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History of the Ultimate Mother


The Virgin Mary has had an impact on the world unlike any other mother in history. Although there is very little about her within the New Testament, she has become one of the main figures in history, and beyond Christian and non-Christian. Mary’s story is told in every language, and her identity is ever changing through out time and culture. Her roles are a reflection of the way society looked at women and the way Jesus’ life story was looked at. Her life and story may remain in the hearts of many, but her true past is often debated. There is no question as to who she was, the mother of Jesus, but there is much to speculate or even guess about her. From the beginning of Christianity to now, Mary has had an impact on the people of her time as well as later, their art, music, social ideals and culture.

What we know of Mary’s life factually is very little. She was a Jewish girl from the town of Nazareth. At the age of twelve or thirteen she gave birth to a son named Jesus. This was not an unusual age for young Jewish girls of her time to get married and start a family. Jesus was born in 7-4 B.C.E and was crucified in his thirties. It makes sense that the very early Jewish and pagan literatures from their own time does not have a lot of information about Mary, because they did not view Jesus as of any importance either (Cunneen 27). During her lifetime Mary may have been seen in a totally different light by some since “she was the mother of a man executed by the Roman authorities as a criminal [which] would hardly make her a heroine” (Cunneen 27). This is a different view of Mary from the one we have come to know, as the mother of God and the perfect woman. As the life teaching of Jesus spread, so did the stories of his mother Mary: “Legends as well as apocryphal scriptures developed about Mary’s life, reflecting popular and often non-Jewish views” (Cunneen 28).

The Gospels of the Bible offer various descriptions of the Virgin Mary. The main focus of these Gospels is the life of Jesus. His mother, a large part of his life, is seen as the one who brought him into the world and the one who did not question Jesus as he grew to become the man that helped many. “Mary in a true sense is our mother too, because by her free consent (which is the grace of God enabled her to give), she conceived her son for the redemption of the world, and so played a decisive role in the history of salvation” (Rahner 33). Mary accepted God’s offer, event though she questioned the thought of being with child since she did not know a man (meaning have sexual relations).

Mary’s role in the Gospels was as mother of Jesus: “Most of her scenes relate to the birth or childhood of Jesus, which are reported only by Matthew and Luke in the Infancy Narratives with which they begin their Gospels” (Cunneen 31). The Gospels bring up other questions about Mary. The question of whether or not Mary was a virgin or remained one is a big one, and the Gospels leave things a bit unclear since there is a mention of Jesus’ brothers and sisters (Cunneen 38): “Protestant biblical scholars today generally believe that Mary had four other sons: James, Joses, Simon, and Jude, and two or three daughters, none identified by name” (Cunneen 35). There is always the question of did Mary remain a virgin after the birth of Christ. If Mary had other children with her husband Joseph this means that she did not remain a virgin for the rest of her life.

The Christian church has had a profound effect on the views of Mary through out history. During the early stages of the Christian church, many were persecuted for their beliefs: “The Christian art of this period suggests that believers focused on the life-giving message of the adult Jesus. There were only a few scattered paintings of Mary as a Roman mother…” (Cunneen 61). This is also a reflection of the unimportance of women’s roles in society during this time. Mary was not the main focus of early Christianity and therefore not the main focus of early Christian art and literature. Towards the end of the Greco-Roman period two significant portraits of Mary were created. These two portraits of Mary are different but have held strong throughout time. The first connected Eve and Mary; this was called the Eve-Mary theology: “Justin Martyr (d. c. 165) appears to have been the first to state this Eve-Mary relationship…In Justin’s view, Christianity is to replace Judaism; Mary, consequently, becomes a purely Christian figure. She is praised for her obedience, which seems to separate her from Eve and other women” (Cunneen 64). Mary becomes the counter-Eve she saves us from original sin; which Eve brought into the world. Mary gives birth to Jesus the savior. The birth of Jesus is important because of the pain and original sin that Eve brought into the world in its beginnings.  The Eve-Mary connection also created a connection between Jesus and Adam (Rahner 33). The view of Mary was as the Mother of god and the pure virgin.

As time went on the idea of Mary as more than just a Jewish mother began to emerge. The idea that this woman should be held as the ideal woman becomes apparent. During the end of the fourth century and moving on into the fifth and sixth centuries, Mary began to take on the role known as God-Bearer: “That there is a human mother of God, but no human father of God, is the highest privilege of the female sex. Mary is really and truly the Theotokos, the bearer of God” (Ketter 202). During this time the Christian church began to unify and gain its strength. In 431, at the Council of Ephesus Mary is declared as the Theotokos: “art, popular devotion, and ultimately ecclesiastical approval would at last converge in honoring Mary as a mother of God” (Cunneen 101). With this acknowledgment of Mary as the bearer of God more art and literature geared towards Marian devotion occurred. Mary became a new model for Christian behavior: “Helvidius [a theologian who defended marriage and virginity] declared Mary a perfect model of virginity before the birth of Christ, and of married love and motherhood after- [this is] a position acceptable in many Christian circles then and today” (Cunneen 108). Even though many Christians accept the virgin birth, which implies that Mary was a virgin before the birth of Jesus; there is still a question of if she remained a virgin after his birth: “Helvidius wrote a small book asserting that after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary consummated their marriage” (McHugh 200). If Mary and Joseph consummated their marriage and had other children after the birth of Christ this would mean that Mary did not remain a virgin.

When Christianity reached its peak during the twelfth century so did Marian cult. Mary was now incorporated into Christianity fully and made a large impact on art (Cunneen 143). During this medieval period, art took a new form. The statues that were in the churches were used to tell the stories of the scripture, since most people could not read, write or understand Latin (Cunneen 145): “Visual art, therefore, was their main medium of instruction; the cathedrals were their schools…A common vision cut across class and educational lines, and its chief heroine was Mary” (Cunneen 146). People began to make a connection between Mary and their own lives. This led to Christians to behave more like Mary. The ideal woman would be a virgin like Mary and the ideal mother and wife would be one who is like Mary, obedient, loving, caring, and understanding. Women, particularly wealthy aristocratic women, began to bring the teachings and ideals of Mary into their own homes: “Personal devotion to the Mother of God ran deep among these noble women and their extended families” (Cunneen 157). During this time a different interpretation of the Eucharist emerged. There was now a connection between the bread and wine given during mass and the act of Mary giving birth to Jesus (Cunneen 161).

The Romanesque period brought forth the black Madonnas. These black Madonnas were statues of Mary that were a little smaller than life size, and were thought to create the greatest number of miracles: “They were carried in slow processions… so that people could touch Mary, hold up their sick children to her, or have her bless special objects” (Cunneen 172). This gave people the sense that Mary was truly holy and that she could help everyone. Devotion to these statues was a way for people to make a connection with Mary. Mary was depicted as a handmaiden as well as the Queen of heaven, and her role as a mother was important during this time period as well as all time periods after. In the Gospel Mary says to that she is the Lord’s handmaiden. The idea of being the handmaiden to the Lord was reflected in society. Women played the role of handmaiden and servant to the Lord and the lord of their homes, their husbands.

During the sixteenth century the Virgin Mary was looked at and criticized the most. Different views of the Virgin Mary created hostility between the Catholics and the Protestants: “Mary was a mirror that reflected both the causes and consequences of the Reformation, revealing and for many years exaggerating the divisions between the Protestants and Catholics” (Cunneen 185).

“The God of the early medieval writing and art is a judge and king, to whom propitiation is offered by the hordes of monks presenting correct and beautiful prayers before countless altars; Christ is prince, reigning from the throne of the cross after defeating humankind’s captor, and Mary is his queen” (Bynum 16). During the Middle Ages there was an increase in the interest of Jesus’ life (more so his birth and death). Even though Mary was not the main focus of Christianity “some influential Christians agreed that claims for Mary had become extreme” (Cunneen 194).

The Reformation marked a time in which those who followed Mary and looked up to Mary were being criticized for doing so. During the Reformation Protestants removed the focus on the saints and the Virgin Mary and placed more focus on Jesus. This had a large effect on women because these saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary were women figures within religion that they could pray to, and look up to.

As a result of the Reformation’s “Mary bashing,” the Counter-Reformation marked a new period of time in which Mary was praised once again. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) emphasized the idea of teaching at home: “[This] placed new responsibilities on Catholic mothers, who found a model in the figure of St. Anne teaching Mary and Jesus” (Cunneen 207. During this time artists painted Mary in a more natural style, similar to the way she most likely would have looked like. Once again Mary’s role as the virgin mother largely in shaped the ideals for women during the Counter-Reformation.

Moving into the nineteenth century not much had changed between the Catholics and Protestants: “Both Catholics and Protestants lacked balance in their approach to Mary, largely because of the mutual isolation. For European Catholics this was a Marian century, the high point of enthusiasm for apparitions at Lourdes and elsewhere, and of attempts to maximize Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation” (Cunneen 227). Both Protestants and Catholics viewed Mary as the person God chose to bring his son Jesus into this world in order to save his people. Jesus and Mary together saved the world from original sin of the first woman, Eve. Many Catholic scholars wrote about the connection between Mary and Jesus, and how her role as a mother extended beyond that of the average mother: “Pierre de Berulle, for example, a highly respected cardinal diplomat and founder of the French Oratory, asserted that Mary gave greater life to Jesus than Jesus gave to her. He talked about the life of Jesus in Mary’s womb, stressing the nearness of their two hearts before he was born” (Cunneen 229). Mary and Jesus shared the special relationship that many mother and children have. Mary gave more to Jesus by bringing him into the world, and nurturing his ideas. She loved Jesus unconditionally and gave him a reason to follow his heart.

The idea of Mary as the ultimate mother has lasted throughout centuries. Her impact on the world is like no other woman. Churches, schools, charities, various organizations, and people are called by her name because of her perfect image. She stood as the perfect Christian, and was the basis of reform within the Catholic Church. Even though the basic historical information about Mary is little, the woman we have come to know and love is much more than that. Her role as the true courageous mother gives people strength and hope today. Even though society has changed greatly from the times of Mary and Jesus, her image is universal and the goal that she sets is one that many will forever try to achieve.