If someone came down from outer space and encountered Christianity for the first time, who would s/he think we were worshipping and what would s/he assume Christmas was all about? As the accomplished historian that she is, in Mother of God (2009) Miri Rubin approaches Mary as an outsider describing what she sees. Whereas a theologian might emphasize that venerating an image is not the same as worshiping it, or dwell on why Mary’s sinlessness matters in terms of Christology, Rubin simply tells us that Syrian and Egyptian Christians began celebrating Mary as a more-than-human figure in the second and third centuries, and that the Cistercian order was deeply divided in the twelfth century over the question of whether Mary herself had been immaculately conceived. Rubin’s approach is detached yet sympathetic, and her rich prose brings the material to life in a way that both Christians and non-Christians will find appealing.
Rubin begins her account of Mary with the gospels (for Paul says very little about her) and then moves on to early Christian writings and pictures, including an image of a breastfeeding woman in the Catacomb of Priscilla that may be the earliest representation we have of her. The Protogospel of James (c. 150 CE) provided the first elaborate account of Mary’s early life and showed her as a sheltered girl, pure and holy, whose piety was expressed in needlework for the temple. Origen’s Contra Celsum (c. 246 CE), on the other hand, gives us our first glimpses of accusations from Jews and pagans that Mary was “a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery.” Attacks on Mary increased as her cult became more and more central to Christian worship. Some versions of the Toledoth Yeshu, parts of which may date as early as the fourth century, claimed that Mary unknowingly slept with another man while Joseph was away on business, while other versions claim that Jesus was conceived while Mary was menstruating. Muhammad’s account of Jesus’ birth in sura 19, the Surat Maryam, was much more sympathetic, combining the gospel accounts with other miraculous wonders that reshaped the birth narrative for a new religion.
Mary Rubin dwells extensively on liturgy and poetry in Mother of God, reminding us that much of Marian theology emerged through poetic metaphors and hyperbole that captured the popular imagination. For my money, some of the most beautiful poetry in this tradition comes from Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), whose O splendidissima gemma recounts all of Christian history in a brief stanza:
O resplendent jewel
and unclouded beauty of the sun
which was poured into you,
a fountain springing
from the Father’s heart,
which is the only Word,
through which he created
the prime matter of the world,
which Eve threw into confusion.
The fourteenth century poet Wernher the Swiss writes of the life that Mary gave the baby Jesus as she suckled and nurtured him at her breasts:
Two noble dates, little apples,
sweet and fair:
God saw them
and came thither
in search of sustenance,
took them at once
in His mouth
thus his love was set on fire.
I mean, if I may praise it,
your noble breast, full of grace,
that God himself valued
it above all that was ever His,
lauds it with worthiness,
wished to thrive and grow at it:
for it was His desire
to kiss it,
he nestled against it,
suckled it with joy
and entered your womb:
Wherefore your praise will always be great!
Preachers have wrestled to find new ways of presenting the Christmas story for centuries, and many innovations within the Marian tradition came out of a desire to bring the story to life for new generations of Christians. In 1223 St. Francis of Assissi created the first Nativity scene in the Italian hill-town of Greccio, complete with a crib, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, an ass, an ox, and some shepherds. The idea spread quickly and in no time all of Europe was covered with Nativity scenes. Others portrayed Mary as “one of us,” such as David Gerard’s “Madonna and Child with the Milk Soup,” (c. 1520), which like many Renaissance images of Mary suggested that she was a normal mother with normal problems. Rosaries emerged in the fifteenth century when Dominic of Prussia (1384-1460) took cycles of prayer that were already popular in monasteries, and focused on the Pater Noster and the Ave Maria. A Dominican monk by the name of Alan of Rupa (1428-1475) founded a confraternity in Douai around 1468 whose members were supposed to recite the rosary daily. Like the Nativity scene, this simple spiritual discipline proved extremely popular and a similar confraternity established in Cologne in 1475 could boast more than 100,000 members in less than twenty five years.
Mary became a Queen once medieval kings discovered that she could be used to support their claims to divine rule. Byzantine emperors had used Mary as a dynastic patron since the fifth century, and she became Theotokos thanks to imperial support after Cyril of Alexandria (378-444) bribed ladies-in-waiting and powerful eunuchs to make sure that Constantinople supported his case for the title “Mother of God” against Anthropotokos (Bearer of Man) or Nestor’s Christotokos (Bearer of Christ). Mary came to be associated with royalty again when the English king Richard II (1367-1400) decided that she would be the ideal patron for his throne and portrayed her in the Wilton Diptych (c. 1395, pictured) alongside England’s most pious kings, St. Edmund and St. Edward. Other monarchs did the same, including the Ethiopian Emperor Zär’a Ya’eqob (1434-1468), who wore a Marian amulet that he said protected him from enemy magic and published a collection of tales about Mary’s miraculous interventions that saved the kingdom from a variety of perils.
Mother of God is full of fascinating stories about Mary and the various practices and traditions that have emerged around her over the past 2,000 years. Rubin’s gift with words and her skill as a storyteller bring these traditions to life and in the process she manages to give us a compelling history of Christianity as a whole, from its origins to the present day. As the postage stamps issued by the UK’s Royal Mail in 2005 remind us, Mary’s influence extends across the globe, and every culture touched by Christianity has developed its own way of incorporating Mary into its ways of worshiping God.