March 2019

Five Years with the Virgin Mary: An Academic Pilgrimage by Dr. Vanessa Corcoran

Although I was a lifelong Catholic whose entire higher education took place at Catholic universities, the five-year process of writing a dissertation of more than 250 pages about devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the later Middle Ages became an unexpected education in Marian spirituality. This deep immersion taught me so much about Mary and her unique and integral role, not just in the Catholic faith, but as a global, historical, and cultural figure. I’d like to share a few things about Mary that surprised me when I began my research. These topics ultimately captured my imagination and drove me to ask more probing questions about the Mother of God.

Mary spoke fewer than 200 words in the Bible

Mary, arguably the most famous woman in Western history, only spoke in the Bible on four occasions (Luke 1:26–38, 1:46–56, 2:41–52, and John 2:1–11). I was stunned when I combed through the New Testament and found that her only speaking episodes were the Annunciation, the Visitation and Magnificat, Jesus and the Doctors in the Temple, and the Wedding at Cana. Despite these limited occurrences, these passages eventually become the basis for creative medieval constructions of Mary speaking in a multitude of devotional sources.

Equally as fascinating, Maximus the Confessor, a seventh-century theologian and scholar, wrote the first full-length biography of the Virgin Mary, noting among other attributes, “She was clever with words and had a pleasant voice.” This was one of many observations in the Middle Ages that praised Mary’s eloquent voice. These written devotional sources reimagined the Mother of God to be an authoritative figure whose voice was an effective instrument of her power.

Mary’s parents are not mentioned in the Bible

The texts that became the canonical gospels were not the only early Christian texts that attempted to supply biographical details about the Virgin Mary. Because of the desire to learn more about Jesus’s mother, texts known as the apocryphal gospels sought to create a more complete portrait of Mary. These early Christian narratives, such as “The Proto-Gospel of James” and “The Pseudo-Matthew Gospel,” described more of Mary’s life, including information about her parents Joachim and Anne, Mary’s conception, and her betrothal to Joseph. The apocrypha (not to be confused with the Gnostic Gospels) laid the foundation for some of the Marian feasts, including the Immaculate Conception (December 8) and the Nativity of Mary (September 8). 

Why artists depict Mary in blue robes

Although Mary’s clothes were likely wool-colored, she is most commonly illustrated as wearing blue robes. This artistic trend had its origins in the Byzantine Empire. Beginning around 500 C.E., blue was the color worn by empresses, and Mary was often rendered as a regal figure. Later in the Middle Ages, European artists began importing lapis lazuli, a blue semi-precious stone, from present-day Afghanistan, and then ground them into powder. It was incredibly expensive to import these, so the blue color was reserved for either angels or the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Medieval theologians referred to Mary as “the teacher of the apostles”

The cult of the Virgin Mary flourished in the late Middle Ages, which inspired a profusion of devotional and cultural productions in both art and writing in praise of the Mother of God. Many writers imagined Mary as a teacher, referring to her as magistra apostolorum (“teacher of the Apostles”) and sedes sapientiae (“seat of wisdom”). Medieval Christian art also illustrated the interest in Mary’s intellectual gifts and capabilities. Many images of the Annunciation featured Mary reading scripture when the angel Gabriel appeared to her: this symbolized the Incarnation of Christ as the Word made flesh (John 1:14: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”).

Medieval devotional authors were fascinated with the Pentecost story (Acts 1:13–14, which named Mary as among the apostles in the Upper Room). In their commentaries on the Pentecost, these authors positioned Mary as the apostles’ teacher. These authors argued that Mary was able to explain Christ’s ministry to the apostles because of her understanding of the revelations that the angel Gabriel made to her at the Annunciation. One of these commentators, Rupert of Deutz (1085–1130), argued that, “A primary role of a mother is to be a teacher of her children, and just as Mary was the first human teacher of her Son Jesus, the Spiritual Mother of the followers of Jesus became the first Teacher of the disciples of her Son newly born as a Church on Pentecost.” Mary understood the divine mysteries and was prepared to explain their significance to the first evangelists of Christianity.

Mary’s role as intercessor is well documented in medieval miracle collections

From early Christianity through the present day, there are thousands of recorded miracles that describe Mary as a powerful intercessor. In the Middle Ages, these were bound together in texts known as miracula (miracle collections). What more effective and compassionate saint to seek out than Mary?

The earliest Marian hymns asked the Mother of God to serve as protector and intercessor. Sub Tuum Praedisium (“Under Your Mercy”), the first of such prayers, implores “We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God; Do not despise our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin. Amen.” This prayer marked the beginning of an extensive tradition of Christian prayers, hymns, and other liturgical materials that petitioned the Virgin Mary for intercession, recognizing her exclusive ability to plead to Christ on behalf of supplicants.

Twelfth-century Marian devotees praised Mary’s intercessory role and highlighted how she functioned as a mediator between Christians and Jesus. In a sermon during Advent, Bernard of Clairvaux described Mary as an advocate who worked with Christ to ensure the salvation of Christians: “Our Lady, our Mediatrix, our Advocate, reconcile us to your Son, commend us to your Son, represent us to your Son.” Others intercessory titles that described Mary’s unique power, such as Mater Misericordiae (“Mother of Mercy”), were popularized throughout different genres of medieval devotional sources.

Some Christians prayed to Mary to intercede on their behalf because they feared Christ’s judgment. Only Mary’s words could mitigate their dread. In his 12th-century miracle collection, William of Malmesbury noted that one gravely ill supplicant, Fulbert of Chartres, feared Christ: “[H]e had hope of her mercy, but was afraid of the judgment of her Son: though merciful and well-disposed, he is also truthful and just.” This observation contrasts Mary and Christ: she was viewed as the dispenser of mercy, and he was the arbiter of justice. Christians sought to initiate personal relationships with their spiritual mother. Appearing before Fulbert to lessen his worries, Mary said, “Do not be afraid, my Fulbert, do not be afraid. I, to whom you have so long given your service, will mediate between you and my Son.” Mary proved that she could both mediate on their behalf and offer them maternal comfort.

In addition to comforting those who feared eternal punishment, Mary offered relief to the dying. William of Malmesbury chronicled an instance when Mary appeared at the deathbed of a dying monk, assuring him, “I am the Mother of Mercy. So do not be afraid. At that hour I will come to you and receive you into the joy of my son.” Here, Mary operates as a bridge to carry the dying to eternal rest in the kingdom of heaven and offers consolation to those who fear death. Christians viewed Mary as the most effective intercessor who understood the landscape of the afterlife and could successfully mediate on the supplicants’ behalf to alleviate their eternal suffering.

Mary was even able to intercede on behalf of those in hell

In addressing Mary’s pervasive ability to intercede, some medieval theologians acknowledged that Mary’s widespread influence reached even down to hell. St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) praised the scope of Mary’s power to save the condemned from hell and bring them to heaven: “O woman marvelously unique and uniquely marvelous through whom the elements are renewed, hell is redeemed, the demons are trampled under foot, humanity is saved, and angels are restored.” Later medieval narratives framed Mary as a powerful sovereign who could usurp the devil’s power. This particular representation of Mary became increasingly popularized with the title “Empress of Hell” in 14th-century Middle English carols, plays, devotional works, miracle stories, and the like. As Empress of Hell, Mary had the special power to save souls from damnation, even through confrontations with the devil.

In his 12th-century Marian miracle collection, William of Malmesbury wrote that Mary beat the devil with a stick, redoubling her blows and making them sharper with words: “Take that, and go away. I warn you and order you not to harass my monk any more. If you dare to do so, you will suffer worse.” In other cases, Mary is imagined skillfully debating with the devil, using her words as a rhetorical device to outmaneuver him.

Medieval narratives also addressed the ways in which the devil reacts to the displays of Mary’s power. In one written episode describing Mary’s appearance in hell, the devil refers to Mary as his “worst enemy.” Enraged, the devil continues his tirade against Mary, exclaiming, “You overpower us all! Alas that you ever existed!” Maintaining her composure, Mary banishes the devil: “I command that you go away, that you never come near this man to shame him again.” In these cases, the Virgin Mary sheds her persona as a demure, passive mother, and instead acts as a powerful agent of change.

What’s next?

When I finished my doctorate in 2017, I knew that I had only just begun to examine these colorful pieces of the complex mosaic of Marian devotion. The more I scrutinized each aspect of Mary, the more I wanted to know about this most fascinating woman, mother, wife, virgin, queen, and intercessor. Ultimately, my journey to learn about Mary is ongoing, and as the woman whose pilgrimage shrines are scattered all around the world, Mary is the perfect guide on this spiritual path.

Vanessa R. Corcoran is an academic counselor in the Office of the College Dean at Georgetown University. She holds a Ph.D. in medieval history from the Catholic University of America.

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