The making of Mary

How did a few cameos in the Bible create the world’s most powerful woman ever?


090409_viginmaryMary, the virgin mother of Jesus Christ, rates a mere 19 references in Scripture, and barely dented the consciousness of Western Christianity in the first millennium of its existence. Rather miraculously, for all this, today she is the most recognizable female figure in the world. Her reach is enormous in the heartland of what was once Christendom. A short walk along the Thames, as Peter Ackroyd points out in Sacred River, yields over 50 churches and other religious foundations named after her. And that’s in Protestant England: in Catholic Spain, it’s impossible to turn a corner without encountering something or someone, woman or man, named after Mary. She is found throughout the Western tradition in painting, sculpture and music, not to mention in Christian liturgy and Christmas ads. Nor is devotion to her a mere echo of past belief. The modern pace of Mary’s ongoing apparitions has, if anything, quickened since she showed herself in 1858 to a poor French girl named Bernadette in Lourdes, and to three children at Fatima in Portugal in 1917.

Outside Europe, too, Jesus’s mother has been a powerful presence for centuries. One of Mary’s most recent appearances to be accepted as genuine by the Roman Catholic Church took place in a Japanese nunnery in 1973. Then there is Guadalupe. No other Marian site is more significant in the history of Catholicism than the Mexican shrine. There, in 1531, a decade after the Spanish Conquest, on a hilltop sacred to an indigenous mother goddess, Mary appeared to an Aztec convert, Cuauhtlatoatzin—known since his canonization in 2002 as St. Juan Diego—and spoke to him in his native Nahuatl language. Our Lady of Guadalupe was the bridge between natives and Spaniards in their slow fusion into Mexicans, and a crucial force in bringing millions of New World natives to Catholicism. Today 10 million people a year visit her basilica.

How it all came to be, how Mary emerged from a handful of Gospel references to become so woven into the fabric of Western life that it is impossible to conceive of Western history without her, is the subject of Miri Rubin’s wonderful book, Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (Yale UP). Some of Mary’s scant scriptural references, like the stories of the Christ child laid in a manger and the flight into Egypt, are cherished parts of the Christian story; while others, like the Annunciation (when the Angel Gabriel told the virgin she would bear the son of God) and the Magnificat (Mary’s prayer of praise), are vital in theological and liturgical terms.

But, as in the case of Christ himself, there is little personal information about Mary’s life. Just as the pious speculated about the true nature of Jesus in the decades after his death, Rubin notes, they pondered—for the same reasons—those questions about his mother. The Apocrypha, books of Christian devotion and legend that were not ultimately absorbed into the canon of Scripture, filled the gap, abounding with tales of the marvellous child and the special woman who bore him. By 150 CE the Protogospel of James had given Mary a backstory appropriate for the mother of God. The daughter of a rich couple, precocious Mary was offered to the Temple at age three and dwelled there in purity until a divine sign picked Joseph as her husband—or rather, guardian, since she remained a virgin. And when nascent Christianity spread to Egypt and encountered the cult of Isis, mother of the god Horus, Mary’s status began to rise even higher. Isis was a powerful and kind-hearted deity, attributes Mary soon acquired. One Egyptian temple bears an inscription requesting, in the same language as those importuning Isis, the blessing of “the mother of us all, the holy, God-bearing Mary.”

As the centre of Christian gravity moved to the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire, the Egyptian influence was to prove crucial in making Mary ever more exalted, until she became queen of heaven. In fifth-century Constantinople, paralleling earlier battles over just how the divine and human mingled in Christ, an unholy row arose over whether Mary was the bearer of God or just of the human Jesus. Syriac Christians, Aramaic-speaking and closely connected to their Jewish roots, held to the latter; Egyptian Christians to the former. With Christianity growing more distant from its Jewish roots—and the emperor’s influential sister inclined to the concept of an exalted, rather imperial Virgin—Mary, the Bearer of God, won the day.

Ever since, Rubin argues, a constant state of tension has surrounded Mary. That tension—poised between virgin and mother, human and divine—is the source of her endless variety of portrayals, all gracefully traced by Rubin, from the young, sometimes playful, virgin girl to the grief-stricken and empathetic mother at Calvary. The need to ground Mary explains why she did die, as befits a mortal, but was raised bodily to heaven, as befits the mother of God, and why too there was a lengthy theological debate over whether Mary menstruated. Eventually won by the naturalist side, it was no less than an argument over her humanity.

In the West, popular interest in Mary was much slower to form, but when it took root, in the early 12th century, it sparked an explosion of art and devotion. Preaching, liturgy and other theological work by clergymen was central to the development, but in Rubin’s opinion, the lives they led were even more important. Most monks began their religious lives as oblates, young children offered to religious houses by their parents. “Those young boys were wrenched away not just from their own mothers, but from the entire feminine world—the entire vernacular, domestic world, in fact,” she says. “The language of their prayers to Mary, their cries for support, is so moving.” After celibacy was enforced for parish priests, they began forging similar ties. “Even in modern times, there is a notable bond and a notable tension in Catholic countries between a mother and a son who enters into the religious life—so easily equated with Mary and Jesus—the pride on the one hand and the sacrifice of family, of grandchildren, on the other,” Rubin says. “Those clergy, too, must have had poignant relationships with their heavenly mother.”

But there was a Mary for everyone, not just motherless clerics, in the flowering of medieval Mariology. For every image of a heavenly queen commissioned by wealthy art patrons, there was a story of the humble carpenter’s wife, particularly gracious to the poor and those who suffered. Her miracle stories were gathered in numerous similar collections, but one Spanish compilation, Songs of Saint Mary, stands out. It contains miraculous tales not only of Christians saved from death in wars against Islamic realms, but of Muslims converted to the faith by Our Lady’s grace. (Islam has always been friendly to Mary. The Koran mentions her 34 times to the Bible’s 19, and considers her a good and holy woman. There is considerable evidence of Muslims visiting Marian sites in Islamic lands, and Spanish Christians considered Mary uniquely suited for bringing Muslims to Christianity.)

As the role of Our Lady of Guadalupe shows, Mary was destined to become the engine of Catholicism’s transformation into a global faith. It was a role first honed during the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from its Arab invaders, a 780-year struggle that had brought numerous Muslims under Christian rule by the time it ended in 1492. Thus it was triumphant Spaniards, fresh from conquering the last Iberian Islamic state and accustomed to Mary’s role in mass conversions, who brought her to the world.

“In bringing Mary to the indigenous peoples in what’s now Latin America, the image of maternity—so universally recognized, so powerful—carried the meaning,” says Rubin. “As she was in Egypt, Mary was the major bridge to societies with maternal deities.” The irony is intense. Mary is closely associated with suffering, both experiencing it and offering solace for it. It’s that attribute of the sorrowful mother—captured in marble for Westerners in Michelangelo’s Pietà—that “made Mary so welcomed by those indigenous peoples who suffered so much at the hands of the very men who brought her to them.”

Rubin ends her book around 1600, with all the wonders of modern Mariology still to come, partly because she was leaving her medieval and European zone of expertise, partly because she felt she had left her readers with “the tools” to interpret the Marys they see around them. That is certainly true: among the swelling tide of Marian apparitions are two in Belgium in the early 1930s, seen by kids. Anyone wondering why then and why there will be interested in Rubin’s description of the Great War memorials in every French and Belgian village, each with a sorrowing mother figure deliberately reminiscent of the Pietà. Consider the circumstances facing those children: brutal economic times and the rise, just across the border, of an aggressive (and anti-Catholic) Nazi state. What more consoling sight could they have desired? For faithful and skeptic alike, Mother Mary always comes in times of trouble.

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The making of Mary

  1. Another article of pure bunk to control the masses, as all religion tries to do. The world would be better off without it. In the name of religion artrocties have been committed for over 2000 years and are still the norm. Not in my back yard please.

    • Yeah, but people who thought religion was the “opiate of the masses” murdered far more people in a couple generations than religion has managed to in centuries.

      So take a chill pill.

      • One of the most endearing aspects of the Crusades was their utter incompetence at mass murder…

        • Yeah, go back to the crusades. I can go back to the 70’s.

          Atheism is older than Christianity and has just as bloody a history. We’re not going anywhere, so deal with it.

          • I don’t disagree. But surely, had the medieval killers had access to modern technology they would have been just as bloody. And today’s theocrats are hardly cleaner of hand than those of a thousand years ago. It has less to do with religion than with being human.

          • That was point John K.

            All you need is the willingness to use violence to enforce your particular world view.

            I would just appreciate it if you and Bert would stop trying to lay on the reclamation of Roman lands from the Arabs, a civil war in medieval France, and the 30 years war on me. Cause I tell you, if I have to wear that you sure as hell are going to wear the atrocities of the century we were born in.

            Or you know, people can stop accusing their tax-paying neighbours and their own ancestors of faith who built the communities and society that you now enjoy of being incipient sources of violence because of their superstitious and troglodyte habits. Atheists are not the end of history, and you are going to have descendants (if you have descendants at all) who are people of faith, just as I am going to have descendants who are atheists. So cut back on the rhetoric that we need to be defeated to create a utopia please.

          • Please don’t use my name and Bert in the same sentence. You are imputing beliefs to me which I don’t in fact hold.

            Yes. I am an atheist. However I think that on the whole, religion is a good thing, in it’s place. In fact, most of my charitable giving is to religious groups, because I think they do good work, worthy of support.

            I just don’t think we should ever ignore or revise history. Yes, Hitler was evil. So was Stalin. That doesn’t excuse the many evils perpetrated in the name of religion. I’d far rather see believers honestly admit that, and point to their good works, than to say, as you did above,

            “Yeah, but people who thought religion was the “opiate of the masses” murdered far more people in a couple generations than religion has managed to in centuries.”

            That leaves the impression that it’s OK to murder so long as you do it in small enough doses. Mass murder is mass murder, whether it’s a thousand or a million

          • It is far too late to claim that you are an impartial correcter of my excesses John K. Especially since my bias tends towards the fact that people in the middle ages were capable of being just as sophisticated as people are in the present day, and you are dedicated to proving a cosmic struggle in history in which we have overcome the tyranny of religion.

            For example, when I say show you how the protestant reformation did not lead to a flowering of intellectual and technological development, and was in fact detrimental to the existing and relatively free intellectual culture of the time. Your rebuttal didn’t deal with the university system, or scholasticism or the protestant reformation. No, you jump a few centuries earlier to the protestant reformation, and do a garbled interpretation of those events that wouldn’t even stand up to wikipedia’s standards.

            No John, you’re a mud slinger. Just keep in mind that there is plenty of mud that can be flung back at you.

          • Gah. edit: “you jump a few centuries earlier to the Cathar heresy” instead of “you jump ahead a few centuries earlier to the protestant reformation.” Damn I really hate not having an edit button.

          • The difference being, of course, that the Catholic Church is the same institution that was responsible for the Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade, whereas atheists come in all kinds of flavours and need not be members of the Khmer Rouge. Perils of having a 2000-year history.

            But this finger-pointing is silly. The salient point is whether a person’s attitude is reminiscent of Pol Pot / Innocent III, i.e. violently absolutist. No creed has a monopoly on that attitude, but I’d have to say that the number of potentially violent absolutists in the various Churches (incl. the Catholic Church) nowadays outnumbers the number of potentially violent absolutists on the atheist left (though it may not have done so in, say, the late 60’s). Anyway, reason with them all, God will recognise his own.

          • Terry, I sincerely hope you are not involved in mission work. That chip on your shoulder would rather discourage converts I should think. I really am sincere when I say I believe religion is generally a force for good.

            You won’t believe me, but I do wish you & your Church well.

          • Jack Mitchell> Yeah, but there is a limit. For example, if there is an article even tangentially related to Canada, I wouldn’t immediately bring up the Alberta Eugenics Board, the attempted cultural genocide of the first nations, or the WWI and WWII forced internment camps. Heck, if you define “Canada” broadly enough you can also perhaps include atrocities committed while we were still colonies of Britain, such as the Acadian expulsion. You wouldn’t then conflate all the evil committed by Canadian officials and say “Canada has been a source of much suffering, and the sooner the idea of Canada is extinguished the better off we’ll all be”.

            JohnK.> Please. I am the inheritor of a culture and a way of life on which the entirety of western civilization is built. The church’s contributions to music, art, literature, law, ethics, philosophy and science are innumerable. The only people I have to point that out to are the ignorant, who substitute real history for a cosmic drama in which there was a black hole of superstition until people like themselves came along to lift people into the enlightenment. With the evidence of the church’s gifts so abundant, seeking to convert people for the sake of filling pews is beneath me. I’ll be content to speak the truth, and let the pews look after themselves.

    • This is a little strong, Bert. That being said, it did seem a little out of place in a non-religious-oriented magazine in the early 21st century.

      • It’s Easter, after all…a review of a religious-themed book isn’t THAT unusual.

  2. Actually Bert it’s a well written article. One could say you didn’t understand the critique aspect of it. Perhaps you were tired and couldn’t be bothered really.

  3. Bert, Maclean’s isn’t your backyard. If it is, you should get out more often.

    As for the article itself: very well written. I don’t know much about Catholicism myself, so it’s was a good, informative read.

  4. The reference to Isis, mother of Horus, was revealing (at least, it was revealing to folks who have done some reading on the origins of Christianity). The reality is that Mary is Isis, and Jesus is Horus, both of them reinterpreted through the lens of Greek-speaking Jews who had long been in contact with the religious culture of Egypt, particularly in Alexandria (though certainly not exclusively there). The reality is that Jesus/Horus (and other versions of the dying and resurrecting god-man, e.g. post-Pythagorean Dionysius in Greece, or Mithras in Iran and amongst Roman soldiery) as well as Isis/Mary are mythological figures which ultimately are based on archetypes deeply anchored in the human psyche: the loyal, kind (if imaginary) and somehow divine brother/friend Jesus, an emanation of the more remote Father/Creator/Ruler-God, and Mary, of course, is the universal Mother: empathetic, caring, loving, suffering for her children. The reality is that the human brain, conditioned by evolution to feel awe in the presence of human leaders (and little or nothing else), is pre-wired to feel awe and reverence in the contemplation of (real or imaginary) human leaders/archetypes. That’s why we keep deifying religious leaders (whether real people who actually existed, like Gautama Buddha and Mohammad, or mythological figures like Iesous Christus).

    This access to feelings of religious awe, which humans can only real score for in the contemplation of human archetypes – our hunger to have an imaginary perfect brother, sister, father, mother, or friend – plus the offering of forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life, the former a clever psychological trick and the latter a false yet alluring promise used by priests to get people’s obedience – are the reasons Catholicism works.

    Read all about the details of the mythological background of the Jesus idea (and the Mary idea) in The Jesus Mysteries, or in The Jesus Puzzle, two gentle and scholarly works; or if you don’t mind a sneering and hostile tone, read about it on

    Perhaps it’s time we allowed ourselves to see the obvious truth: Christianity is a mythological construct, a story that people connect to because it’s based on a utilization of longed-for human archetypes as imaginary friends, not a story about real people who existed (and were somehow God).

    • let me ask you something, ARE YOU SERIOUS? lol! :) i mean you can’t compare God the creator of land, sky, even you, to a jug of milk! He made milk.

      So suddenly millions of random particles bumping toghether made all this beauty? You? So suddenly we are all made of monkeys? I mean come on monkeys? And if evolution were true why would it stop now? why would’nt i be some sort of super powered person-monkey-bird? Also what evidence supports that?

      Let me ask you, how can you deny the only One who loves you there is so much evidence to support Him. And no He didn’t give us all the answers but thats the point! First of all then we would need Him second of all thats where true faith comes in. Look at it this way

    • let me ask you something, ARE YOU SERIOUS? lol! :) i mean you can’t compare God the creator of land, sky, even you, to a jug of milk! He made milk.

      So suddenly millions of random particles bumping toghether made all this beauty? You? So suddenly we are all made of monkeys? I mean come on monkeys? And if evolution were true why would it stop now? why would’nt i be some sort of super powered person-monkey-bird? Also what evidence supports that?

      Let me ask you, how can you deny the only One who loves you there is so much evidence to support Him. And no He didn’t give us all the answers but thats the point! First of all then we would need Him second of all thats where true faith comes in. Look at it this way if you had to play football would want people to bet on you cause there was nobody else no other option probably not. But would you want them to bet on you cause they like you? I guessing you’d like that better for them to willing bet on you not because they have to cause they

      • oops sorry i sent that twice accidentay. lol oh well

        • Excuse my english! I am so french! Mary is the prove to my understanding that there is a plan in God’s mind. Who else can we human go to when we suffer or are troubled ,afraid? To ower mother, when we are little that is. But when we are adult, we are still so little when we experience pain in all its ways. Don’t we call upon ower mother mumerous of times in ower life? A mother is by definition the human fabric of humans. It is associated with love and peace. In all races, in all cultures, in all religions even in atheism, a mother is the source of hope for peace and understanding.

          So God’s plan was to come to humanity thrua woman, this part of humanity that is de fabric of human. Mary is the mother of the mothers. She is in fact the most poweful women who ever lived! If we humans, believers or not, whoud onley stop thinking to much and just see that evidence, it woud be the beginning of peace between us all. That is what I think.

          • ….and let me add that Mary is not a God. She is just a plain humain woman. A saint? Of course. Wy not? That is what makes her so attractive. A plain woman, like any other woman aroud the wold but with this wellingness to give totally her life to God for God’s plan. That makes her a Saint? All her life with Jesus till the cross made her a Saint. She is the fist Saint of the historiy of Christianity. Isn’t that a good shut from God? Now who is cheep enought to spit on Mary and to say that this is fake story! It is to me the best story of all. It is the story of God with us! Is that true? Why not? Just beleive à little bit and see what happens to you!

    • To Conan the Agrarian. Where do you take your certainty that Jésus did never existed?