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date: 18 February 2020

Mary and Mariology

Abstract and Keywords

The mother of Jesus is the most important female figure of Christianity. Mary appears in a small number of biblical passages, but the vast Marian phenomenon includes Christian doctrine and a range of cultural expressions. Interest in Mary emerged early in the Eastern Mediterranean, and spread into the West. With slightly different emphases, Catholics and Orthodox Christians share a number of beliefs concerning Mary and pray to her, but most forms of Protestantism reject Marian devotion. While Catholic attention to Mary diminished in the global North following the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council, it has remained strong in other parts of the world, especially in Latin America. Shrines such as sites where Mary is believed to have appeared draw millions of devotees annually. Contemporary Mariology, the academic study of the figure of Mary, includes considerations from almost all the liberal arts.

Keywords: Mary, Mariology, art, Jesus, Christianity, Catholic, devotion


Mary and Mariology

Fig. 2 Book of Hours of Simon de Varie. Mary enthroned, holding the Christ-child, with Simon de Varie kneeling before her. Anon., 1455. Royal Library, The Hague.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is without doubt the central female figure of Christianity (fig. 1), particularly in its Catholic and Orthodox forms. The religious impact of Mary far transcends the comparatively few passages in which she appears in the pages of the Christian Bible. As early as the late second century, Mary emerges as a figure of interest in her own right. The object of theological speculation and doctrinal statements, she begins, equally as important, to become the recipient of prayers seeking her intercession (fig. 2). Venerated as patroness by countless cities and countries and by billions as a tender maternal figure, Mary has for almost two millennia and across the world’s cultures been the object of a flourishing popular piety. As a product and producer of culture, the Marian phenomenon is of towering significance. This immense, ubiquitous, complex, and multifaceted reality incorporates scripture, theology, worship, politics, psychology, and artistic expressions in architecture, painting, poetry, and music. As an archetypal figure par excellence of the Christian art traditions of both East and West, she has probably been portrayed more than any other person apart from Jesus.

In its most technical sense, Mariology is the systematic exposition of Marian doctrine. This theological sub-discipline is of seventeenth-century vintage and emerges in Roman Catholic circles. Today the field of Mariology is fundamentally cross-disciplinary, and Marian studies encompass not only theology and religious studies but also many branches of the liberal arts including history, psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, history, literature, and gender studies.

Mary in Christian Scripture

Outside the Synoptic Gospels, Mary is not mentioned by name in the canonical Christian scriptures. Chronologically, the various strata of the New Testament suggest an evolution of interest in the mother of Jesus. The first reference comes from the hand of Paul, who in Galatians 4 describes Jesus as “born of a woman,” a reference that merely affirms his real humanity. In the Gospel of Mark, she appears only briefly in 3:31‒35, accompanied by Jesus’s brothers, who come looking for him while he is preaching, an episode which is retold by both Matthew and Luke. In Mark 6:3, Jesus is referred to by the inhabitants of Nazareth as “the son of Mary.”

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 4 Flight into Egypt. Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255‒ca. 1318.) Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena.

Matthew and Luke provide many of the details with which the Christian tradition has woven a composite portrait of Mary. She is named (1:16) in the Matthean genealogy of Jesus. Matthew too relates how Mary was found to be pregnant “through the Holy Spirit” (1:18). Matthew’s application of Isaiah 7:14 (“behold, a virgin shall conceive”) to illustrate the identity of Jesus is a key passage in the elaboration that subsequent generations would make of the figure of Mary. Matthew also includes the events of the visit of the Magi (fig. 3) and the flight of Holy Family to Egypt (fig. 4), episodes which involve Mary, although she is a silent presence in them.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 5 Annunciation. Anon., twelfth cent. St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai.

It is in the Gospel of Luke that Mary most fully emerges as a central actor in the drama of salvation. Among the Marian episodes unique to Luke is the Annunciation scene (Luke 1:26‒38) (fig. 5), which compactly narrates the circumstances of Jesus’s conception. Gabriel’s greeting of Mary there as “full of grace” is frequently referred to in the many discussions of Mary’s sinlessness during later centuries. In its Latin version this salutation furnished the opening words of the medieval Marian prayer Ave Maria (“Hail Mary”). Key too is fiat (“let it be done to me”), the expression with which Mary accepts her role. Luke provides the account of the Visitation, in which Mary visits her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, and also puts into Mary’s mouth the Magnificat, a hymn of praise based on Old Testament models and deriving possibly from Judeo-Christian prayers. Mary also appears during the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple (fig. 6), when the prophet Simeon warns her that “a sword will pierce her heart” (Luke 2:35) and the episode of Jesus’s disappearance and reappearance in the Temple when he was twelve (Luke 2:39‒52). The Lucan Mary returns briefly in the Book of Acts 1:14, a vignette which mentions her praying with other members of the community of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 7 The Wedding at Cana. Cornelis Cort (1533‒1578). Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Never mentioned by name in the Gospel of John, “the mother of Jesus” is nevertheless an important figure. She speaks only briefly during the episode of John 2:1‒11, the first of Jesus’s “signs,” when Jesus appears to chide her for her apparent desire that he intervene during a wedding at Cana (fig. 7) and yet changes water into wine. She then reappears at the end of Jesus’s life and ministry, at his crucifixion (fig. 8) when Jesus addresses both her and the “beloved disciple,” establishing a new mother‒son relationship between them. Given the symbolic nature of this Gospel, Christian thought and prayer has seen in these two brief scenes an expression of Mary’s motherhood not only of Jesus but also of his disciples.

Also of great import in the development of the cult of Mary is Revelation 12, a passage that relates the threats to “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (v. 1) and her child. While this apocalyptic text is more likely to be a reference to the Christian community than to Mary, as early as the fourth century it was interpreted as referring to her, and would centuries later be the source the standard iconography of the Immaculate Conception that emerged in the art of the sixteenth century. It is also the textual referent for the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Despite their comparative brevity, these New Testament passages have been of huge import in the cult of Mary, and they have been mined deeply by the Christian community which has found ever-richer veins of meaning in their terse statements. While Catholic and Orthodox considerations to Mary do not depend, as do the Reformed Christian churches, on a “scripture alone” approach to theological thought, the New Testament verses mentioning Mary nonetheless provide all the main foundations of the Mariological thought and practice of later generations.

The Development of the Marian Tradition

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 9 Virgin Mary nursing the Infant Jesus. Third cent. Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome.

Given the sparse and fragmentary nature of the available evidence, we can make only tentative and speculative assertions about the development of interest in the figure of Mary in the early centuries of Christianity. A third- or fourth-century papyrus fragment containing part of a Greek version of a prayer known to later generations by its Latin title Sub tuum praesidium (“under your protection”) is the earliest extant witness of Christians addressing Mary and seeking her protection. Also dated to the third century are the earliest known images of Mary: the Roman catacombs of Priscilla contain two frescoes commonly identified as depicting he Annunciation and Mary nursing the infant Jesus (fig. 9).

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 10 Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Virgin of the Burning Bush. Russian, sixteenth cent. Walters Art Museum.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 11 The Nativity of Christ. St Andrei Rublev (ca. 1360‒1428). Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow.

Yet stronger evidence of interest in Mary predates both the frescoes and the papyrus: the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal gospel dated by some scholars to about 145 c.e., existed in a number of ancient manuscripts in a variety of languages, suggesting a widespread interest in the mother of Jesus. With many colorful details, the text gives an account of Mary’s conception, birth, upbringing, and marriage, along with an elaborated version of the birth of Jesus that stresses Mary’s virginity. While this Gospel was always extra-canonical, it was nevertheless highly influential in the development of Marian tradition: the Protoevangelium gives the names of Mary’s parents as Joachim and Anna. It is the source of the liturgical feasts of the Birth and Presentation of Mary (fig. 10), the Orthodox iconography of the birth of Jesus (fig. 11), and Western artistic representations of Mary’s conception and childhood frequently draw on the details given in the Protoevangelium.

In parallel with the way in which first generations of Christians had sought to understand the meaning of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection by rereading the Jewish scriptures and finding there passages which they identified as prophesying Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection, Christian thinkers also began to identify in the figures and events of the Old Testament prefigurations of Mary. Among the most important of these was the Eve‒Mary dyad. If Jesus was the “new Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), then by analogy Mary was the new Eve, who with her assent to God’s plan reversed Eve’s yielding to temptation. This idea was aided by the contested translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible of the Hebrew original of Genesis 3:15 to read “ipsa (she) will strike (the serpent’s) head” rather than ipsum (he, that is the offspring of the woman) (fig. 12). Emerging at the turn of the second century, and promoted by Irenaeus of Lyons, “new Eve” entered into what would become an apparently endless stock of Marian notions, images, and titles. The Eve‒Mary contrast would also profoundly affect Christian attitudes to women in the subsequent centuries.

Even more influential and far-reaching was another title, Theotokos—literally “the birth-giver of God.” Already in use in Egypt by the second century, the epithet probably originated in public prayer and could possibly reflect the influence of the cult of Isis, who was addressed as “the Mother of (the) God Osiris.” The word became the object of fierce doctrinal argument during the complex Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. Bishop Nestorius of Constantinople (386‒ca. 450) argued that the title Theotokos meant that the Godhead had been born as a man, an idea he found repugnant. His suggestion that Mary be addressed instead as Christotokos (Mother of the Christ) or Anthropotokos (Mother of the Man) was bitterly opposed by Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria (376‒444), who saw in Nestorius’s claims a rejection not only of the unity of the human and the divine in Jesus but also of what was by then in Egypt a venerable way of addressing Mary. The ecumenical council at Ephesus of 431, convened by the Emperor Theodosius to calm and cool the theological altercations, voted to condemn Nestorius’s position. As a result, the title Theotokos (or its translation into other languages) remains the standard and most important way to refer to the mother of Jesus in Eastern Christianity.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 13 Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection.

The Council of Ephesus acted as a spur to devotion to Mary throughout the Roman Empire, initially in the East but spreading to the West. The Roman church of Santa Maria Maggiore (fig. 13), one of the first churches to be dedicated to Mary, was built by Pope Sixtus III only a few years after the conclusion of the council at Ephesus. Mary’s unparalleled stature as a figure to whom the faithful sought recourse grew through the slow accumulation of a complex matrix that included theological speculation, public and private worship, legendary narratives, accounts of miracles, homilies and hymns, and material culture. Expressed often in poetic rather than intellectual language, prayer and praise effectively precedes and underpins the theological elucidation of Mary’s role in salvation. Throughout the patristic period, homilists delighted in discovering intimations of Mary’s virginal motherhood in the phrases, images, objects, episodes, and personages of the Hebrew scriptures. An ever-growing stock of inventive literary images and elaborate phraseology embellished the liturgy. The most famous of early hymns to Mary, the Akathistos (attributed to Romanos the Melodist, ca. 490‒556) addresses her with hundreds of titles that give her (or rather, strictly speaking, her having given birth to the Savior) a central role in human history.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 14 The Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus between Emperor John Comnenus II (1118–1143) and Empress Irene. First half of the twelfth cent. Hagia Sophia. Istanbul, Turkey.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 15 Enthroned Virgin and Child between Two Saints. Sixth cent. St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai.

Mary’s intercession was sought not only by individuals but also by whole cities. She figured prominently in the myths of the founding of Byzantium and was adopted as protectress of the Byzantine (fig. 14) ruling dynasty. In image, word, and ritual Mary was early on given the attributes of sovereignty (fig. 15) in the new Christian Roman Empire. The Byzantine emperors removed Nike, goddess of victory, from their imperial seals and replaced her with an image of the Theotokos. The major churches dedicated to Mary in Constantinople and the presence there of relics such as her veil led to the city seeing itself to be Theotokoupolis, the City of the Mother of God. In 626, the pagan Avars besieged Constantinople. Since the emperor was far away at another battlefront, the bishop placed the city under Mary’s direct protection by having an image of the Virgin and Child painted on the west gates. The defeat of the attackers was attributed to Mary’s direct intervention, confirming the convictions of the inhabitants of Constantinople that they were the object of the particular mediation and protection of the Mother of God.

Liturgical celebrations in honor of Mary, modeled on the feasts connected with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, found their way into the liturgical cycles of the churches, in Jerusalem as well as Constantinople, gradually spreading through the Christian world to create a calendar of Marian feasts that included the Presentation of Jesus, the Annunciation, Mary’s conception, her birth, a commemoration of her virginity, and her death. Through Byzantine influence in southern Italy and the inflow of monks and others fleeing westward from Muslim invasions, many feasts gradually became established in the Western church. Each feast developed its own liturgical texts and selections of relevant biblical passages that could illuminate, directly or symbolically, what was being celebrated.

Marian devotion has historically often taken on strongly emotional tones, and the nervousness concerning the potential excesses of popular religiosity or over-extravagant and misleading praises of Mary is an ancient concern. Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus (ca. 320‒403), condemned the practices of the Collyridians, female devotees who offered sacrifices of loaves to Mary. Sensitivity to criticism that too much honor and power of intercession was being attributed to Mary would lead John of Damascus (675‒749) and many others to defend and define the way in which Mary was to be honored and prayed to. The Fathers of the Second Council of Nicea in 787 differentiated between the correct attitudes to be taken toward the Theotokos and God, a codification that would later travel to the medieval West, where Thomas Aquinas (1225‒1274) distinguished between latria (worship) offered to Christ, dulia (honor) accorded to the saints, and hyperdulia (more than honor), which is reserved to Mary alone.

Marian Culture in the West

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 17 Musicians. Manuscript of the Cantigas de Santa María of King Alfonso X the Wise, thirteenth cent.éñola_en_las_Cantigas.jpg

The cult of Mary began in the Eastern Mediterranean, and during much of the first millennium of Christianity, interest in her evolved in that geographic and cultural sphere. Western Christianity was, however, to be the main locus of development of Marian doctrine, devotion, and culture for the next thousand years. Catholic theology inherited beliefs and practices from the early Church, but articulated them with its particular emphases. Over the course of a thousand years, the cult of Mary in the West developed its own religious practices, including devotions to Mary, the most important of which was the rosary, a plethora of liturgical feasts, private and communal prayers, and pilgrimages. European Marian culture also took a rich array of artistic forms—architecture, art (fig. 16), poetry, and music (fig. 17) among them—and the processes of evangelization and imperial expansion spread the Marian imaginary to Asia, Africa, and the Americas. At the same time, Europe was also to be the cradle of Protestantism, which rejected elements of Catholic and Orthodox teaching on Mary, but especially the practice of venerating her.

To what do we owe the development of European medieval Western ideas of Mary? The Byzantine iconography of Mary was largely Christocentric: Mary is invariably portrayed holding her son, in a hieratic style that emphasizes her timeless dignity. As the conventions of the East spread westward, they took on local color and accents. From about 1300 onward, Western Christianity began to place a new emphasis on the humanity of Christ. As the conceptual and visual image of Jesus changed, Mary was portrayed less in the guise of an impassive empress and increasingly as a tender, young, virgin mother (fig. 18), whose physical appearance expressed her spiritual beauty, invoked the sentiments and invited a personal, filial response. Mary too became associated with the tradition of courtly love, which intermingled erotic and religious expressions.

From the turn of the millennium, the powerful and rich vied with each other to build ever more elaborate churches in Mary’s honor, each of which had to be decorated with appropriate stained glass, sculptures, and painting, and music supplied for liturgies. Cathedrals such as Notre Dame or Chartres Cathedral (fig. 19) in France or the Mariendom of Speyer in Germany left an indelible Marian imprint on the material and spiritual culture of medieval Europe. Under harsh conditions that included the constant threat of famine and warfare, and the spread of plague during the fourteenth century, nobles and peasant, women and men, all sought the intercession and care of Mary (fig. 20), who could be appealed to in her many guises. As tender Madonna, she was an approachable, tender figure; as sorrowing mother who stood at the foot of the cross or cradled the dead body of her son, Mary was felt to understand at first hand the vicissitudes of life; as Our Lady of countless places and people, she could have a particular interest in her devotees, especially at the end of their lives, when her intercession was more fervently sought. Pilgrim routes to shrines, many of which were dedicated to Mary, crisscrossed medieval Europe. Mary was as much a figure of folklore and high culture as the product of theology or the focus of church liturgy. Vernacular songs in praise of her and accounts of Marian legends abounded in many languages. Her powers of intercession appeared boundless: Mary could intervene miraculously in people’s lives, confounding the devil, and rescue souls from hell.

The culture and faith of the European Middle Ages had a profoundly monastic imprint, and the figure of Mary was central in the development of medieval monasticism, among the Benedictines and Cistercians especially. The classic Marian prayers of the West, including the Salve Regina and the Memorare are products of the monastery. The most influential Marian thinker of the twelfth century, the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (1090‒1153), sought to take up the reflection on Mary of previous centuries and to render it into a coherent body, organized around two poles of interest: the greatness of Mary’s maternity of Jesus, the incarnate God and the mediator par excellence, and what derived from that motherhood, her role as mediatrix between God and humans. Monastic literature written in Latin, including books written in praise of Mary, collections of homilies, and devotional literature, was an international intellectual currency.

Equally as important in thinking about Mary were the Franciscan theological schools and the medieval universities. With the growth of scholastic theology in the thirteenth century, Christian thinkers attempted to systematize the tenets of Christianity, and sought to understand Mary in a coherent intellectual grid, founding their reflections on the key biblical texts and patristic writings on them. Already in the twelfth century, Peter Lombard had attempted to locate Mary’s importance within the theme of the Incarnation. Thomas Aquinas likewise placed his treatment of Mary at the end of his study of Christ. Among medieval thinkers, the Franciscan Duns Scotus (ca.1266‒1308) exercised significant influence on Marian theology and practice. The question of Mary’s sinlessness had already arisen in the East and was largely accepted, although not without demurral in the early centuries. In the West, it was contested for centuries. When the belief of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (discussed later) was proclaimed as dogma in 1854, it was Scotus’s subtle dialectic that provided the theological justification.

Art and Devotion

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 21 Madonna and Child. Studio of Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1266‒1337). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 24 Assumption of Mary. Francesco Granacci (1469‒1543). Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota.

The arguments of theologians represent only one aspect of Mariology. To a profound degree, Christian beliefs concerning Mary have also both shaped and been shaped by art. A range of medieval and renaissance painters and sculptors all contributed significantly to the composite image of the mother of Jesus—from Giotto’s enigmatic Madonnas (fig. 21) to what is among the most famous representations of Mary, Michelangelo’s Pietà (fig. 22). Artists have represented Mary in all the scriptural scenes in which she appears, but episodes from the Protoevangelium and the apocryphal accounts of Mary’s death are also part of the Western artistic canon. Uniquely Western are images of the two dogmas unique to Catholicism: Mary’s Immaculate Conception (fig. 23) and her Assumption (fig. 24). Since neither of these has direct scriptural evidence as a source for images, to express their theological content, artists had to develop a complex, allusive system of symbols that drew on scriptural motifs or which could be adapted from representations of Jesus.

Artistic representations of Mary are, of course, not limited to the Western “high art” canon. Much folk art, especially in Hispanic contexts (fig. 25), continues to derive its inspirations from medieval and renaissance images of Mary (as do many of the most popular modern visual motifs of Christmas, including Christmas cards and the crèche).

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 25 Votive painting dedicated to Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, Mexico. Anon. Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam.

Analogous to the interplay of “high” and “low” art is the relationship between, on the one hand, the official liturgy and dogmatic statements of the Catholic (and Orthodox) Churches, and on the other, a prolific array of popular Marian devotional practices. Each corpus has influenced the other, and the boundaries between official and unofficial, ecclesiastical and popular, are porous. The most widespread of devotions arising from the medieval period is the rosary, which brings together the repetition of the Ave Maria with mediation on the major events of Mary’s life. Other ancient devotions current among today’s Catholics include the Angelus, a prayer of medieval origin that commemorates the Incarnation, and the “Litany of Loreto,” probably composed in the sixteenth century, consisting of a chain of petitions to Mary under dozens of biblical and patristic titles.

Mary and Christian Division

At the heart of the image of Mary as one to whom believers can turn lie other relationships: between Mary and her son, and between Jesus and the church. In day-to-day practice, for many believers in search of comfort, the nurturing figure of the Queen of Heaven (as Mary was described) seemed more accessible than Jesus, particularly when he was portrayed as stern judge. Catholic devotion to Mary, particularly in its more superstitious and fantastic aspects, seemed to the sixteenth-century reformers to run counter to some of their fundamental principles. Scripture did not allude clearly to some of the beliefs that popular piety and the theological tradition alike held about Mary. Appealing to Mary appeared to deny the uniqueness of Jesus as savior and mediator between God and humans. The practice of the rosary, or making pilgrimages as ways of gaining indulgences appeared to be ways of attempting to buy salvation and denied the radical gratuity of God’s grace, while the extravagant praises given to Mary, a mere human being—even one who had given birth to the savior, dimmed the glory which was God’s alone. Yet the founding fathers of the Reformation maintained their own personal reverence and affection for Mary. Luther saw in her a model of faith and Christian humility; Calvin’s Mary is an entirely passive recipient of grace. Both continued to believe that she was without sin and gave birth virginally, even while coming to doubt or deny other doctrines. But the more that Protestantism focused its understanding of redemption on the cross alone, the less importance was attributed to the Incarnation and therefore Mary’s place in salvation. The change in theological focus led the charge in the drive to cleanse the churches of what was increasingly seen by the Reformers as idolatry. Venerating statues and making pilgrimages had been important practices of medieval Catholicism. Much religious art was removed and destroyed (fig. 26), especially in Northern Europe and Great Britain. In those countries, age-old folk practices and beliefs and the rich tradition of Marian art gave way to a word-based Christianity in which Mary had a much reduced place.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 27 The Triumph of the Immaculate. Paolo de Matteis (1662‒1728). Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 28 Holy Week Procession of the Sorrowing Virgin, Salamanca, Spain. Statue created in 1939 in baroque style by Inocencio Soriano Montagut.

In the eyes of Protestant theologians, many beliefs and practices involving Mary came to exemplify all that was decadent and sacrilegious. In response, the Catholic Counter-Reformation mounted a vigorous defense of its teaching and practice: in reaction to the Protestant belief in the unique mediation of Christ, the Catholic side insisted on validity and importance of the cult of the saints and Mary’s cherished place in the life of the faithful. The Baroque period saw the emergence of Mariology as a distinct and discreet theological field: the Jesuit Francisco Suárez was the first writer to attempt a systematic exposition of Catholic beliefs concerning Mary, an apologetical enterprise modeled on the patterns of scholastic theology. To convince their audience other writers such as François de Sales (1567‒1622) and Robert Bellarmine (1542‒1621) preached and published sermons. Over the course of the seventeenth century alone, authors published over five hundred pages of books on Mary. Continuing disputes concerning Mary’s Immaculate Conception (discussed later) engendered even more. Images of Mary also provided a highly communicative form of religious instruction and commentary, and represented a form of “silent preaching.” Baroque devotion to Mary took concrete form in painting (fig. 27), sculpture, architecture, pilgrimages, and processions (fig. 28), not only in Europe but also in the colonial possessions of the New World (where Catholicism today continues to show a distinctly Baroque and Marian cast).

Religious orders had long found inspiration in the figure of Mary. Her humble origins, her virginity, and her willingness to accept the will of God all made her an obvious model for women and men who professed vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and many religious orders attributed their particular charism to her support. Lay organizations of Marian inspiration, including male and female confraternities and pious associations such as the Marian Congregation, founded in 1563, promoted a spirituality in which personal devotion to Mary was central. Louis de Montfort (1673‒1716) promoted going “to Jesus through Mary” as a way for lay Catholics to live out their baptismal commitment. Personal consecration to Mary involved depending habitually on her intercession and support, as a way of being united with Jesus.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 29 Mystical City of God, Sor María de Agreda. Title page. Antwerp, 1722.

During the age of the Enlightenment, criticisms of Marian piety began to grow. The voluminous Mystical City of God: The Life of the Virgin Mary (fig. 29), which detailed the revelations to the seventeenth-century Franciscan nun Sor María de Agreda (1602‒1665) was, for example, the object of Voltaire’s ridicule. In reaction to the growing rationalization of the age, works such as the highly popular Glories of Mary (1786) of Alphonsus Liguori (1696‒1787) promoted a Mariocentric and highly affective piety that emphasized Mary’s uniqueness and her mediation. Anti-Marian trends, and waning piety contributed to the hostility the Catholic Church would face in the French Revolution.


The link between Mary and the Church is an ancient one: in Luke, Mary is portrayed in terms which evoke the whole history of the people of God, and in Acts she appears in prayer in company with the group of followers. Since the time of Origen (182‒254), the figure of the beloved disciple has been interpreted as symbolizing the whole Christian community, for whom Mary becomes a mother, following the crucifixion. The woman of Revelation 12 has been held to refer to Mary and the Church alike. In the words of Francis of Assisi, Mary is virgo ecclesia facta, the Virgin-Become-Church, a personification of the community.

This Mary‒Church nexus is the deep background against which apparitions of Mary—and indeed perhaps the whole of the Marian phenomenon—must be understood. An oft-repeated claim is that where the Catholic Church is strong—or where it seeks to hold on to or regain a foothold—Mary is given prominence. The many apparitions of Mary in nineteenth-century France, for example, need to be viewed in reference to the vicissitudes of Catholicism following the French Revolution, church‒state skirmishes, the “culture wars” that were closely associated with political revolutions, and the struggles of the papacy of the time to establish independence from state control and regain lost authority.

Appearances of Mary to individuals and groups have a long history. According to legend, Mary appeared to the apostle James the Great, in Zaragoza, Spain, in 39 c.e. Mary’s miraculous appearance to Origen’s pupil Gregory the Wonder-worker (217‒270) is recounted in a sermon by Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335‒392). The Eastern Orthodox calendar includes a feast of the Protection of the Theotokos (fig. 30) that commemorates a tenth-century apparition of Mary to Andrew the Blessed Fool-for-Christ at the Blachernae, a church of Constantinople associated with relics and icons of Mary and miraculous events. The Marienlegenden genre chronicled Mary’s direct intervention in human events. This important category of pious medieval literature included among its standard forms Mary’s apparition to an individual and her command that a chapel or shrine should be constructed at the site of her appearance.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 31 God the Father Painting the Image of Guadalupe. Anon., Mexico, eighteenth cent.

Marian devotion was intimately associated with the spread of Christianity in the imperial territories of the Catholic crowns of Europe. The name of Mary figures on many aspects of Columbus’s voyages of discovery and the conquerors of Mexico and South America were also devotees of the Virgin. While the literature of the Conquest includes accounts of apparitions of Mary in battle against the native armies resisting the Christian invaders, in the countries of today’s Latin America the figure of Mary has taken on the role of doughty champion of national identity. Many of these “national” Marys are associated with stories of apparitions or connected with legends concerning particular images. The image and apparition motifs are combined in the most famous Marian devotion of Latin America, Our Lady of Guadalupe (fig. 31). The standard narrative recounts the appearances in 1531 of a “young girl” to the Indian Juan Diego, the incredulity of the local bishop, and the final proof of the appearances in the image of a woman miraculously imprinted in the cloak of Juan Diego. The spread of Christianity among indigenous peoples of Mexico is popularly attributed to the image and the apparition: from a local cult, devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe has grown, not only in religious terms but also in its political dimensions. During the Mexican War of Independence, the figure of Guadalupe was painted on the flag of the independistas and Guadalupe has become a palladium of Mexican patriotism and cultural identity. The first known accounts of the events of the apparition were written well over a century after the events they relate. Questions concerning the historical veracity of these writings were first expressed in the nineteenth century, but scholarly doubts have not made any dent on the strength of the cult. The Basilica of Guadalupe, built on the site of the apparition in today’s Mexico City, remains the most visited Catholic shrine in the world, and the devotion has spread internationally.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 32 Miraculous Medal, designed by Adrien Vachette (1754‒1859) according to the descriptions given by Catherine Labouré.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 33 Pilgrims at Lourdes, France, published by Currier & Ives, London, second half of nineteenth cent.

Other important pilgrimage centers are also connected with Marian apparitions. The apparition at the Rue du Bac in Paris in 1830 to Catherine Labouré, a Daughter of Charity, included a dire warning of political troubles to come but also engendered a new Marian devotion: the Miraculous Medal (fig. 32), the design of which was shown in a vision to Catherine Labouré, has been worn by millions of devotees as a talisman. The events at Lourdes (fig. 33) in 1858 have grasped the religious imagination probably even more firmly. The eighteen appearances there of “a lady” to the young peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous, the emergence of a spring, the accounts of miraculous healings, and the eventual revelation of the name of the lady as “the Immaculate Conception” all appeared to be the heavenly confirmation of the formal declaration of the Immaculate Conception as dogma four years earlier. The iconography of Mary in the Lourdes apparitions as being dressed in a white robe with a blue sash, with a golden rose on each foot and carrying a rosary of pearls, abides in the popular Catholic imagination, and has merged with the standard elements of paintings of the Immaculate Conception developed by the Spanish artist Francisco Pacheco (1544‒1644). Today, Lourdes attracts millions every year who come to bathe in the waters in hope of a miracle.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 34 Page from Ilustração Portuguesa, October 29, 1917, showing people looking at the sun during the Fátima apparitions.

Apparitions may be thought of as a form of divine communication, and they may contain specific messages. The content of the Lourdes messages called for penance and requested that a church be built at the apparition site. Many of the Marian apparitions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are associated with apocalyptic admonitions. According to Lúcia Santos—the only one of the three child seers to survive into adulthood and who subsequently became a Carmelite nun—in the apparitions at Fátima, Portugal, in 1917 (fig. 34), Mary warned of potential cataclysm and requested that the Pope consecrate Russia to her. Over the subsequent decades, devotion to the Fátima apparitions took on new aspects, becoming associated with anti-communist sentiment and traditionalist Catholicism. Pope John Paul II ascribed his survival from an assassination attempt in 1981 to the intercession of Our Lady of Fátima.

Apparitions have been reported in all continents of the world over many centuries. They can be located in a broad spectrum of religiosity that includes the Catholic phenomenon of weeping and bleeding statues, and its Orthodox counterpart of miraculous myrrh-streaming icons, all of which are subject to interpretations that range from mockery to credulity. Marian apparitions must be understood at the very least as an important, tense and often nexus between popular Catholic sentiment, doctrine, and church authorities. Events such as those of Fátima and Lourdes have prompted important papal statements. At the same time, given that the phenomenon of “private revelations” under which apparitions generally fall is easily prone to deviations, the Catholic Church has also generally been cautious in asserting their veracity. Of the thousands of claims that Mary has appeared on earth, very few have been given formal approval.


Catholic and Orthodox beliefs concerning Mary emerge from a complex and mutually influencing relationship between, on the one hand, a volatile and affective piety and, on the other, some highly technical theological considerations. As a topic of theological discussion, the figure of Mary is common to all Christian traditions, but these vary dramatically in their degrees of interest, emphases, and conclusions. Protestant Christianity has consistently opposed beliefs and practices that could be interpreting as denying the unique mediation of Christ (1 Tim 2: 5). The four Marian dogmas formally espoused by the Catholic Church—beliefs that are held, though with different nuances, by Orthodox Christians—do not necessarily represent all that many Catholics believe about Mary. The faith of individuals may well exceed what the Church teaches officially.

The fundamental Marian tenet common to most Christians is the divine motherhood, that is, the belief that Mary conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit and that he is therefore divine in nature, and the phrase is primarily a statement about Jesus rather than his mother. Matthew and Luke both affirm that Jesus was born miraculously through the intervention of God, statements which the Christian tradition has taken to affirm his divine nature. (Standard Christian tradition holds that he simultaneously has a human nature.) Matthew relates that the child that Mary had conceived was “from the Holy Spirit” and cites Isaiah 7:14 to illustrate the meaning of this event. Parthenos, the Greek word used in the Septuagint translation of Isaiah and quoted by Matthew, designates technical virginity, whereas almah, its Hebrew original, can also be translated as “young, unmarried woman.” Matthew’s sense is certainly that Mary’s child was not conceived by normal means. The Lucan account of Jesus’s conception is more explicit, however, since Mary expresses (1:34) puzzlement that she is to bear a child, since she is a virgin.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 35 Salome and the Mother of God. Ivory panel, Throne of Maximian, Ravenna, sixth cent.

Belief in the virginal conception and birth of Jesus (not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception, discussed later) is affirmed in the widely accepted Nicene and Apostolic Creeds, which describe him as being “ begotten of the Father … born of the Virgin Mary.” More controversial and less universally accepted is the assertion in the perpetual virginity of Mary, a belief held by Orthodox and Catholics, and some Anglicans. The Protoevangelium details the birth of Jesus: an episode involving the midwife Salome and her doubts over Mary’s virginity (fig. 35) serves to confirm the miraculous nature of her conception of Jesus. The text, however, also goes on to make claims about Mary’s continued virginity following the birth of Jesus and seems to be the first attempt to explain the “brothers and sisters of Jesus” (Mark 6:3; Matt. 13:55‒56) as the children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.

The belief that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life was gradually consolidated over the first five centuries of the Church, and largely without controversy. Admittedly, during the early patristic period some writers and preachers understood Mary’s virginity to apply only before the birth of Jesus. However, from the second century, important figures, including Irenaeus (130‒202) also refer to her with the Greek term aieparthenos (ever-virgin), a title which found its way into standard liturgical formulas. The patristic conceit of Mary as a holy vessel, and the deployment of the Old Testament imagery of the Holy of Holies and the Temple to describe her, also played their part in the growth of consensus. Above all, the growth in the belief reflects the influence of monasticism with its ascetical practice of sexual continence. By the end of the fourth century, Mary’s perpetual virginity during childbirth (in partu) and afterwards (post partum) had become a generally accepted article of faith: the Second Council of Constantinople of 553 affirmed the use of the title aieparthenos and the Lateran Council of 649, explicitly confirmed that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after birth.

While continuing to affirm its reality, contemporary Catholic and Orthodox teaching does not explain the precise physical nature of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Defenders of the belief explain the Greek term heos (until) in Matthew 1:25 as not necessarily meaning that she and Joseph had marital relations subsequently, and understand Jesus’s “brothers and sisters” to be close blood relatives, but not the biological children of Mary. Protestant belief in this matter is less uniform: despite a lack of irrefutable scriptural support, early Protestants including Luther and Zwingli believed that Mary did not have any children after Jesus and that she did not have marital relations with Joseph. In today’s Protestant churches, however, those who believe in the post-partum virginity of Mary are probably a substantial minority.

Although Mary’s virginity has sometimes been conflated with her sinlessness, the two qualities are distinct. While the Roman Catholic Church simply holds Mary’s virginity to be an article of faith not requiring a formal declaration, the belief that she is radically holy has been expressed as a dogmatic statement on the immaculate (= sinless) conception of Mary by her mother. The belief that Mary never sinned was not uncontested historically. Luke 2:48 and Mark 3:31‒35 appeared to suggest that Mary doubted her son. Some weighty figures including Origen and John Chrysostom (347‒407) defended her perpetual virginity, but also preached that she experienced a lack of faith, and even vanity.

However, the early identification of Mary with the Church suggested that many of the qualities of the Church could and should also be applied to her. The Protoevangelium presents Mary as being holy from the moment of her conception: the child Mary lives separately from the world in the Holy of Holies and is fed by angels. Ambrose (ca. 340‒397) wrote that Mary’s faith was unwavering, even at the foot of the cross. His disciple Augustine (354‒430) taught that Mary was victorious over sin, due to the abundant outpouring of grace she received from her intimate relationship with her son.

Orthodox Christianity asserts simply that Mary is panagia (all-holy) and achrantos (undefiled, spotless), epithets found especially in liturgical texts. The idea seems to have taken root in the Eastern religious psyche, to the point that it never needed theological clarification beyond asserting the fact that Mary was pure in all aspects. In the West, in contrast, the matter of Mary’s sinlessness was debated for much of the second millennium c.e. The different opinions about Mary’s sinlessness centered on two questions: what her holiness consists of and when it began.

The Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception represents a confluence of at least three sources. First of all, at the level of grassroots faith, Mary’s holiness—and therefore closeness to her son and her powers of intercession—seem never to have been in doubt to any meaningful degree. Second is the immense impact of Augustine’s conception of original sin, as deriving from the Fall and transmitted from generation to generation. Third, liturgical celebrations have played an instrumental role in the development of the theology of Mary: as early as the sixth century, a feast of the birth of Mary is recorded as taking place annually in Jerusalem, and the feast commemorating her conception appears in the church calendar there only a century later.

In the West, the feast of Mary’s conception was particularly popular in England and spread to mainland Europe after 1000 c.e. Precisely what was being celebrated was subject to differing interpretations and evaluations. Not all thinkers were convinced that Mary had been conceived without contracting original sin. Bernard of Clairvaux argued that the marital union of Mary’s parents would inevitably have been marked by original sin, and that she would thus necessarily have inherited it. Aquinas held that the theory of the Immaculate Conception detracted from the unique dignity of Christ and taught that Mary, unlike Christ who was indeed conceived without original sin, had in fact contracted it but that she was cleansed of it before being born. This scheme thus tended to associate Mary’s freedom from sin with her virginity rather with her conception.

In the second half of the thirteenth century, theologians sought to present a more optimistic anthropology and to rethink the interpretation of the Fall. Scotus rejected the traditional Augustinian model (in which original sin was identified with concupiscence), and proposed a more optimistic anthropology in which Mary could have inherited the physical condition of humanity after the Fall without necessarily contracting original sin. The merit that Christ would go on to gain through his sacrificial death was, as it were, pre-assigned to Mary before the event. Prevention being a greater good than cure, her soul was preserved or protected from the diminution of original sin. To the objection that this would mean that Mary would not need a redeemer, Scotus argues that even though Mary did not contract original sin, she was nonetheless still in need of the union with God that humanity gains through the Incarnation: even sinless human nature needs Christ. An omnipotent God certainly could have (potuit) arranged matters thus. Moreover, since it was fitting (decuit) that he should have done this, God did in fact act (fecit) to give Mary the unique privilege of being kept from contracting original sin. In this way, God ensured her complete freedom to consent to his plan for the Incarnation.

Acceptance of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception grew slowly but steadily. The Council of Basle proclaimed in 1439 that the Immaculate Conception was a “pious doctrine” in accord with Catholic faith. The degree of the Council of Trent on original sin (1546) did not include Mary in its conclusions, which left the matter undecided. Among theologians, controversy continued, with the Jesuits and Franciscans championing the Immaculate Conception, and the Dominicans continuing to oppose it, but gradually the Immaculate Conception became a commonly accepted part of normal Catholic teaching. Having consulted the world’s bishops, Pope Pius IX, in his Bull Ineffabilis Deus (1854) declared that Mary, “from the first instant of her conception, by a unique privilege and the grace of almighty God, by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of humankind, was preserved pure from all stain of original sin.” The miraculous events at Lourdes a few years later seemed to many to confirm the pope’s actions and the authority of the Church.

The belief that Mary was preserved from original sin is unique to Catholicism: while fully accepting that Mary did not sin personally, Orthodox Christians do not accept Augustine’s notion of original sin, and also deny the right of a pope to make a dogmatic definition binding on Christians in the absence of an ecumenical council involving other bishops. Most Protestants also reject the belief as being unbiblical, the fruit of human deduction rather than divine revelation, and as seeming to allow Mary to avoid the need for the universal redemption wrought by Jesus’s death.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 37 Dormition of the Virgin. Ivory plaque. Constantinople, late tenth cent.‒early eleventh cent.

The other Marian dogma to receive a formal and infallible papal confirmation concerns the end of Mary’s life. The New Testament says nothing about Mary after we last see her in Acts 1:14. A legend first mentioned in the fourth century tells that the apostle John took her to live with him in Ephesus. (An alternative tradition also exists that Mary spent her last days in Jerusalem). The Ephesus tradition appeared to be ratified by the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774‒1824) concerning Mary’s last days on earth and the subsequent discovery in Ephesus (fig. 36) of a ruin believed to match the descriptions of Mary’s house related by Emmerich. Given that there was no place where Mary appeared to have been buried, by the fourth century speculation grew that like Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament, Mary had been taken up into heaven. From the fifth century onward, there developed in a number of languages a corpus of apocryphal Transitus Mariae (On Mary’s transfer) accounts that related Mary’s death in Jerusalem, surrounded by the apostles who had been miraculously brought back there. These narratives are the source of the standard iconography of the Dormition (the “falling asleep” of Mary) (fig. 37) in the Eastern Church. References in patristic homilies suggest that there were two traditions. According to one version, Mary died and her body, separated from her soul but transported to a hidden realm, remains uncorrupted while awaiting the resurrection of all, Alternatively, Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven without dying. Of the two, the former appears to be more ancient, and continues to be the understanding of Orthodox Christians.

Liturgical feasts commemorating the end of Mary’s life are recorded in Egypt and France in the sixth century, followed a hundred years later in Rome, and Mary’s assumption became one of the major Marian celebrations of the Catholic Church’s calendar. While the conviction that she was assumed into heaven seems to have been largely uncontroverted, theologians worried at the question of Mary’s death: if the Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin, would this not mean that she would have also been immune from its gravest result, death? On the other hand, others argued that the intimate union with her son would mean that she would have died as he did, but been resurrected immediately, without having to wait for the general resurrection.

In 1946, Pope Pius XII enquired of all the world’s Catholic bishops whether the belief in Mary’s assumption was universal, and to ascertain if it could and should be promulgated as dogma. The response was overwhelmingly positive. On November 1, 1950, to great acclamation and the jubilation of the crowds that had gathered in Rome, the Pope declared it to be a binding belief that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” The definition deliberately left open the question of Mary’s death for future deliberation.

To a Protestant “minimalism” concerning Mary there also corresponds a Catholic “maximalism” that is not limited to these four dogmas and which goes beyond what is taught in the Catholic Catechism. The faith instinct that Mary can and does intercede before God dates to at least the end of the second century: the Sub tuum praesidium asks that Mary protect and rescue the petitioner. Over the centuries, popular religion, liturgy, art and literature, homilies, and devotional writings gave increasing emphasis on Mary’s role in mediation for humans before God: Bernard of Clairvaux referred to Mary as “the mediatrix of salvation,” while the words of the Salve Regina call her “advocate.” Mediation—praying to Mary to ask that she pray for others—is the essence of her cult.

But a more elevated role is suggested by the title co-redemptrix. The ancient Eve‒Mary parallel implies that in salvation Mary has as active a role as did Eve in humanity’s fall from grace, Mary’s fiat being the first act of human cooperation in the redemption to be brought about by Christ. The theme of Marian co-redemption first emerges in Catholic writings of the sixteenth century and became widely applied to Mary in the following century, finding its way into papal documents and allocutions. Some Marian enthusiasts of a notably maximalist stripe champion the cause of a “fifth dogma,” hoping for a new, infallible declaration by a pope. The Catholic hierarchy has resisted any new declaration as being inopportune in terms of its impact on ecumenical relations, while at the same time continuing to affirm much of the content implied by the title co-redemptrix.

Vatican II and the Eclipse of Mariology

The period between the declarations of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary represents a high-water mark of Marian maximalism in the life of the Catholic Church. Organizations such as the Legion of Mary enriched parish life, the rosary was regularly practiced both privately and publicly, Mariological congresses attracted many attendants, and few Catholic homes did not have at least one statue or picture of the Virgin. In many quarters, therefore, expectations were high that the Second Vatican Council would issue an important statement on Mary, even a new dogma to honor her. The preliminary discussions as to precisely where and how the Council should discuss the mother of Jesus indicated a fundamental question: What is the place of Mary in the scheme of salvation and her appropriate role in the life of the Christian community?

A draft document bore the title About the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the People. By a narrow and highly contested margin, the bishops at the Council decided not to treat Mary in a separate document, but rather to incorporate Marian doctrine in a dedicated chapter of the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, ch. 8). Bishops from majority-Catholic countries where devotion to Mary was of national significance (such as Poland) voted against bishops from northwestern Europe, more sensitive to relations with Protestants, and who urged a more restrained treatment. Moving determinedly away from stressing Mary’s exceptional privileges, the chapter stressed her subordinate role with respect to her son, and situated Mary “in the mystery of Christ and the Church,” portraying her as the believing member par excellence and as the Church’s model and mother.

While Vatican II avoided formally granting Mary the title “Mother of the Church,” Paul VI used it in his speech at the end of the third session of the Council. The roots of the idea of Mary’s motherhood of the Church lie in Luke, Acts, and John, and as a theme it was made explicit by Ambrose and Augustine. As such, the phrase perfectly reflected the Council’s desire to return to Christianity’s biblical and patristic roots.

In Europe and North America, the twenty or so years following the Council witnessed a notable and dramatic decline in Marian theology and devotion. Throughout the world, the language of the liturgy changed from Latin to the vernacular, and the importance of scripture and the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of Catholics were emphasized. In tandem with these radical changes came a challenge: the very existence of Mariology as an independent field of inquiry seemed questionable and outdated. Theologians trained in a preconciliar mindset sought to understand the relocation of the doctrine of Mary in relation to the Church and Christ, but also the dramatic and often uneven changes in religious practice that happened as pastoral leaders began to implement the recommendations of the Council. Papal teaching, however, continued to stress the pastoral and theological value of venerating Mary. Marialis Cultus, the 1974 Apostolic Letter of Paul VI concerning “the right ordering and development of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary” called for veneration of Mary to be aligned with the official liturgy. John Paul II dedicated his papacy to her care, and referred constantly to Mary in his many addresses and writings, especially in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater, and his orienting of Catholicism to a distinctly Marian direction is an important part of his legacy.

New perspectives were also arising: a first wave of feminist theologians from North America and Western Europe rejected the traditional Marian paradigm that emphasized her unique privileges as proffering an impossible role model for women, and for bolstering female subordination by an exclusively male hierarchy. At the same time, nonetheless, the post-conciliar period also gave birth to a renewed and diverse array of images of Mary. While Catholic traditionalists were upholding their view of Mary, liberal Catholics were beginning to champion her as a prophetic sign of hope for the oppressed facing systemic injustice. A first generation of Latin American liberation theologians had been skeptical of popular Marian devotion as being entirely too other-worldly and as only offering solace in a world of suffering rather than motivating social action to bring about an end to injustice. Yet their successors came to find in the Magnificat a Mary who could be read in a socioeconomic and political key as well as in a spiritual mode. In the same way, feminist theologians of succeeding generations—particularly those from outside Europe and North America—have found positive dimensions in Mary: in her free cooperation with God, she is a sister in faith who rather than representing an idealized and passive motherhood, provides women with a model of courageous, spirit-filled integrity. Others have sought to rediscover in Mary the symbol of the divine feminine that provides an authentic model of women’s identity.

Popular piety, especially in the global South, seems on the whole, to be largely immune to the concerns of academic theologians and the waxing and waning of intellectual fashions. The great Marian shrines on all continents report continual increases in the numbers of pilgrims. In the Catholic world, Mary continues to be one of the most salient emblems of a distinctly Catholic identity and is an inseparable, essential part of faith. In the countries of Orthodoxy, Mary continues to occupy her historical place in the liturgy and also in popular devotion. In 2011, over half a million Muscovites stood in line in subzero temperatures for days to venerate and pray before a relic believed to be the belt of Mary, which had been brought to Russia from Mount Athos in Greece.

Mary in the Twenty-First Century

The multifaceted phenomenon of Mary continues to thrive and evolve. Of particular note is the Protestant “rediscovery” of Mary. Some sectors of Reform Christianity maintain a historic lack of interest in the mother of Jesus and a deep suspicion of directing prayers and praise to her: the eminent theologian Karl Barth (d. 1968), while fully accepting the virgin birth of Jesus and that Mary was indeed the mother of God, identified in the practice of venerating Mary everything that was wrong with Catholicism. Yet toward the end of the twentieth century, some Evangelical theologians and others from established Protestant churches developed a renewed interest in the historical figure of the mother of Jesus, even coming to understand that Mary can be approached in prayer in the same way as one might ask other people for their prayers. In contrast, those currents of Anglicanism deriving from the Oxford Movement, along with some parts of the Lutheran communion have maintained a historical focus in Mary, celebrating her feasts in the liturgical calendar and accepting at least some of the beliefs of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. An ecumenical Mariology, in which Mary is a bridge figure rather than a cause of intra-Christian division, is already a reality.

A new Marian endeavor is also emerging in inter-religious relations. A long-standing interest in the “Jesus of history” has led to a corresponding desire among Jews and Christians alike to understand the young girl Maryam in her original Jewish context. Muslims see Jesus only as a prophet, rather than the Son of God, yet Marīam (Mary), the mother of Isa (Jesus) is of particular importance in Islam. Marīam is the only woman named in the Qur’an, which dedicates Sura 19 to her and mentions her over fifty times, relating her birth to Imran and Anna, the miraculous circumstances of her upbringing, the annunciation by the angel Gabriel, and the virginal conception of Isa—passages, which suggest the strength of interest in Mary in sixth-century Arabia. Devotion to Marīam, particularly among women, is well known in the Muslim world, and Islam shares with Christianity a greater degree of common belief about Mary than it does about Jesus. An inter-Abrahamic Mariology that can include Jewish, Christian, and Islamic differences and convergences promises to open up new horizons of practical dialogue as well as intellectual investigation.

Mary and Mariology

Fig. 38 Maria Kannon. Japan, seventeenth cent. Salle des Martyrs, Société des Missions étrangères de Paris.

Similar vistas may also open up in relations between Christianity and other Eastern religions. The Buddhist Guan-Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion, has iconographical features and characteristics that Christianity associates with Mary: during the Edo period, Japanese Christians secretly venerated Mary under the guise of statues known as Maria Kannon (Guan-Yin) (fig. 38). In India, where Christians are a small and sometimes beleaguered minority, devotion to Mother Mary is widespread among Hindus, who represent the majority of pilgrims to the country’s many Marian shrines (fig. 39). Over the last two thousand years, the development of Christian beliefs concerning Mary shows that the piety of ordinary believers may be in an ambivalent relationship with its officially espoused doctrines. The same may well be true in other religions, whose beliefs and practices represent a new frontier for Mariological thought.

Orthodox theology has maintained a comparatively constant teaching and belief concerning the Mother of God, being largely untouched by either religious reformation or the processes of modernity, and devotion to Mary remains a central part of Orthodox identity in the homelands of Eastern Europe and in the diaspora. Catholicism, on the other hand, is in a period of dramatic change as its demographic center (though not its intellectual fulcrum) has shifted to the countries of the global South. In many parts of Western Europe, institutional Christianity is in a period of steep decline, and the same underlying pattern characterizes North American Christianity. These are precisely the geo-cultural regions which were central in most of the developments in Marian thought and culture over the last millennium. Latin American devotion to Mary has, it is true, been affected by the spread of secularism and a significant growth in Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity, yet Mary continues to be a central part of the Latin American imaginary. For the millions of Catholic immigrants to the United States, the figure of Mary is a reassuring, maternal presence, an anchor of faith and culture in a new and unfamiliar environment.

Catholics from the global South do not necessarily share many of the experiences of their co-religionists in North America and Western Europe and their religious practices were less affected by the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. The images of Mary that will emerge in the twenty-first century are therefore likely to draw on the rich and global heritage of faith and culture of European Catholicism. Yet the Mary of the twenty-first century and beyond will also reflect the concerns and realities of Christians from those areas, who already represent a numerical majority. Whatever shape she takes, the figure of Mary will likely continue to be, like her son, a “sign of contradiction” (Luke 2:34), a potent symbol for some of all that is objectionable or outlandish about Christianity or forms of it. And at the same time, she will no doubt continue to attract, fascinate, and compel many others.


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