The Virgin Mary is one of the most compelling figures of contemporary religious thought. It is not widely

known, however, that this has not always been true. Widespread reverence for Mary as the mother of God, as

the perpetual immaculate virgin, as the redemptor of Eve’s sins, and as the mediatrix began to spread most

notably during the Middle Ages. Beginning in the twelfth century, Mary began to be depicted and venerated as a

symbolic mother of all people and as a specific model for women.

        Even though there are only bits of information provided about Mary in the Bible, these scriptures were

expanded into a full-blown doctrine as reverence for Mary grew throughout the Middle Ages, especially after the

emergence in the eleventh and early twelfth century of the Cult of the Virgin Mary. Perhaps without the social and

cultural changes that took place during medieval times, Mary would never have received such attention. 

However, with the rise of the Marian cults, theologians, artists, musicians, and writers, as well as women and

men everywhere, began to regard Mary as a pure personification of a variety of religious and cultural virtues.

During the Middle Ages, the idealized views of the Virgin Mary dictated the attitudes toward women in

general. According to Gold, “a variety of relationships [were] envisioned between the Virgin Mary and women”

(68). On one hand, women were told to be more like Mary, emphasizing the qualities they had in common with

this divine figure. Views of Mary “call[ed] forth associations of comparison to what was seen as the particular

virtues of women (virginity, motherhood, humility, obedience)…” (Gold 70), thus holding up Mary as a model for

female behavior. On the other hand, Mary was never seen as quite comparable to human women. An excerpt

from one eleventh-century prayer demonstrates the fervor of one worshipper as he exclaims with praise, “you

who are alone without equal… pure and most worthy virgin of virgins and most powerful of all women, lord of all

women” (Gold 69).  And yet it is Mary’s perfection that places her so far above mortal women; this is why so

many prayers are dedicated to her. Within this context of praise, then, “Mary…[is not a] role model for ordinary

humans but rather [an] exemplar of exceptional virtue [that] makes us more aware of our own sins…so remote is

she from others of her sex” (Gold 71). This was a common idea imagined by medieval theologians, and later by

poets and artists. Mary transcended human flaws and weakness by being perfect. 

        This idea is reiterated through the notion of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, through the Virgin Birth of

Jesus, and through her perfect and sinless life. These ideologies explain why Mary is elevated in the eyes of

worshippers from an earthly to a divine figure.  Although Mary personifies women—she is a mother and a pious

woman—she is never quite human, and this is made clear to women over and over. For example, the

terminology used to describe Mary in tenth-century prayers makes clear that Mary is “extraordinarily singular:

she is the bearer of God, and she is at the same time mother and virgin” (Gold 70). This paradox established

Mary’s divinity more firmly than ever before. Bearing children and staying a virgin is an apparent impossibility

and a sacred mystery, which acknowledged Mary’s holiness like never before.

Despite the magnificent and widespread worship of Mary, medieval women still identified themselves with

the Virgin. As Pelikan states, “written record strongly suggests that it was with the figure of Mary that many

[medieval women] identified themselves—with her humility, yes, but also with her defiance and with her victory”

(219). Perhaps what the author means here is that determination of Mary as she stayed by Christ’s side when he

was crucified and was later victorious when Christ was resurrected and she herself was crowned as the Queen

of Heaven. Also, “Mary was the woman who conquered worldly wisdom through the miracle of the virgin birth,

and as well as the one who conquered the false teaching of the heretics and resisted the incursions of the

barbarians” (Pelikan 161). Women saw Mary as more than a religious role model but as a powerful woman, and

wanted to be more like her themselves.   

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed the extraordinary growth of the cult of the Virgin in western

Europe, in part inspired by the writings of theologians, who identified her as the Personification of the Church,

Queen of Heaven, and Intercessor for the salvation of humankind (Pelikan 152). The Cult of the Virgin was also

inspired by the masses that now worshipped her with the same level of passion as they worshipped Christ

himself. This immense faith in the Virgin Mother was not entirely accepted as an official religion, like

Catholicism. That is why the religious worship of Mary was called a cult (Pelikan 168). This movement found

grand expressions in French cathedrals, which are often dedicated to "Our Lady," and in smaller churches

throughout Europe that built “Lady Shrines” adjacent to the main compound. Prayers and hymns were sung;

offerings were made, and large numbers of religious artistic depictions of Mary were created. Many cities, such

as Siena, officially placed themselves under the protection of the Virgin Mary (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

        Although the Virgin was the most important role model to which women were to aspire throughout the

Middle Ages, this elevated view of the Virgin was not the only model for. Women were also depicted negatively

mainly by religious writers who made the association with Eve, the first sinner. During medieval times,

comparisons were frequently made between Eve and Mary, and likewise, women were often depicted as

treacherous as Eve and as humble as Mary at the same time. As Power writes, “in both ecclesiastic and

aristocratic traffic of ideas the position or women was perpetually shunted between pit and throne” (6). This

conflict of values develops the idea that Mary is the redemptor of Eve’s sin, first by being born without original

sin, and second, by giving birth to Christ. Mary is Eve’s complete opposite. That said, medieval society

continued to struggle to define “woman”: “who was the true paradigm of the feminine gender…Eve, wife of

Adam, or Mary, mother of Christ?” (Power 6) The answer became clearer as theologians, as well as composers

of hymns, songs, and prayers, juxtaposed Eve (Eva) with Ave, as in Ave Maria, which was first seen as the

salutation of angel Gabriel to Mary, in the Gospel of Luke. By the eighth century this became a common

exclamation used in hymns and prayers (Pelikan 219).

        As the church was coming to terms with which model, Eve or Mary, fit women best, women also struggled to

define themselves. One well-known medieval female writer, Christine de Pizan attacked the criticism of women

by their comparison to Eve, implying instead that her contemporaries should acknowledge the likeness of

women to the Virgin. She states that women “are loving, gentle, charitable, modest, discreet. Eve sinned, but

she was betrayed, and Adam was just as bad…Should not all women be honoured for the sake of the Virgin

Mary?” (Erler 163)

Although the aforementioned virtues of Mary were emphasized throughout the Middle Ages, they had been

mentioned before in the preceding centuries. The one quality that set the devotion and thought of this period

apart from earlier periods is the “growing emphasis on Mary as the ‘mediatrix’” (Pelikan 165).  This term came

into usage as early as the end of the eighth century and achieved widespread acceptance by the twelfth, as

medieval theologians began to address Mary as “the mediatrix of law and of grace” (Pelikan 194).  The term

“mediatrix” implied two separate but parallel definitions. In one instance, Mary was the “way through which the

Savior came” (Pelikan 165), and without the Virgin, the humanity of Jesus would have been impossible. Through

Mary the divine spirit sent by God took on a human form of an infant. So by being a mother to Jesus, she was a

medium through which redemption was granted. This thought leads to the second definition: Mary was the one

“through whom we ascend to him who descended though her to that through her, he who through her was

given to us, might take us up to himself” (Pelikan 165). In this version Mary was seen as the gateway to

salvation, Christ, and heaven. It seems that Mary’s motherhood was emphasized in particular in both of these

definitions; through the birth of Christ, Mary became the mediatrix.

        Like Jesus, Mary is seen as more gentle and less menacing than God, so people often turned to her in

prayer instead. Thus Mary was granted the role of an intercessor between people and God. Sometimes, a

widespread life-altering event has to happen in order for humans to turn to the divine. During the Middle Ages,

one event especially caused a fear of God, and at the same time, worship of the Virgin Mary. This event was the

Black Death that spread through most of Europe from 1348 until 1350 and killed over twenty-five million people.

(Resources on the Balck Plague) People believed it was the wrath of God for all their wrongdoing

that caused this horrible disease to occur. Consequently they appealed to the merciful Mary to step in and ask

forgiveness on the behalf of all earthly sinners. The medieval conception of Mary’s gentle and understanding

nature presented her as a very motherly figure to the people of the time. Mary’s unquestionable divinity, and at

the same time, her earthly origin placed her at the perfect level of accessibility and worship as a gentle mother

who will intercede for humans in heaven.  

        It seems that the role of mother became the most important role assigned to Mary in theological studies of

her, as well as by the people who worshiped her. Mary was a very important positive model in the medieval

perception of female roles, drawing emphasis towards the better definition of woman rather than the sinful

association of woman with Eve. Mary possessed a holiness that was unique—she was the mediatrix, an

intercessor—equally in touch with the mortal and the divine. All of the roles assigned to the Virgin in the Middle

Ages spring from, and draw attention to, Mary’s motherly nature as mother of Jesus, and therefore, as the

mother of the whole Christian religion, as well as mother to the very worshippers who placed the Virgin Mary

upon the pedestal of incredible grace, humility, and avid concern for the sinful mortals.