Edgar Lobel, though born in Romania, embodied many of the older virtues of Oxford, which he made his home from the age of 18 until his death, aged 93, in 1982, in the house in Merton Street to which he and his wife Mary had moved after they married in 1927.
Tall and upright, Lobel wore a black tie in memory of those of his generation lost in the First World War. He was hard to prise from his college, his conversation was entertaining but not without an edge, and he was stupendously productive of scholarly work of high value. Under his editorship, a score of volumes of literary papyrus texts from Oxyrhynchus were published from 1941 to 1972.
Lobel was asked his opinion of the date of a papyrus fragment that the John Rylands Library in Manchester had acquired, from Egypt, in 1917. Its text wasn’t published until 1938, not being recognised before as a well-known prayer to the Virgin Mary. Lobel, judging by the handwriting (compared to a letter of Subatianus Aquila, an official writing on December 27 AD 209) could not think it later than the 3rd century.
If the date matters, it is because the prayer refers to Mary not by that name but by the title Theotokos, “God-bearer”. This title was confirmed in 431 by the universal Council of Ephesus (recognised by the Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans). The thinking is that a mother is the mother of a person, and in this case Mary was mother of Jesus, who was both man and God.
The term Theotokos had been used by the great Father of the Church Athanasius, born in about 296 in Egypt. But some people say that Theotokos could not have been part of a prayer in the 3rd century because the term was not then in use. This seems to beg the question.
The prayer on that bit of papyrus is best known in the Western world as the Sub Tuum Praesidium. Its Latin form had been employed for centuries before the discovery of John Rylands Papyrus 470, and it happens that I learnt it in Latin without ever learning an English version. That used, I think, to be quite a common circumstance.
Anyway, one English version goes: “We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin.”
The word Theotokos is plain on the fragment, but the Greek equivalent of praesidium is chipped away. Perhaps the word was eusplanknian, which means “compassion”, rather than “patronage” or “protection”.
I hadn’t until recently connected the prayer with the devotional image from medieval times of the Virgin of Mercy. The convention was to show her with her cloak wrapped protectively round a group of people, usually depicted on a smaller scale: kings, bishops, laymen, nuns, mothers and young women.
A tender example is by Piero della Francesca, in Sansepolcro, though in that her high brow makes her look to modern eyes more hieratic than motherly. Another example from the late medieval period is normally on show at the diocesan museum at Orte, on the railway from Florence to Rome.
In the prayer and in the painting, Mary’s protective power is taken as entirely derived from her position as mother of Jesus Christ. At the same time she is identified with the Church, seen as the people, of whatever status, who make up the Body of Christ. In the late Middle Ages this fitted in with a devotional focus on Jesus, just as the Council of Ephesus had endorsed the title Theotokos while hammering out what could validly be said about the nature of Jesus.