During the month of May many parishes continue the ancient tradition of crowning a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, often referred to as a “May Crowning”. Both in the Eastern and in the Western parts of the Catholic Church the practice of depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary wearing a crown came into use in the era of the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) when Mary was officially declared to be the Mother of God. In the West, from the end of the 16th century the practice of crowning images of the BVM became widespread. The popes not only endorsed this devout custom, but also on many occasions carried it out themselves. The growth of the custom led to the composition of a special rite for crowning images of the BVM, and in the 19th century this was incorporated into the Roman liturgy.
However, the custom has not been without its critics nor has it gone unchallenged. With the spread of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, the Christian Eastern rulers were pressured to conform to the Muslim custom of excluding icons from use in religious worship. Such use of images was considered a form of idolatry. At that time the Second Council of Nicea defined the Catholic doctrine by stating that the veneration of images of our Lord, our Lady, the angels, and the saints is not only pleasing to God, but highly commendable to the practice of the faithful. There is no question of idolatry here. Rather, “the honor paid to the image passes on to the one who is represented, so that the person who venerates an image venerates the living reality whom the image depicts”.
Seven centuries later, the Council of Trent (1563) would be forced to defend the practice of venerating images against the Protestant Reformers. Even today it is not uncommon in some parts of our country for Catholics to be accused of “idol worship” or “statue worship”, and therefore of violating the First Commandment: “You shall not make for yourselves a graven image” (Dt 4: 15-16).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church informs us that the Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment. “The honor paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration’, not the adoration due to God alone; Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.”
The Second Vatican Council (1965) stated very simply, “every genuine show of love on our part for those in heaven has of its nature Christ for its aim, and reaches its conclusion in Christ, who is the crown of all the saints; through Him it reaches God, who is to be marveled at in the saints and is glorified in them” (LG 50).
(Sources: NCCB, Order of Crowning an Image of the BVM; Hardon, The Catholic Catechism, p. 298-299; CCC 2129-2132).