Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary by Miri Rubin

Books Faith History Islam The Catholic Church The Church of England

In 1512, Erasmus went on pilgrimage to the famous Marian shrine of Walsingham in 1512 and described his journey in the satirical A Pilgrimage for Religion’s Sake. He lampooned the legion of salesmen who attempted to sell a square of tattered cloth by passing it off as Mary’s veil, or a bottle of milk as her breast milk. And he mocked the credulous pilgrims who flocked to “Falsingham” in the hope of miraculous cures or spiritual renewal.

At the cusp of the Reformation, poking fun at the cult of the Virgin was no longer considered blasphemy. Humanists such as Erasmus and the ever-growing band of Church reformers who followed Martin Luther openly discussed the need to restore Mary to what she had been in the Gospels: a Jewish virgin who found fortitude in her faith and whiled away her days in humble domesticity. This slimmed-down Mary was worlds away from the Catholics’ Holy Queen: majestic, triumphant and the all-powerful intermediary between humanity and God.

Whether in her Protestant or Catholic guise, Jesus’s mother appeared everywhere by the time Erasmus was making his pilgrimage: in paintings, music, poems and street processions; on military banners, in parish churches, at court.

Yet the early Christians, who needed compelling narratives to support and spread their faith, had looked to saints and martyrs, not Mary, for this. Men like St Bartholomew and women like the martyr Perpetua were far more popular in the early Church. Mary was a shadowy figure, with only a walk-on part in the Gospels – though the Koran devotes an entire chapter, or sura, to Maryam, revered as the mother of the Prophet Jesus and an example for Muslim women. (Indeed, in Islam, Maryam is the third most important female figure, after Khadija, Mohammed’s first wife and Fatima, his daughter.)

By the second century, however, Christian Copts in Egypt, familiar with the ancient mother-goddess Isis, refashioned Mary the humble woman into the magnificent Mother of God in which the human and the divine combined. When the Fathers of the Church met for the First Council, at Nicene in 325 AD, Mary’s extraordinary character became part of the Creed Christians repeat to this day: hers was a virgin birth, with Jesus conceived of the Holy Spirit. (The Koran also emphasises the point that Maryam was a virgin. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, saw Mary, chaste and obedient, as a perfect role model for the men and women in religious orders who were becoming the backbone of the new faith.)

In Byzantium Mary was elevated to cult figure. A furious row over her status – was she wholly human, or, as God’s mother, more than human – split the court and, spilled into the streets of Constantinople. In the end, Mary was recognised as Theotokos, the God’s bearer. Emperor Theodosius II and his powerful sisters turned devotion to her into the defining characteristic of their dynasty. Pulcheria, the emperor’s eldest sister, took a vow of virginity and travelled through the empire founding churches in Mary’s name. She created a pattern repeated down the centuries by extraordinary abbesses, anchoresses, canonesses, nuns and beguines.

These women, all with varying links to religious orders, held up the image of the pious mother as a shield behind which they could dedicate themselves to scholarship, politics and the arts. Mary as patron of the first feminists sounds counter-intuitive – Marina Warner’s brilliant 1976 study of Mary as Catholic icon, Alone of All her Sex, depicted Marian devotion as a beautiful but ultimately misogynist enterprise; but some of the most enthralling pages of Rubin’s scholarly history quote from the works of magnificent women such as the musician, scientist and theologian Hildegard of Bingen and the mystic poet Julian of Norwich, and chronicle the little-known influence of the German canoness and poet Hrotsvitha and the French nun and writer Ida of Nivelles.

A very different role was forced on Mary by some medieval Christians: ballast against the Jews. Chronicles, plays and prayers tell of Mary turning her back on her people and condemning the Jews as Jesus’s murderers. For their own part, some Jews defended themselves against crusading Christianity by vilifying Christ’s mother as, in the words of the 11th-century Rabbi Kalonicos, “a menstruating and wanton woman”.

Rubin, a medieval historian, draws on folk legend, art, history and literature to convey Mary as a multi-layered persona who – from the medieval peasant to the 20th-century communist painter Käthe Kollwitz – has captured the imagination. Relying on impressive scholarship, Rubin shows how Mary, meek and mild, maternal and infinitely compassionate, shaped culture and even history more than any dictator. In her name, women lived independently of men and families; and the oppressed over-threw dictatorships. In her name, too, Jews were persecuted, Crusaders battled, Inquisitors probed. Anyone who questions the power of religious faith will find in “Mother of God” an eloquent warning.