Mary, Mother of Jesus

views updated

Mary, Mother of Jesus

The Virgin Mary has had a formative influence on Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, although she remains marginal to Protestantism. As a unique symbol of maternal femininity in the Christian tradition, she is an important figure for the study of religion and gender, but interpreting her significance is a complex task.

There is a tension between the biblical Mary of Nazareth and the Holy Mother of God revered by Catholic and Orthodox Christians. The mother of Jesus is not a central figure in the Gospels, and her historical life as a Jewish villager in the Roman Empire is virtually unknown. But as Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, and Bride of Christ, Mary has attracted a vast following and her influence extends far beyond the sphere of religion to include art, music, literature, and popular culture.

While Marian doctrine and theology tended to be almost exclusively the preserve of an educated male elite until the late twentieth century, devotion to Mary has been an important source of inspiration for women as well as men of many different classes, cultures, and eras. Representations of Mary, however, reflect their historical and cultural contexts, and to decipher their significance in terms of changing constructs of sex and gender requires contextualized study. In addition, Mary has often been a figure of controversy, such as the debates between Catholics and Protestants or, in the early twenty-first century, between feminists and conservatives. The Madonna has been a mascot for triumphal Catholicism in wars and colonial conquests (Perry and Echeverría 1988), but she has also become a symbol of consolation and inspiration for indigenous and colonized peoples, for example, in Latin America (Gebara and Bingemer 1989). Some modern interpreters regard her as an oppressive symbol with regard to female spirituality and sexuality (Hamington 1995, Warner 2000), others view her as the repressed goddess of the Christian tradition, and some see her as a symbol of solidarity and sisterhood with contemporary women's struggles for equality. The Orthodox churches have been less susceptible to these changing cultural influences, and they tend to reflect a more timeless ideal of Mary as a holy source of maternal compassion and tenderness whose iconic image invites worshippers to contemplate the mystery of the incarnation. Despite these variations, it is probably safe to say that Mary usually represents the highest religious ideals of motherhood and womanhood in all these different contexts, and her counterpart—Eve—is likely to be invested with negative qualities associated with fear of female rebelliousness, particularly in the area of sexuality.

The following summary is intended to provide markers for those wishing to undertake more detailed study, but it can do no more than gesture toward the significance of Mary for the understanding of sex and gender in the Western religious tradition.


There are relatively few references to Mary in the New Testament, and there is scholarly debate as to her biblical significance (Brown et al. 1978). Mark's Gospel implies some tension between Jesus and his family (Mark 3:21, 31-35). Luke's Gospel includes the story of the Annunciation, Mary's visit to Elizabeth, the birth of Christ and the presentation of the infant Christ in the temple (Luke 1-2), all of which have had a formative influence on the Marian tradition. The visit of the magi and the flight into Egypt are described in Matthew 2, and in John's Gospel, the mother of Jesus is referred to as instigating the first miracle at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12), and she is a significant figure at the crucifixion (John 19:25-27). There is also a reference to Mary praying with the disciples after Christ's Ascension (Acts 1:14). The reference to a pregnant woman in the book of Revelation has traditionally been associated with Mary, although biblical scholars today agree that it is primarily a reference to the church (Rev. 12:1-17).

The Old Testament is the source of some of the most enduring scriptural influences on the Marian tradition. The traditional Christian belief that the prophecies of the Hebrew religion were fulfilled in Christ is problematic from the perspective of Jewish-Christian relations and was subject to considerable revision in the late twentieth century, but it is crucial for an understanding of the development of Marian theology.

Mary has been identified with the Bride in the Song of Songs and with the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8, but the most significant Old Testament influence is the story of creation and the fall in Genesis 1-3. Jesus is referred to as the second Adam in several of the Pauline letters (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49), and by the second century, writers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian were referring to Mary as the New Eve.

The relationship between Mary and Eve relates to beliefs about the nature of Christ (Christology), and to beliefs about the salvation of women (soteriology). From a Christological perspective, it situates Christ within the human story from the beginning and shows the incarnation to be a new creation. As virgin mother, Mary is likened to the virgin earth from which the first Adam was created, while as the New Eve she is the female partner to Christ, the second Adam. From a soteriological aspect, the title New Eve affirms that all women, including Eve, are redeemed in Mary. Early Christian thinkers were developing a narrative of women's salvation in which Eve and Mary together represent "everywoman"—Eve symbolizes the suffering that women experience in a fallen world through domination in marriage and pain in childbirth, while Mary symbolizes the fulfillment of God's promise of redemption (Beattie 2002). This early reconciling vision, however, gradually yielded to a more dualistic interpretation in which Eve—and by association all women—became associated with temptation, sin, and death, while Mary's virginal purity and obedience took on aspects that made her increasingly remote from the ordinary condition of women's lives, particularly after the Reformation.


The earliest theological discussions about Mary's virginal motherhood were primarily concerned with defending the claim that Jesus was fully God and fully human, against various movements arguing that God could not become fully identified with the corruptibility of the material world, particularly with the pollution of the maternal body. In response to these challenges, early theologians argued that Mary's motherhood affirmed the full humanity of Jesus, and her virginity affirmed his full divinity. He was born of a human mother as all humans are, but he was conceived by the power of God and was therefore fully divine.

In combining the apparently contradictory states of virginity and motherhood, the first Christians were looking for a language that would express the mystery of the incarnation through the paradoxical coupling of opposites—God/human, word/flesh, virgin/mother. A more moralistic trend emerged as Christianity became institutionalized, and from the fourth century Mary's virginal motherhood became increasingly invested with qualities of modesty, humility, and chastity as ideals of Christian womanhood. The lives of ordinary believers, however, rarely conform to the theological and moral dogmas of religious rulers, and it is to devotional rather than doctrinal texts and practices that one must turn for a more fruitful line of enquiry about the Marian tradition in relation to women's lives.


When Mary was declared Theotokos (God-bearer or Mother of God) at the Council of Ephesus in 431, the debate concerning the human and divine natures of Christ was conclusively resolved. There were candlelit processions in honor of Mary in Ephesus, suggesting that she had by that time become a focus for popular devotion. It seems likely that, with the conversion of Rome and the destruction of the Roman and Greek goddess cults, some of the spiritual energy that had been directed toward the mother goddess figures was redirected toward Mary, resulting in the vigorous flourishing of her cult.

The second-century apocryphal gospel known as the Gospel of James or Protevangelium of James is the earliest surviving evidence of interest in Mary's own life story. Here one encounters Mary's parents—Joachim and Anna or Anne—in a narrative that draws heavily on Old Testament texts (particularly the book of Samuel) and on Luke's account of the Annunciation, to describe Mary's early life. The Gospel of James is one of several texts that point to a Marian cult before the Council of Ephesus. For example, the hymns of Ephraem Syrus ('of Syria' or 'the Syrian,' c. 306–373) are among the most symbolically rich of all Marian writings, and they suggest a highly developed cult within the Syrian Church. There is a reference in the writings of Epiphanius (c. 315–403) to the cult of the Collyridians in which women made priestly offerings of bread to Mary. These surviving remnants of a Marian cult focused on maternity, fertility, and birth rather than sacrifice and death, suggesting forms of devotion more closely associated with women's religious practices than men's (Irigaray 1993). They may bear out Geoffrey Ashe's tentative hypothesis (1976) that there was an early Marian religion comprised mainly of women followers that coexisted alongside what would eventually become the mainstream Christ-centered tradition.

The Gospel of James had a vast influence on Marian art and devotion in the Middle Ages, partly because of its influence on two other texts—the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the highly popular Golden Legend (Legenda aurea) by Jacobus de Voragine (1228 or 1230–1298). The fourteenth-century frescoes by Giotto in the Arena Chapel at Padua include numerous scenes from the Gospel of James. Between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the cult of Mary's apocryphal mother, St. Anne, flourished alongside that of Mary, in an era in which female saints were a highly visible aspect of Christian culture. As an affluent matriarch presiding over her holy offspring, St. Anne may have reflected the aspirations of the emergent mercantile classes, as well as the ideal of the pious Christian wife and mother. Moreover, at a time when theology had become the exclusive preserve of ordained men in the universities, women were developing new forms of mysticism and spirituality that allowed them to claim some authority that was not entirely under the control of the official hierarchy. The influence of Aristotelian biology meant that, while Christ's divinity was believed to come from a masculine, father God, his humanity came from the female body of Mary and his maternal ancestors, and this gave women access to forms of devotion that expressed a potent sense of identification with the body of Christ and its maternal origins (Bynum 1991).

Beyond the wealthy domestic settings depicted in images of St. Anne, medieval Europe was host to a vast range of other Marian devotions and beliefs that encompassed saints and sinners, rich and poor alike. This cult is evidenced in Marian litanies and feast days; in the prayers, music, art, and architecture associated with the great cathedrals and Marian shrines; in accounts of pilgrimages and miracles attributed to Mary's intercession; and in mystery plays and folktales. Abuse and superstition may have been rife in medieval religion, but weaving together these many different beliefs and practices was a powerful sense of the sacramentality of a world suffused with the presence of the Mother of God in the liturgical life of the maternal church, in the cycles and seasons of the natural world, and in the domestic sphere of women's lives.


The reformations that swept through northern Europe in the sixteenth century took different forms, but a consistent theme was the rejection of the cult of Mary and the saints associated with Catholic Christianity. With the Reformers' insistence on the Bible as the only source of revelation and their emphasis upon the cross of Christ as the exclusive means of redemption, the prolific popular devotions and sacramental practices of medieval Catholicism were replaced by more austere and word-centered forms of Christianity. In response to the challenge of Protestantism, the Roman Catholic Church introduced a series of reforms during the Council of Trent (1545–1563), and a more transcendent, spiritualized vision of Mary replaced the incarnational maternal cult of the Middle Ages. Mary became a more isolated figure, embodying romantic ideals of virginal femininity that may have been a reaction against the modernizing forces of science and rationality that were beginning to transform European society.

Continuing into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this increasingly sentimentalized Virgin became the focus of numerous apparitions, often involving adolescent girls such as Bernadette of Lourdes (1844–1879) in 1858 or three of the four young visionaries at Medjugore in the 1980s, suggesting a powerful cultural unconscious that continues to be shaped by religious desires resistant to the control of the dominant Western narrative of secularization and science. Accompanying this has been a rapid growth in pilgrimages, so that perhaps more people visit Marian shrines in the early twenty-first century than ever before in history. Within all these phenomena there are powerful forces at work, shaping and reflecting the image of woman in the context of ideals of piety associated with modern Catholicism. The late twentieth century, however, also saw the beginnings of a transformation of Mary in Christian theology and devotion, attributable partly to the influences of feminist and liberation theologies, and also to a new ecumenical interest in Mary since the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).


The role of Mary in relation to Christ and the church generated one of the most heated debates of the Second Vatican Council, focusing on the question of whether or not there should be a separate document devoted to her. In the end, the council's teaching on Mary formed chapter 8 of the document on the church, Lumen Gentium, reflecting the belief of a narrow majority that Mary must be understood in relation to the church rather than in glorious isolation. An unintended consequence of this was a rapid decline in Catholic devotion to Mary after the council. Under the papacy of John Paul II (r. 1978–2005) and influenced by the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988), the last two decades of the twentieth century saw a revival of Marian devotion, often associated with resistance to feminist campaigns for women's ordination and for the affirmation of full sexual equality in the institutional life of the Catholic Church. At the same time, feminist and liberationist perspectives have focused on the biblical Mary as a woman of the people and champion of the poor and oppressed, while seeking to divest her of cultic attributes that are seen as anachronistic and oppressive to women. Others have argued that, as Queen of Heaven and Mother of God, Mary is a powerful focus for feminized forms of spirituality and devotion—whether or not she is accorded the status of a goddess—and that it is important to revitalize rather than reject this aspect of her cult (Spretnak 2004). Still others have sought to explore her significance from the perspectives of psychoanalysis and critical theory (Beattie 2002, Boss 1999).


Developments in interreligious dialogue have led to some interest in Mary's relevance for non-Christian religions, although this is still an underresearched area. The most significant focus on Mary outside Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity is to be found in Islam (Smith and Haddad 1989). Known by her Arabic name, Mariyam, she is the only woman specifically named in the Qurán and the nineteenth chapter of the Qurán is named after her. Although Islam rejects the Christian claim that Jesus was divine, the Koran affirms Mary's virginal motherhood, and many Muslims hold her in high regard. Mary might also be a figure of interest for Christian-Jewish dialogue, given that she is the one through whom Jesus acquired his Jewish identity, and bearing in mind her identification with the Jewish people, for example in the words of the "Magnificat," the hymn of praise attributed to Mary in Luke's gospel. Nevertheless, there has been a strong anti-Jewish tendency in some Marian art and devotion—particularly during the Middle Ages—and this is also an area that would benefit from further research.

As the influence of formal religion has declined in the West, so renewed interest in Mary has arisen in the context of the New Age movement and postmodern spiritualities. A growing number of art historians and religious historians are recognizing the importance of Marian studies for their disciplines. In many non-Western societies, Marian devotion is shaped by syncretistic encounters between indigenous religions and the Catholic tradition, providing rich areas for anthropological and sociological research. As the study of gender develops its methodologies and insights, it will bring new questions to bear on the understanding of Mary's role as the great maternal figure of the Christian tradition, and as a powerful but enigmatic influence on changing Christian concepts of womanhood and God.

see also Christianity, Early and Medieval; Christianity, Reformation to Modern; Fatima.


Ashe, Geoffrey. 1976. The Virgin. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Beattie, Tina. 2002. God's Mother, Eve's Advocate: A Marian Narrative of Women's Salvation. London: Continuum.

Boss, Sarah Jane. 1999. Empress and Handmaid: On Nature and Gender in the Cult of the Virgin Mary. London: Cassell.

Boss, Sarah Jane. 2004. Mary. London: Continuum.

Brown, Raymond E.; Karl P. Donfried; Joseph A. Fitzmyer; and John Reumann, eds. 1978. Mary in the New Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1991. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books.

Ebertshauser, Caroline H.; Herbert Haag; Joe H. Kirchberger; and Dorothee Solle. 1998. Mary: Art, Culture, and Religion through the Ages. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

Gebara, Ivone, and María Clara Bingemer. 1989. Mary: Mother of God, Mother of the Poor, trans. Phillip Berryman. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Hamington, Maurice. 1995. Hail Mary? The Struggle for Ultimate Womanhood in Catholicism. New York: Routledge.

Irigaray, Luce. 1993. Sexes and Genealogies, trans. Gillian C. Gill. New York: Columbia University Press.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. 1996. Mary through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Perry, Nicholas, and Loreto Echeverría. 1988. Under the Heel of Mary. London: Routledge.

Schaberg, Jane. 1987. The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Smith, Jane Idleman, and Yvonne Y. Haddad. 1989. "The Virgin Mary in Islamic Tradition and Commentary." Muslim World 79(3 and 4): 161-187.

Spretnak, Charlene. 2004. Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-emergence in the Modern Church. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stacpoole, Alberic, ed. 1982. Mary's Place in Christian Dialogue. Slough, UK: St. Paul Publications.

Tavard, George H. 1996. The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

Warner, Marina. 2000. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. London: Vintage. (Orig. pub. 1976.)

                                             Tina Beattie

About this article

Mary, Mother of Jesus

Updated About content Print Article


Mary, Mother of Jesus