Virgin Mary

Quick Reference


In the person of the Virgin Mary the earth goddess—the ‘great mother’ of ancient religions—succeeded in re-establishing something of her former position. At first the Virgin was not honoured above other saints, but from the fourth century onwards there was a marked growth in the devotion accorded by Christians to Mary. In 431 the Council of Ephesus, which met in a church supposed to contain her mortal remains, confirmed the title of Theotokos, ‘God-bearer’, which was translated into Latin as Mater Dei, mother of God. It subsumed the vision of St John of Patmos as described in Revelation. ‘And there appeared a great wonder in heaven: a Woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.’

She was Mater Virgo, virgin mother, the primal material prior to its division into the multiplicity of created things; Stella Maris, star of the sea, the immaculate womb of the divine font as well as the primeval waters over which the Spirit moved; and the Tree of Jesse, the world-axle, and the branch upon which ‘the spirit of the Lord shall rest’. Inherited attributes though these were, clearly an accretion of folk tradition, the Church had to come to terms with the cult and legends of the Virgin. Popular pressure outweighed theological nicety. In vain St Bernard (1090–1153), the champion of Catholic orthodoxy, tried to stem the tide. A monk of Clairvaux, his old abbey, saw in a vision the dead saint with a dark spot on his breast, caused by his refusal to accept the Immaculate Conception. Adjustment even continues today: in 1950 Pope Pius XII proclaimed by the Bull Munificentissimus Dei the dogma of the bodily ascent into heaven of the Virgin Mary. Likewise in the Eastern Church the popularity of her cult is evident in the plethora of icons, sacred images.

The Virgin always comforted those who fell into deep despair. According to one medieval legend, a poor knight sold his wife to Satan for great riches. When the unfortunate woman was taken to meet the Devil by her husband, in order to complete the bargain, she sought refuge in a church and commended herself to the Virgin. Unknown to the knight, the Virgin took the place of his wife, and went to the mouth of Hell. There she forbad Satan to have power over those who called on her, and then dismissed him. She asked the knight to give away his wealth, which he did, thereafter gaining more riches from her.

There were real grounds for infernal frustration. The Virgin eased the pain of ‘poor souls’ in Purgatory, the dwelling-place of those guilty of venial sins, and she even saved from Hell those who had died in mortal sin. ‘I complain daily to God of these injustices’, a medieval chronicler has the Devil remark. ‘But He is deaf where His Mother is concerned and leaves her lady and mistress of Paradise.’ On an earthly level the Virgin succoured the needy and cured the sick. Modern centres of the cult in western Europe were established at Lourdes in 1858 and Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, after reports of her manifestation at these places.


Subjects: Religion — Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500).

Reference entries