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The Virgin in History

The Virgin

by Geoffrey Ashe
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 262 pp., $11.25

The worship of the Virgin Mary is central to the life of the modern Catholic Church. In its dogmatic teachings she is held to have been the Mother of God, a perpetual virgin, conceived without sin and transported to heaven without bodily dissolution. She has her own prayers: the Ave Maria, the Salve Regina, and the devotion of the Rosary. Her feasts are dotted through the Church’s calendar. Her relics and shrines are to be found from Walsingham to Guadalupe. Her image adorns the walls of countless pious households and, although the aesthetic poverty of today’s saccharine and tinselly Catholicism makes it easy to forget the fact, she has been the inspiration of some of the finest achievements of the human spirit: the cathedrals of Chartres and Strasbourg; the paintings of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, and Velasquez; the poetry of Dante, Petrarch, and Yeats; the music of Palestrina.

Yet to contemplate the present dimensions of the Marian cult, in all its mixture of sublimity and tawdriness, and then to look back to the beginnings of Christianity is to be confronted by an acute historical problem. How and why did this worship of Mary develop? It played no part in the original Christian Church and Mary herself is a relatively inconspicuous figure in the Gospels. How many present-day worshippers of the Virgin realize just how few references there are to her in the New Testament and how flimsy a foundation they provide for the massive doctrinal structure which has been reared upon them? It is not just that the traditional nativity scene turns out not to be there at all (there is no mention of a stable; the “manager” could equally well have been translated as “crib”; the ox and ass come from a passage in the Old Testament book of Isaiah).

More disconcerting is the notable infrequency of the Virgin’s appearances. She is mentioned only twice by Saint Mark (once in a disparaging context). Saint Matthew includes her in his brief account of the nativity, but virtually omits her thereafter. Saint John brings her in twice, once at the marriage at Cana, where she is apparently rebuked by Christ (“Woman, what have I to do with thee?”), once at the foot of the cross. Saint Luke’s more developed narrative describes the annunciation, visitation, nativity, and purification, but even he mentions Mary only once thereafter. In none of the Gospels does Christ appear to his mother after his resurrection, though in the Acts of the Apostles she is once seen among them after the Ascension. Her death goes completely unmentioned.

The Evangelists thus offer little support for the view that Mary was unusually virtuous or that she had any influence on Jesus; indeed Mark leaves the impression that she rejected his mission. The Epistles of Saint Paul, which mention her only once, confirm that there was no initial Marian devotion in the apostolic church. In short, of the four modern Catholic dogmas about Mary, only one, that she was the Mother of God, has firm New Testament backing. Another, that she was a virgin before and after Christ’s birth, gets only doubtful support, even if Jesus’ brothers and sisters can be explained away. As for the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception, they are not suggested by the Gospels at all.

The Catholic Church is unembarrassed by these discrepancies, for it has never claimed to rest its teachings on the Bible alone; it prefers to emphasize the value of progressive revelation, the traditions of the Church and the periodic clarification of doctrine by an infallible Pope. But to Protestant fundamentalists the development of Mariolatry seems a distressing aberration from the original message of the New Testament, while to irreverent skeptics it is an apt subject for ribald mockery, there being a long pedigree behind all those Jewish jokes about the Virgin Birth. The historian who seeks to explain the growth and development of the cult has therefore to remain dispassionate before what is an exceedingly delicate topic. He also needs exceptional resources of learning and intellect to unravel a subject with such complex ramifications.

Neither of the authors of the two latest additions to the already vast literature of Mariology would claim to be either very learned or very dispassionate. Marina Warner is a journalist who is avowedly writing to exorcise the legacy of her convent education. Having been brought up originally to regard the Virgin as the holiest of all beings, she has now come to feel that the cult involves a subtle denigration of both women and humanity. Geoffrey Ashe is the author of various popular works on mythology and was once the leader of a lay religious society associated with a Marian shrine. In his view it is the cult of the Virgin which has given Christianity most of its vitality; and his implicit message is that the Church should now face up to what he believes to be the implications of that cult by admitting women to positions of power within its hierarchy.

Mr. Ashe’s book is limited in scope and not very profound. Essentially he has two new points to make. The first is that Mary’s life was one of bitter disappointment. She began in a blaze of glory as the mother of the long-promised Jewish Messiah. But her son rejected the role she had envisaged for him, maintaining that his kingdom was not of this world. The two became estranged and Mary accordingly faded out of the Gospel story. This is by no means an implausible reading, though it is not helped by sundry imaginative flourishes, such as the suggestion that Joseph died “perhaps through an accident at work”; and, like all such readings, it seems wholly incapable of proof or disproof.

Mr. Ashe’s second contribution is an attempt to answer the question of why it was that the Christian Church, which had begun life without any cult of Mary, should by AD 431 have come round to proclaiming at the Council of Ephesus that Mary was the Mother of God. The reason, he suggests, lay in the threat posed to the Church by a growing heretical sect of “Marianists.” This sect worshipped the Virgin, who was seen as a sort of reincarnation of ancient female divinities, particularly of Wisdom, the demigoddess of the Old Testament. It was staffed by women priests and it offered so powerful a challenge that the official Church was forced to adopt its central tenet, Mary’s motherhood of God:

A force outside the recorded life of the Church gathered strength, bore down resistance, and carried Mary aloft into the place prepared for her, where she was crowned by public acclaim as a democratic heroine.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ashe’s theory is, as he disarmingly admits, a piece of “historical fiction.” It is a wholly speculative expansion of a well-known reference by Saint Epiphanius (writing circa AD 374-377) to an Eastern sect of “Collyridians,” who were mostly women and who worshipped Mary as the Queen of Heaven. It is not so much history as private fantasy, somewhat in the spirit of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, that richly imaginative work to which Mr. Ashe readily admits his indebtedness.

Nevertheless, Ashe’s theory does at least draw attention to the origin of the Marian cult in private devotion and apocryphal scripture rather than in the official teachings of the Church. Moreover, Mr. Ashe is right to suggest that the cult bore an obvious affinity to the worship of the ancient pagan goddesses. It is not difficult to regard Mary as the reincarnation of Isis suckling Horus, of Inanna weeping for Dumuzi, of Cybele, the Magna Mater, or of Diana, the virgin goddess of the Moon. It is also tempting to see more than coincidence in the building of the Roman Church of Santa Maria Maggiore near the site of the former temple of Juno Lucina, protectress of women in childbirth, or in the proclamation of Mary’s divine motherhood at Ephesus, home of the great Diana. Nor is it surprising that many mythologists, obsessed by the great Mother goddesses of pagan antiquity, should have suggested that the rise of the Virgin Mary was an inevitable return to that Jungian archetype of a tender, loving, and virginal mother whom all men (and, for that matter, all women) unconsciously desire.

Marina Warner also regards the myth of the Virgin Mary as “a truly popular creation.” But she draws for it a much more subtle genealogy, involving the interaction of popular belief and theological inquiry, until in the end the Marian doctrine, as she puts it, “breaks to the surface like a new atoll.” She recognizes the element of deliberate creation in the Church’s myth of Mary, and she attempts to analyze the specific social and historical circumstances which helped to shape it. Her book explores the cult in all its ramifications, peeling aside each successive accretion of doctrine and devotion in order to examine its moral, social, and emotional implications.

Though well-constructed and written with an attractive combination of astringent intelligence and warm sensitivity, it is far from being a work of original scholarship. For the outlines of her subject Miss Warner is obviously indebted to previous writers. She has only nibbled at the vast edifice of Mariological scholarship; the standard works of such pious but learned authors as Martin Jugie, Gabriele Roschini, or Carlo Cecchelli do not even appear in her bibliography. Scholars will be disconcerted to find her confusing Saint Epiphanius, the fourth-century bishop of Salamis, with his namesake, the sixth-century patriarch of Constantinople, or sending that home-loving North-umbrian, the Venerable Bede, on a hitherto unrecorded visit to Jerusalem. But, despite its occasional shallowness, the book abounds in perceptive insights. It is based on wide reading and it brings out admirably just what a many-layered construction the fully developed cult of the Virgin was to become.

So far as official dogma is concerned, the two decisive phases in the cult were the fifth century, when the Church accepted Mary’s motherhood of God and her perpetual virginity, and the last century and a half, which have seen Papal endorsement of her Immaculate Conception (1854) and her Assumption (1950). But throughout the intervening period the cult developed and proliferated. Legends spread of the Virgin’s miraculous powers, while apocryphal literature and Biblical commentary remedied the deficiencies of the Gospels by constructing for her a richly variegated biography. Theologians transferred to Mary the attributes of the Old Testament figure of Wisdom and of the woman in Revelation, xii, “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (though this text raised problems, since the woman in question is said to have cried out in childbirth, a wholly unacceptable reaction for the Virgin, who was thought to have given birth effortlessly, probably standing up at the time).

The failure of the Gospels to record Christ’s appearance to Mary after his resurrection was explained away by pointing out that, since the Gospels were well known to contain nothing superfluous, they could hardly be expected to record so obviously predictable an event. In this way Mary was gradually transformed from a submissive instrument of God’s purposes into a goddess in her own right: Co-Redeemer, and, in some of the more extravagant forms of Mariolatry, the only being with power over God himself.

There is no topic more worthy of a Voltairean pen than the intellectual ingenuity with which successive generations of Biblical commentators, while keeping to the prevailing rules of exegesis, have nevertheless managed to reinterpret the New Testament so as to bring it into line with their current preoccupations; exegetes capable of using the Gospels to justify war or private property or (nowadays) homosexuality need have no difficulty with the Virgin Mary.

Marina Warner handles this theme with considerable tact. But the composite personality with which she endows Mary does not perhaps do sufficient justice to the wide range of local variations in the meaning of her cult. (“Of all Our Ladies,” says a character in one of Sir Thomas More’s writings, “I love best Our Lady of Walsingham.” “And I,” says another, “Our Lady of Ipswich.”)

It is also a pity that she does not probe more deeply into the political circumstances governing the fortunes of Mariolatry. She shows how the doctrine first took shape as part of the early Church’s attempt to outlaw unacceptable heresies, and she discusses its association with the claims of the early medieval Papacy and with the later quarrels between the Dominican and Franciscan orders. But she might have said much more about its relationship to the political intentions of the Vatican in modern times.

What were the pressures that led the Papacy to accept the claims of Bernadette at Lourdes and of the children who saw the Virgin at Fatima, but to reject thousands of similar alleged visions? How closely can the revival of Mariolatry be associated with the Church’s fear of liberalism, anticlericalism, and Marxism? It was only after the searing experience of the 1848 revolution that Pius IX gave papal sanction to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, though it was rooted in a thousand years of popular devotion; and it was during the cold war that Pius XII proclaimed the Assumption so as “to stir up the faithful to greater piety.” When the Vietcong took Saigon in 1975 the Virgin’s statue outside the cathedral is said to have wept. Should the new emphasis on Mary be seen as a reactionary attempt by the Church to distance itself from secular forces? Or was it a concession to those forces, in the shape of a softer religion of humanity? And did it not in fact give the Catholic Church a new lease of life?

Marina Warner does not really answer these questions. But she does illuminate three other themes of great importance. The first is the way in which the concept of the Virgin has been shaped by prevailing social assumptions. In the iconography of Byzantium, Mary is a hieratic figure, aloof and imperial. In the medieval West she softens, suckling a child who plays or even falls asleep at the breast. Yet she retains her queenly qualities. Heaven is a court with a king and a queen; even in modern devotion Mary remains “Our Lady,” as if she were some feudal chatelaine. The worship of the Virgin thus becomes a charter for a hierarchical social order.

Miss Warner’s second, and more insistent, theme is the impact of the Marian cult upon the position of women. In 1974 the Virgin was put forward as the Papacy’s ideal of the New Woman, but her virtues remain the traditional feminine ones. She is soft, gentle, and yielding. She is a mother whose only acceptable effluvia are tears and milk. (Calvin remarked sardonically in his treatise on relics that there were so many phials of Virgin’s milk about that if she had been a cow or a professional wet-nurse she could hardly have produced more. The milk catered for a demand which the modern vendors of Liebfraumilch continue to exploit.) The Holy Family is a patriarchal affair in which the mother intercedes with the sterner menfolk.

Jung once claimed that the equality of women needed to be “metaphysically anchored in the figure of a divine woman.” But Marina Warner is surely right to say that the cult of the Virgin, whether or not it initially raised the status of women, ultimately taught them the virtue of submission: “Her cult flourishes in countries where women rarely participate in public life and are relegated to the domestic domain.” To Simone de Beauvoir medieval paintings of the Nativity appear as “the supreme masculine victory‌. For the first time in human history the mother kneels before her son; she freely accepts her inferiority.”

It is not surprising that in the seventeenth century it was among the Protestant sects of Baptists and Quakers, hostile to all forms of Mariolatry, that women were first allowed to preach, or that today it is in Protestant countries that the emancipation of women has proceeded furthest. Marina Warner seems unaware of this when she writes of “the sombre-suited masculine world of the Protestant religion”; indeed she suggests that, from the woman’s point of view, any goddess is better than no goddess at all. But it is not easy to see how the position of ordinary women is much improved by a goddess whose main role is to be a mother and who is defined as free from sin, from sexual desire, from painful childbirth, and from death.* As Marina Warner shows, the cult of Mary emphasizes the fallen state of womankind, while creating in the adherent a hopeless yearning and sense of inferiority. The Virgin “establishes the child as the destiny of woman, but escapes the sexual intercourse necessary for all other women to fulfill that destiny.”

Marina Warner’s third point, therefore, is that Mariolatry involves the denigration not just of women but of mankind. For it exemplifies the Church’s doctrine that we are all fatally estranged from goodness, that sin is the inexorable human condition and that sexuality is its greatest manifestation. Of course, the worship of the Virgin has always had its erotic aspects: commentators applied to her the imagery of the Song of Songs and in Heaven she was portrayed as the Bride of Christ. Medieval legend even pictured her as a Phantom Lover, reclaiming hapless bridegrooms who had rashly dedicated themselves to her in their youth. In the nineteenth century John Ruskin was to be captivated by the coquettish Vierge dorĂŠe of Amiens, “with her gay soubrette’s smile.”

But essentially the love of the Virgin was an alternative to earthly love rather than a sanction for it. Indeed the cult helped to etherealize courtly love by teaching that the only devotion worthy of the name had to be chaste. The modern ideal of quick consummation should not allow us to mock the sexual sublimation implicit in much Mariolatry or to overlook the potentially refining influence which the ideal of chastity could have upon the brutal realities of medieval life. Yet, even when its civilizing effects have been allowed for, it seems that the cult of the Virgin introduced a new element of guilt into human sexual love. Dante appears to have been almost unique in his capacity to fuse his earthly (though significantly unconsummated) love for Beatrice with his worship of the Virgin. More characteristic was Petrarch, who had to beg Mary’s forgiveness for a lifetime’s devotion to Laura.

In Mariology even the inexorable facts of death and bodily decay are converted into proof of innate human sinfulness. It was because of her purity that Mary went up to heaven with her body whole; hence the preservation of the “uncorrupted” bodies of other female saints. Miss Warner remarks of the powdered and be-rouged body of poor Bernadette that “it would have been far greater tribute to that brief, pain-wracked life to have been buried beyond the embalmer’s reach.”

There are times when Marina Warner seems to blame on the cult of Mary the whole Christian doctrine of the Fall, although that pessimistic creed does not require Mariolatry for its support, as any dour Protestant will testify. Still, it is true that the worship of Mary sets up an ideal of womanhood which is by definition unattainable. To some this is simply proof of its nobility of aspiration: even for the Protestant Wordsworth Mary was “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” But to others it appears a means of oppressing the female sex and a recipe for fear and guilt: in Marina Warner’s words, “a continuing enemy of hope and happiness.”

Miss Warner does not underrate the realities of faith and she shows a sensitive appreciation of the artistic and literary achievements which have been accomplished in the Virgin’s name. But she writes as a woman of the modern world. To her the Virgin is neither a permanent religious truth nor an archetype of the eternal feminine: Rather, she is a historical accretion: “the instrument of a dynamic argument from the Catholic Church about the structure of society, presented as a God-given code.” Her worship is an anachronistic justification for the subordination of women, the refusal to permit contraception, and the assertion of an enduring polarity between the masculine and the feminine qualities.

It is ironic that a symbol of tenderness and love which has afforded intense comfort to innumerable believers should to troubled modern Catholics now appear increasingly unacceptable in its moral implications. But the world changes and, if they are to survive, religious symbols have to change with it.

  1. *

    Indeed, Professor C. R. Boxer has now shown in his Mary and Misogyny: Women in Iberian Expansion Overseas, 1415-1815 (Oxford, 1975) that in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies the cult of Mary went hand in hand with anti-feminism, concubinage, and a double standard of sexual morality.

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