Chronicle of Marian devotion doesn't go far enough

By  Marc B. Cels, Catholic Register Special
  • January 29, 2010
{mosimage}Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary by Miri Rubin (Yale University Press, 533 pages, hardcover $35).

Despite its title, this excellent new book is not a history of the Virgin Mary — it is a history of devotion to the mother of Jesus in medieval Catholic Europe. It presents the creative ways that Christians — and even some Jews and Muslims — thought about Mary and expressed themselves in writing, music, liturgy, art and popular devotions. It also looks back to the origins of the Marian devotion among Eastern Christians, follows the controversies about Mary during the Reformation and traces the spread of her cult to European colonies.

To write such a history is a daunting task. Nevertheless, a history of Mary must include the last, eventful four centuries.

Miri Rubin, a noted historian of medieval culture and religion at Queen Mary University, London, shows an enthusiastic interest in the richness and complexity of Marian history and lucidly shares the fruit of her research. She writes from a secular perspective that examines how diverse and changing circumstances influenced culture and religious expression.

{sa 0300105002}Rubin demonstrates impressive sympathy and graciousness towards the people about whom she writes, apt virtues for a history of Mary. She helps readers put aside their own, modern presuppositions to better understand the world views of people long dead. She succeeds even with beliefs and practices that now seem strange or even disturbing. These include the unsavory traditions that oppressed and denigrated women and Jews which have stained Marian devotion over the centuries.

Part One examines the early development of legends, devotions and representations of Mary among early Christians who were struggling both to understand how God became human and the correct attitude towards human bodies, especially female bodies. Part Two examines the development of Mary up to 1000.

Greek Christians were enthusiastically devoted to Mary — depicted as an imperial matron, enthroned in regal and austere majesty. In the semi-Christian barbarian West, however, the heroic sanctity of martyrs appealed more to warrior values. Roman Catholics were therefore slower to embrace Marian devotion.

Part Three covers from 1000 to 1200, when aristocratic monks and nuns spread devotion to Mary through Catholic Europe. A growth in population meant new towns were built around cathedrals dedicated to Mary.

Part Four discusses the late Middle Ages, 1200-1400, when preaching friars (Dominicans and Franciscans) encouraged common people to imagine Mary and her family more realistically, transforming Mary into a tender and affectionate mother.

Part Five explains the proliferation of Marian feasts in the 15th century as well as growing criticism of such enthusiasm. Part Six explains Reformation controversies and how her cult was spread overseas up to about 1600.

I was delighted by the parade of familiar and more obscure people appearing in Rubin’s book. The scope of her research is impressive and meticulously cited, ensuring her history will be a standard guide for students and researchers.

I wonder, however, whether general readers will be overwhelmed by the many examples Rubin packs into each chapter. It is not always clear whether an example is illustrative of a general trend, a unique expression or an influential innovation. Although her descriptions of paintings, sculptures and other objects are evocative, I would have appreciated if the text had referred to the book’s 29 beautiful colour plates.

The most enjoyable sections are focused on a single personality, exploring his or her world view and context. For example, the 12th-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen is well-known for her writings and musical compositions. I enjoyed listening to a recording of the Marian hymn by Hildegard while reading Rubin’s delightful discussion. A book constructed around focused case studies may have been less dense and more accessible.

Had Rubin limited her examples in this way, she could have extended her history beyond 1600 without producing an unwieldy book. Instead, her conclusion, oddly named “After Mary,” only briefly sketches Marian history up to the present day and offers some observations on modern trends. The last 400 years, however, encompass some of the most significant developments in Christian history relevant to Mary.

Rubin concludes by relating some of the ambiguities with which Mary is regarded today and the implications of her history. Can Mary remain an inspiring figure of female sanctity, or is she too much an artifact of an outdated, patriarchal tradition? Rubin’s history teaches us to reject such a polarity because Marian devotion has always been multifaceted and adaptable to new and various circumstances, often embracing contradictions within the faith of devotees.

To those who wish to deepen their understanding of Marian devotion, rediscover historic imagery, retire traditions that no longer nourish the spirit or even dare to invent new ways of relating to Mary and her Son, Rubin’s eloquent book will be a rewarding read.

(Cels teaches history at Athabasca University’s Centre for Global and Social Analysis.)

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