Mother of God
A History of the Virgin Mary
Yale University Press, $35, 560 pp.
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...