To begin with, my fondness for the Blessed Virgin Mary had a lot to do with her looks: the free-flowing hair and robes of white and azure-blue, the gilded crown, and the contrast between her Mona Lisa smile and the serpent squirming under one of her dainty feet. This was the standard issue BVM of my early childhood. I was born in the Marian Year of 1954, the heyday of the parish “grotto”, when so many Irish communities were setting up wayside rock gardens and shrines dedicated to Our Lady. One of my grandmothers lived in Kilkenny and if it wasn’t raining the local grotto was the incentive for a summer evening’s constitutional.
The smiling Mary of grottos and school alcoves was the ultimate Flower Fairy, as pretty as she was heavenly. Moreover, it was not beyond the realms of possibility that she might make another appearance on Earth, to a hopeful girl of the suburbs! After all, it had only taken four years for the authorities to decide that St Bernadette wasn’t letting her imagination run away with her, and once endorsed Our Lady of Lourdes paved the way for Our Lady of Knock, Fatima, Medjugorye et al.
Although little Marie-Bernarde Soubirous’s visions of the late 1850s led, with astonishing speed, to the establishment of a world famous healing shrine at Lourdes, she herself shunned the limelight. Bernadette didn’t attend the consecration of the Lourdes basilica in 1876 and spent her short adult life as an unassuming nun. (She died three years after the consecration and was canonised in 1933.) But for all her precarious physical health, Bernadette was sure enough of herself and her remarkable experience to say that the statue of Our Lady presiding over the Lourdes grotto didn’t resemble the “Lady” who appeared to her. The BVM of Bernadette’s visions was dressed like the nuns of a local religious order – a white habit with a blue sash – and though she spoke with the authority of a mother or a big sister, she looked like a girl of Bernadette’s own age and height, i.e. a fourteen-year-old of about 140 cm.
Our Lady of Lourdes, like all Our Ladies, was very much a phenomenon of her time and place. France was going through the ideological civil war that led to the formal separation of Church and State, a conflict in which, broadly speaking, town and country were on different sides, and the re-appearance of Mary on Earth heartened the beleaguered faithful. This was also the era of railways, telegraphs, indoor sanitation, mass circulation, illustrated newspapers, and Lourdes was as good and better than a conventional spa resort. You could get there by train, mingle with simpaticos, feed your soul as well as your body, and go home with souvenirs as spiritually functional as they were ornamental: medals, figurines, rosaries, musical boxes, holy pictures, holy water fonts and bottles.
I’m not knocking or doubting the miraculous cures of Lourdes because I would never underestimate the placebo effect, and the development of the mother of all Marian grottoes included facilities – pioneering facilities – for the sick and the disabled. In any case, pilgrimages have always worked in terms of the “feel good” factor. The ancient etymological connection between “healthy” and “holy” is ongoing. Many of the miracle cures recorded at great medieval shrines like Canterbury and Santiago de Compostela pertained to dietary deficiencies and nervous disorders. Since spring was the traditional season for setting out, it’s likely that pilgrims benefited from fresh greens, sunlight, a change of air and water, and exercise in the form of walking and “active” praying. (There is some evidence that the Ave Marias and Pater Nosters of the olden days were accompanied by genuflections and prostrations, so a medieval pilgrim’s penance of, say, three hundred Hail Marys, was more physical, more like Muslim praying, than the kneeling rosaries of our own time.)
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Context is everything when it comes to Marian icons, and the “fixing” of the image of the Mexican Our Lady of Guadalupe has a particularly revealing history. She began as the Mary who appeared to a herdsman near the Guadalupe River in the Estremadura region of Spain during the fourteenth century. The shrine that housed her statue was replicated in the New World by the Conquistadors, many of whom hailed from Estremadura. Round about 1530, a shrine was dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe at Tepeyac in Mexico, a mountainside that was already hallowed ground because of its association with the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. This New World shrine celebrated the apparitions of a recently widowed Christian Aztec called Juan Diego. Telling him he was under her protection, Juan Diego’s visionary Mary asked him to climb Tepeyac and pick the roses he would find growing there, even though it was neither the season nor the place for such blooms. She herself tied up Juan Diego’s cape to contain these miraculous roses and when this workaday garment was unfurled before the local bishop, there was the rose-adorned image of the Virgin who had comforted him. The gap in time, between the story of Juan Diego’s apparition and the emergence of the famous, definitive image on cloth, suggests that the original Spanish Mary of Guadalupe was absorbed and re-imagined by her New World devotees. The tying up of a cloak, for example, was an Aztec wedding ritual, and the sounds, flowers and vivid colours of Juan Diego’s apparition are consistent with the drug-enhanced hallucinations of ancient Mexican rituals.
Mammals and mothers
By the time I started secondary school I was beginning to resent the Blessed Virgin Mary, who doesn’t work as any kind of role model for thinking as well as growing virgins. Her representation as the be-all and end-all of female achievement was frankly annoying, but it was a silent annoyance. I didn’t have the nerve or the biological know-how to ask how come Mary had a blessed womb but no ovaries to go with it? The ovum – the female half of the ingredients of the process of generation – wasn’t actually discovered until 1827 (by K.E. Von Baer), but the language of Catholic dogma remained oblivious to this deliciously awkward fact. Although the Vatican of our own times has wholeheartedly acknowledged the scientific breakthroughs of Galileo and Darwin, it would seem that the spirit of enquiry and apology is less willing when it comes to an appreciation of female anatomy. In short, the “immaculately conceived” Blessed Virgin Mary of my childhood – she who still weeps but no longer lactates and never ever menstruated – is the fag end of a dogma dreamed up centuries ago by professional bachelors who conflated sex with sin, and female blood with filth. Why did they bother? Why was it so important to that Our Lady should be so immaculately sexless? She didn’t start off like that.
Mary has always been the best-loved saint. Once learned, no one forgets the poem-like Hail Mary – the prayer made up of words spoken to her by the Angel Gabriel and her cousin Elizabeth – and she has never lost her association with love, mercy and justice. As the mother of Jesus she is a major character of the New Testament, but she wasn’t a major player in the minds and teachings of the first Jewish Christians until the new religion took off among the Gentiles of the wider world. Feelings give rise to ideas and religions, not vice versa, and the revelations of the early evangelicals were not enough to shift the pre-Christian mother goddesses from their pedestals. Instead, Mary assumed their roles as readily as she was “assumed”, without reference to holy writ, straight up to her heavenly throne.
Artemis, Isis, Astarte, Ishtar, Cybele, Magna Mater, we may have forgotten the names of these ancient goddesses but via Mary their attributes and stories, even their poses, are familiar. The concept of the virgin who is impregnated by a god and gives birth to a hero is a regular component of pre-Christian Mediterranean mythology. Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, were supposedly born to a mother who had sex with the god Mars. If we didn’t know the archaeological context in which they were found, the museum figurines of Isis with the baby Horus, Aphrodite with Eros, Demeter with Kore, might just as easily be taken for Mary and Jesus. It was customary in the towns of the classical world for the brightly painted and gorgeously dressed statues of major goddesses to be dressed up and paraded through the streets on feast days, and many a Mediterranean Madonna inspires similar processions.
In the Orthodox Christian world, Mary has been venerated primarily in her role as Theotokos (Mother of God) and not so much as a lone virgin. It’s possible that this emphasis was a response to a popular heretical sect called the Collyridians. Their name derives from their ritual of offerings of small cakes (collyris is Greek for a small cake or loaf) to Mary as a goddess in her own right, and her priests were female. The male leader of the Montanists, another Mary-focused heretical sect, was actually an ex-priest of the pagan “Great Mother”, a.k.a. Magna Mater. By dint of a more generous celebration of the Mother of God, these Mary-focused heresies were gradually corrected and absorbed by the official Church in the fifth and sixth centuries. This process was happening all over the place, as the gods and goddesses of small things evolved into “patron” saints, and time-honoured pagan symbols, Thor’s hammer, for example, acquired a fresh Christian legitimacy as a cross.
But pagan mother goddesses were virginal in a magical way. Just as a god is never killed in battle, a goddess never dies in childbirth. She is immune to the hazards of an active sex life and her virginity is a renewable resource. Mary is different because she is such a literal and perpetual virgin. This notion began with the mistranslation of the Aramaic word for a young woman and developed as a metaphorical way of expressing God’s special involvement with the birth of Jesus, and distancing him and his mother from the messy realities of human reproduction. For ancient Jewish commentators on the upstart religion, the very idea of a virgin giving birth to a self-styled messiah was ludicrous. It’s possible that conventional Jewish objections to the circumstances of Jesus’s birth inspired the relatively sympathetic Muslim version of Mary’s situation: a case, perhaps, of my rival’s rival being my friend! In the Koran, the pregnant Maryam is disgraced and lonely until, from her womb, the unborn Jesus speaks up for her and assures her relations that she’s a good girl and that he will be the prophet Issa.
The Holy Family, including Granny
Some of the best reads by serious scholars of the history of Mary and Marian phenomena are listed below. As an armchair student I can’t helping seeing similarities between the evolution of Mary’s cult and the machinations of those Hollywood producers who, in order to sustain a blockbuster franchise, resort to more and more complicated plot developments and back stories. I’m particularly fond of the “prequel” featuring Saint Anne, the granny of the Holy Family. Anne is a fusion of Hannah, the biblical mother of Samuel, and female characters from Greco-Roman legend. She didn’t really take off in terms of popular devotion until medieval times, when she found her role as the mature, down-to-earth mother of Mary, who by then had become a fully-fledged goddess in all but name.
As the epitome of female nobility and power, the medieval Our Lady was a suitable object of adoration for all men and women. As beautiful as she was blessed, the humble Virgin was simultaneously the compassionate Mother of All Sorrows and the powerful Queen of Heaven. It’s no accident that the celebration of this multi-faceted Mary in art and music and prayer (the rosary) coincided with the spread of new religious orders, notably the Cistercians, and the town-based Franciscans and Dominicans. Having left their own mothers at an early age, these monks were especially responsive to the cult of a divine mother, and their sisters-in-Christ, the many thousands of nuns, were equally well disposed towards a role model who endorsed their life choices.
In Ireland we missed out on some of the splendours of Mary’s medieval and Renaissance reign. For us, the magnificent interiors of the churches of Spain and Austria and Italy are at once familiar, and disconcertingly foreign. In the heyday of the Queen of Heaven we didn’t have much in the way of towns, banks and guilds – or New World riches – the context in which sculptors and artists and composers found their patrons. (My favourite hymn, the Salve Regina, dates from this period.) The relative poverty of our material culture was compounded by the catastrophes of the late seventeenth century, which effectively outlawed Catholicism and drove it underground. This is one of the reasons why the image of Our Lady of Lourdes was so popular in Ireland. Her appearance came in the wake of Catholic emancipation, when the faith of the common people was visible again.
Back to the kitchen
The centrality of Mary in the medieval and Renaissance Church offended the scripture-driven reformers of western Christianity. For these men, “Mariolatry” was an over-the-top distraction from the plain truths of the Gospels. They protested and in due course their churches would focus on the pulpit and the stark simplicity of the cross. The curious thing is that Martin Luther never repudiated Anne or Mary. As a young law student, he was caught out in a terrible thunderstorm, and it was in thanks to Saint Anne, to whom he had prayed for his survival, that he became a monk. And so it came to pass that the venerable Anne lives on in the place names of the Protestant realms, where her daughter Mary, still a virgin but no longer a queen, is esteemed as a paragon of domesticated female virtue.
When the reformers dispensed with the extravagant cults of the Catholic Mary, they were creating a vacuum. Unwittingly – and sometimes wittingly – these rigorous patriarchs were eliminating the most significant female presence in Christian discourse, the main link between the human and the divine. The “Mothering Sunday” of the Anglican tradition doesn’t fill the gap left by the toppling of the Queen of Heaven from her throne. For Catholics, every day is mother’s day, and for “Catholic atheists” like me, Mary lives on in her diversity as a global icon. I have some miniature Our Ladies, including the dark ladies of Guadalupe, Montserrat and Cuba, as well as Michelangelo’s Pieta, and a luminous one, picked up in a charity shop in West Cork when such items were commonplace. They are complemented by picture postcards of goddesses of the ancient world, including the mysterious but instantly recognizable figuras femeninas of Ibiza, Baza and Galera,. These images remind me that art, like religion, has a redemptive function. And so! Hail Mary, full of myth, who links us to the eternal and captures something enduring about the human condition in general and the female condition in particular, and long may her personas transcend and outlast the contexts in which they were created.
* Nicholas Ayo The Hail Mary 1994
Diarmaid MacCulloch Reformation 2003
Uta Ranke-Heinemann Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven 1990
Miri Rubin Mother of God 2009
Marina Warner Alone of All Her Sex 1976, 1990