The National Catholic Review
Sally Cunneen

As a 13th-century French poet once said, Mary is “the sea that no one exhausts.” Yet the remarkable cultural history that the medieval historian Miri Rubin has assembled from worldwide resources seems to challenge that claim. In some 500 pages she unrolls the diversity as well as the continuity of meanings that different ethnic, national and religious groups have continued to find in the Jewish mother of Jesus.

The question that interests the author is how a poor, Jewish, little-known woman became a global icon. To answer it, she draws on extensive global research of recent years. A professor at Queen Mary’s College, London University, whom Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams considers “one of the most interesting and original of British medieval historians,” Rubin approaches her task with zest and formidable credentials both as scholar and writer. Written for a wide audience, Mother of God is rich and readable, with clear explanations, poems and prayers, and is illustrated with many lesser-known images of Mary, particularly from the British Isles. It is astonishing how many still exist despite the wholesale sacking of such images during the Reformation.

Rubin divides her search into six sections. The first covers the period from the earliest mention of Mary in the Gospels and Apo-crypha to her designation as Theotokos or God-Bearer (Mother of God in the West) at the Council of Ephesus in 431. She guides us through the many contradictory and hotly contested elements of devotion to the mother of Jesus, when the Eastern Church in all its variety held much deeper reverence for her than did the Latin-speaking Roman Church.

As the royalty in Constantinople began to identify themselves with Mary, she took on imperial clothing and queenly stature. Under constant attack from farther east, the ordinary citizens of Constantinople saw in her a protector to replace the pagan goddesses Christianity was fast stripping away. The Theotokos soon became a protective mother venerated on icons just as Mary slowly absorbed the attributes and form of the nurturing, healing goddess Isis in later art. In these early centuries, the poetry and homilies of Ephrem of Syria expressed the most beautiful and influential theology in the East, raising all the mysterious paradoxes that marked Mary as poor woman and Queen of Heaven, virgin and mother, both daughter and mother of her divine father.

Educated at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before earning her doctorate at Cambridge, Rubin also shows us that arguments with the Jews were central to the emergence of Christianity. The Magnificat, which Luke ascribes to Mary, reveals her as a true daughter of Abraham, echoing the power and compassion of God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. By the late second century, however, Jews were not only questioning the virgin birth but sometimes insulting Mary as an adulteress, one who had turned on her own people. In return, when the Empire was predominantly Christian by the 5th century, various legends arose concerning Mary’s Dormition and funeral procession. According to one, Jews attacked the procession and were immediately miraculously punished. They begged Mary for help, and many converted.

Rubin’s next five sections follow the figure of Mary chronologically as devotion to her grew across the Mediterranean and Europe, later in Latin America and Asia, and finally back to a Europe deeply divided by the Reformation, which included disputes over how Mary should be depicted.

Rubin is strongest in her lengthy treatment of the European Middle Ages. Paying careful attention to the theology and liturgy of this period, when monasteries dominated the Christian world, she nevertheless concentrates on the human aspects of the widespread devotion to Mary that seemed to unite medieval Europe. To help the reader grasp how important the Virgin Mother was to the faith of Christians and even to their psychic health, the author provides many examples of emotional prose and poetry in praise of Mary by little-known monks and clerics, as well as by Anselm, Fulbert of Chartres and Bernard of Clairvaux (the latter two were believed to have tasted Mary’s milk). We learn too of the somewhat different reactions of women religious to Mary, many eager to imitate her in their desire for the virtual experience of conceiving and birthing her son. This central medieval section abounds with revelations of the rich imagery, poetry, prayer, drama and miracle stories surrounding the woman who seemed to link heaven and earth.

Along with the stories of compassion and healing attributed to Mary in the many miracle accounts of the period, the author also includes deeply troubling anti-Jewish stories and the actions to which they gave rise. Mary had from the beginning become the focus of Jewish-Christian antagonism. As early as the sixth century, the story was told of a Jewish boy thrown into the furnace by his father for eating leftover communion bread at the request of the sacristan. Mary saved him, and his mother and brother were converted to Christianity, while the unrepentant father was burned.

By the 12th and 13th centuries, similar stories abounded. Chaucer has his genteel Prioress share one on the pilgrimage to Canterbury, a sign of how acceptable anti-Jewish attitudes were among pious Christians. Meanwhile Jewish versions of the life of Christ inverted every claim of the Gospels, sometimes insulting both Jesus and Mary. The 13th and 14th centuries were punctuated by expulsions and massacres of Jewish communities as the stories, especially in Italy, became more centered on the Jews as the cause of the suffering of Jesus and his mother.

As the ages unfolded, there were changes in the images of Mary in art. Rubin shares the fondness most people have for art that depicts Mary’s maternal strength and compassion. She prefers expressive Gothic madonnas to the “frontal, trunk-like, static, majestic” images of Mary as Throne of Wisdom, in which the Christ child’s features duplicate the mother’s and the statues become visual embodiments of the Incarnation. Commenting on Piero della Francesca’s fresco of the pregnant Madonna, Rubin notes obvious details but does not mention that the rows of goatskin pelts within the tent where Mary stands recall the curtains of goat hair that God recommended to Moses for his temple. The serious young woman is announcing her pregnancy to us as she unbuttons her dress, while both angels and tent declare her to be the new ark of the Covenant, the tabernacle of the living God. In Pietàs Rubin sees only the suffering mother, but Mary’s appearance in such statues in public places during and after the years of the Black Death was in great part to encourage the many women nursing the sick and dying to feel that they too were serving the Lord as she did.

As this book makes abundantly clear, Mary is an inexhaustible sea—from which, the 13th-century poet concludes, “The more he draws…the more he finds.” 

Sally Cunneen is the author of In Search of Mary: The Woman and the Symbol (Ballantine).