited by the ODCC, or by the 2nd edition of the NCE? I don’t know. The latter, unlike the former, cites also Meersseman: “The Litany of Loreto did not originate at the shrine, but is traceable, according to the researches of G. G. Meersseman, to the early Middle Ages, and shows the influence of Marian devotion in the East, where lists of titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary were not uncommon. The earliest known manuscript copy of a litany approximating that of Loreto dates from c. 1200 [Der Hymnos Akathistos im Abendland, 2v. (Freiburg 1958–60) 2.220–225].”

I haven’t searched the Library of Latin Texts (whose terminus ad quem is supposed to be Vatican II) for any hits on turris eburnea in Marian contexts between 1100 and 1500 (Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, by the way, is said to cover Byzantine texts, and thus possibly πύργος ἐλεφάντινος, through 1453), but I did run some Google and JSTOR searches, and turned up references to depictions of the tower in Marian contexts in three different works of late 15th-century art, for what very little that may be worth: an indication that it might be smart to try Princeton University’s Index of Medieval Art (which ends its coverage at about 1550) as well.

Alastair said...

See https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivory_tower which claims a reference from 12th C (footnote 6).

Steve Perisho said...

For what very little it may be worth, G. G. Meersseman, O.P., on pp. 222-229 of vol. 2 of Der Hymnos Akathistos im Abendland (1960, above), lists five manuscript sources for his edition of the "Laurentanische Litanei" in addition to Paris, Nat. lat. 5267 (f. 80r), which he dates to the end of the 12th century, all of which contain the "Turris eburnea." Note that these (i.e. the following) would all be evidence for use "in the centuries [immediately] before the sixteenth":

Van den Oudenrijn's back-translation of the Armenian version of 1344/1345
Padova, Capitolare B63 (f. 204-22v), 14th century
Mainz 337 (f. 42v), mid 15th century
Mainz 312 (f. 82v), mid 15th century
Vat. Rossi 95 (formerly VIII 37; pp. 717-731), 15th century