BVM from A to Z

Miri Rubin’s hefty book on the Virgin Mary is an intellectual romp through two thousand years of Christian history that seeks to explore the Virgin’s role in the shaping of Western culture, society, and religion. The story occupies a vast canvas, and Rubin combines sweeping historical vistas with lively anecdotes and stories of personal piety and economic largesse.

As a Jewish scholar, Rubin is attentive to the ways the cult of the Virgin Mary has sometimes been shadowed by violent anti-Jewish rhetoric. This is perhaps one of the most original and interesting aspects of the book, because it is a dimension of Marian devotion often overlooked by Christian writers. Anti-Jewish polemic featured in some of the earliest Marian writings and reached a peak in the Middle Ages, in a Christian culture increasingly hostile to Jews and increasingly devoted to Mary. Rubin describes paintings and devotional writings from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries that represent Jesus as despising his mother’s Jewish heritage, or portray Mary and her child surrounded by callous and resentful Jews. Stories of miracles involving the Virgin Mary often included accounts of brutal punishments inflicted on Jews. Rubin also points out how the identification of Mary with the church (ecclesia) in medieval devotion and art was often in stark contrast with representations of the female figure of synagoga as a demonic and unruly woman. As persecution and expulsion of Jews escalated in Europe, some Christians credited Mary with helping them triumph over Judaism. Many Jews were in turn shocked by Christian claims about the humanity of God and his birth from a woman, so that Jewish writings sometimes accused Mary of whoredom and wantonness and described her son as an abomination and a bastard.

In contrast to this Christian-Jewish hostility, Rubin describes how devotion to Mary often served as a focus for encounter and dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Mary is a more prominent figure in the Qur’an than in the New Testament, and has historically been treated with reverence among Muslims, with some Islamic prayers expressing lavish praise for “Maryama.”

The chapters on the Middle Ages are the most detailed and densely packed (not surprisingly, given Rubin’s background in medieval studies). In that era, Mary was at the center of a vast maternal cult whose devotees included kings and queens, peasants and paupers. Rubin’s extensive treatment of women’s devotion to Mary challenges feminist claims that the figure of the Madonna is primarily a masculine construct that serves to oppress women. Rather, Rubin shows how prayers, feast days, and devotions to Mary were expressive of a wide range of human affections and fears extending across the social spectrum and manifesting themselves in diverse ways. At the same time, the Virgin became a symbol of the power of God’s imperial servants as they began their journeys of exploration and conquest to Latin America and beyond in the sixteenth century. Scholars such as Erasmus became concerned about what they perceived as the superstitious excess of devotion to Mary, and Rubin shows how Mary had become a deeply contested figure for Catholics and Reformers by the mid-sixteenth century. The book concludes with a brief survey of the spread of Marian devotion around the world, and the changing perspectives that emerge as a result of feminism and postcolonialism.

Rubin excels in communicating a sense of the diversity of the Marian cult, and her deadpan delivery only serves to highlight the delightful eccentricity of some of the stories she tells. One of my favorites is the story of an acrobat who joined the abbey of Clairvaux and, not knowing any of the prayers and not having any land to contribute, chose instead to show his devotion to the Blessed Mother by performing acrobatics every night while the other monks slept. When the abbot found out, Mary herself interceded to accept “his sincere offering, his pious if crude art.” I was also captivated by Rubin’s brief but fascinating reflection on Mary as song in the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, for whom, writes Rubin, “the Incarnation was like a symphony played in Mary’s womb.” Stories such as these reveal how Marian devotion served to humanize Christianity and to preserve a feminine dimension to the experience of God, even as it also acted as a vehicle for hostility toward heretics, Jews, and unrepentant sinners.

Ultimately, though, the book as a whole is less than the sum of its parts, and I cannot help feeling it would have been better if it had been less ambitious and more focused in its aims. The wealth of material is poorly organized, often repetitive, and lacking any clear sense of structure or narrative flow. The chapters on the early church are superficial and at times misleading. For example, although Rubin refers repeatedly to the figures of church and synagogue in medieval art and devotion, she makes no reference to the female personification of the church in the early tradition, and some of what she interprets as early references to Mary are more probably references to the church itself.

Part of the problem is that there are several potentially excellent books here, and Rubin seems unable to decide whether she is writing a work of art history, social history, or the history of devotion. She offers little by way of analysis, so the text remains largely descriptive, and the events and developments it refers to are not always sufficiently contextualized in terms of their deeper social and religious significance. For example, Rubin discusses the prominence given to Christ’s maternal grandmother, St. Anne, in the medieval church, and the emergence of the cult of St. Joseph in the fifteenth century. But she offers no engagement with historians of gender who see in these changing representations of the holy family a reflection of wider social changes, with the patriarchal, nuclear family gradually displacing the matriarchal kinship groups of medieval domestic life and devotion. The short discussion of the Reformation offers some fascinating insights, but in quoting Martin Luther’s description of Mary as going about “her meals and her usual household duties, milking the cows, cooking the meals, washing pots and kettles,” Rubin makes no attempt to engage with debates about how this reflects the impact of the Reformation on women’s lives, with the ending of the vocation of virginity and the new emphasis on marriage and motherhood as the sole vocation for women. She refers in passing to the role of patrons of the arts in the production of Marian images, but this topic, too, invites further exploration if we are to understand its relevance to questions of gender, power, and patronage in medieval society. The final chapters, in which Rubin widens her scope to offer us a global Mary, simply reinforce the sense that this sweeping survey needs a much tighter grip on its material.

All in all, this is a book to dip into and enjoy for its lavish and exuberant portrayal of the woman who emerged from the shadows of the New Testament text to play a formative role in the shaping of Western art, culture, and religion. Those seeking a deeper engagement with the subject will also have to look to other books and hope that one day Rubin might use her considerable scholarly skills to develop in greater detail some of the themes she touches on here.

Published in the 2009-11-20 issue: 

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University in London.

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