To thee we cry, poor sons of Eve, O Maria!
To thee we sigh, we mourn, we grieve, O Maria!
O clement, gracious, Mother sweet, O Maria!
O Virgin Mary, we entreat, O Maria!

Throughout the centuries, the Virgin Mary has remained one of the most recognizable religious figures. The hymn entitled “Hail, Holy Queen (Salve Regina),” written in the eleventh century by Hermannus Contractus, is an obvious adoration of Mary, demonstrative of the kind of emotions this Biblical figure evoked in the people of Middle Ages. During that time, scenes of Virgin Mary were also very frequently portrayed in paintings depicting her as a contemporary woman, allowing for affective piety and a deep connection between the women of the Middle Ages and Mary, who served as a role model for those women as well as for men. The virtues that Mary possessed were seen as the very virtues that the woman of that period should strive to attain. Numerous works of art emerged during the Middle Ages, including hymns, sermons, and paintings praising Mary and celebrating her as the ideal model, particularly for women. 

            All through the course of history, Mary is described as the saintly mother of God. She was often depicted in icons alone, surrounded by saints in heaven, or with the Christ child in her arms. During the artistic periods before the Middle Ages, Mary was shown as untouchable, unreachable, an utterly divine figure. In the artists’ representations of her during the Gothic and Byzantine periods, the Virgin was portrayed as inhuman, like God himself. The viewer was meant to perceive her thus as well.  There are several examples of works of art that demonstrate this perception of the Virgin.

Mary was drawn flat, with sharp unattractive features. The Virgin was presented solely as a symbol of faith and devotion and not as a woman who once lived among mortals. This is evident in the early artistic works depicting Mary, for example, the ninth century Roman mosaic entitled Mary with Saints Prassede and Prudenziana (Beth’s Collection) where four expressionless flat faces stare at the viewer. Another example of Mary’s divinity presented in an unrealistic style is the sixth-century Serbian relief sculpture Virgin and Child (Art Archive) that protrudes Mary towards the audience, presenting her as unrealistically large. Also in this work, the Christ child is shown more as a small adult rather than as an infant, even taking on the same sitting pose as his mother.

Representations of Mary during the Middle Ages become slowly more life-like with realistic elements. Perhaps, the devotion to Mary was seen in greater numbers in art because of the spread of religious and secular devotion to the Virgin. According to Eileen Power, “ [the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary] spread with great rapidity and soon pervaded every manifestation of popular creed” (11).  During the Middle Ages  religious leaders as well as the people began to focus on the virtues of Mary. Pilgrimages were organized to the Virgin’s shrines. Lady Chapels were built in great churches. Mary’s name was given to flowers: “her miracles were on every lip,” and churches established special worship days and feasts in her honor (Power 11-12). Mary was increasingly seen as both divine but also as very human. Consequently, the Virgin became a prevalent subject of painting. Reflecting these more worldly ideas, she was often depicted by various painters as a healthy, beautiful, young woman. Yet she was still viewed as a divine figure by balancing the composition with miraculous associations, such as saints and angels. In these new paintings made during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Mary embraces Christ; she is filled with tenderness. In medieval depictions, “the Virgin has become less of a queen and more of a princess, less a God-bearer and more an earthly mother” (Gold 66).  This is particularly evident in the works of the Flemish artist Robert Campin, or Master of Flemalle, and other artists who were increasingly interested in realism and the daily details of life. 

What is interesting about these later works of art is that Mary appears to be simply a woman—a graceful, pure and miraculous woman—but still a woman and a mother. Mary is shown as three-dimensional, with natural gestures and typical late-medieval dress; it was almost as though the artist wished to tell all women that Mary was one of them.  

During the Middle Ages artists also became very concerned with symbolic meaning and the practice of affective piety.  Most of the details, like objects and colors, included in paintings of the Virgin were symbolic of her purity, her sanctity, and her devoutness. Some symbols hinted at the life of Jesus or alluded to the texts from the Bible. The Virgin was also often placed in contemporary settings, such as the house of the commissioning patron. These paintings often included the patron himself at the holy scene witnessing a miracle and himself practicing affective piety. Although to some this may seem offensive or even blasphemous, for people of the Middle Ages, religion was an integral part of life; the separation of the sacred from the secular was unimaginable. 

            One such altarpiece was painted by Robert Campin, also known as Master of Flemalle, and it is called the Merode Altarpiece.  This painting includes its patrons, Peter Engelbrecht and his wife, on the left panel of the triptych witnessing the scene of the Annunciation (Kleiner 576).  The middle panel depicts the Annunciation, which takes place in a contemporary Flemish home, as opposed to the House of David in Nazareth, as it is written in the Bible in Gospel of Luke 1:27-38. Mary is wearing a red dress, when she usually wears blue –and she does not have a halo atop her head. She seems to fit right in with the contemporary time: she looks like a Flemish lady and the details of her costume suit the depiction of the interior of the house. The objects in the room, like the white lilies, the book, and the white cloth, are purposely included by the artist but do not look awkward in the homely interior. The lily is traditionally associated with Mary’s purity and the resurrection of Jesus. There is a Jewish prayer shawl, called the tallith, displayed on the mantle, again as a sign of devoutness and purity. There is also an open book on the table and Mary is shown reading. This is not only a symbol of Mary’s intelligence, but is symbolic of a new concept. Showing a woman with a book is a new practice that became artistically depicted more and more often by the end of the fourteenth century. At this time “women were increasingly literate [and a] proliferation of books [was] directed to a female audience” (Driver 75). Therefore, Campin displays Mary in the process of reading in his attempt to integrate her into the medieval times; after all, this may have been an activity enjoyed by a contemporary Flemish woman.

The right panel of this altarpiece depicts Joseph in his carpenter’s shop very accurately, according to what we know of such shops in the 1400’s (Kleiner 577).  Not only are Joseph’s tools realistically relevant to a carpenter’s trade but the ax, the saw and the rod in the foreground are mentioned in Isaiah 10:15, “Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself, as if it were no wood.” In the scripture, this is a reference to the ungratefulness of the people toward their creator, perhaps an allusion in this painting to the suffering of Christ and the unappreciative people who condemned him to the cross. Joseph also seems to have just finished making a mousetrap, putting it out on the windowsill for sale. The mousetrap too has a symbolic theological tradition that “Christ is bait set in the trap of the world to catch the Devil” (Kleiner 576). The artist appears to be much more concerned with the theological symbolism conveyed through his art rather than the unbalanced perspective where at the same time the viewer sees the mousetrap set on the windowsill, and the gallows set in the town square beyond, for example, or the realism of the large-scaled Mary and Angel Gabriel in the foreground in relation to the tiny, closet-like room.  Perhaps the artist’s great concern to portray objects with theological symbolic meaning is at the request of his patrons who with their own presence in the altarpiece add a sense of realism to the holy subject of the Annunciation.  By imagining themselves present at the scene, the worshipers can more closely sense the truth in the Bible’s scripture. Although there is great debate on the identification of the patrons in this painting the careful conceptualization of the altarpiece suggests that Annunciation theme “refers to the patron’s name—Engelbrecht (“angel bringer”)—and the workshop scene in the right panel refers to his wife’s name Schrinmechers (“shrine maker”)” (Kleiner 576). The patrons were a real middle-class Flemish family.  Affective piety of which the Merode Altarpiece presents a fine example was successful in spreading the Christianity and reverence for the Virgin Mary throughout the Middle Ages. It is important to note that faith was instilled not only in the church but also in the homes of every Christian family of the time.

With the circulation of images of the Virgin Mary, more people became aware of her magnificence and the reverence for her grew. Many literary works unveil admiration for the Virgin. Hymns and prayers were written in dedication to Mary, and she was a noteworthy topic often discussed by the clergy.

The hymn written in the ninth century entitled “Hail, O Star of the Ocean” was often used in evening prayer. One of the lines of this hymn, “show thyself a Mother, may the Word divine born for us thine Infant hear our prayers through thine,” suggests that people in the Middle Ages viewed Mary as less punishing and menacing than God, and also as a messenger, or an advocate, who can plead for the souls of sinners, the mother of all.

Not only was Mary sinless and pure, she was truly a mother, embracing not only Christ, but all the people as her own children. This notion, as well as others, served as a role model for women. Often twelfth century sermons “held up Mary’s special virtues, in particular, her humility, and her obedience, as models for women” (Gold 69). Theologians wished to persuade every woman that she too could emulate Mary.

Another reason the Virgin was praised was that Mary was seen as the opposite of Eve.  In the eyes of the medieval people, the Virgin counteracted the sins of the original sinner, Eve, by bringing forth God’s Son and living a holy and dutiful life.  Mary was everything Eve was not, and just as Eve was looked down upon, Mary was worshipped. Mary was often portrayed as the redeemer of Eve in paintings that show Mary conquering Satan. Mary was portrayed “frontal, crowned and stand[ing] solidly on the serpent whom she has conquered by giving birth to the Redemptor” (Gold 66).

 A perfect literary example of the relationship between Eve and Mary may be found in the hymn “Hail, O Star of the Ocean,” quoted earlier, in which one stanza reads, “taking that sweet Ave, which from Gabriel came, peace confirm within us, changing Eve’s name.” It was a medieval commonplace that Mary transformed Eva (Eve) into Ave, (the reverse of Eva) which means “Hail,” first word of “Ave, Maria” prayer. This juxtaposing of Eve and Mary is also evident in the previously mentioned hymn by Hermannus Contractus where the author appears to cry out for the benevolence of Mary to rescue him from the damnation placed upon him as the son of Eve.  In the Middle Ages people like Contractus were almost glad for the fall of Adam and Eve. According to Power, “had it not been for the fall mankind would not have seen the Virgin enthroned in heaven” (12), and this indeed was important because then Christ, the Redemptor, would not have been born. The two women balance one another: the very birth of Christ by Mary is the redemption of Eve’s sin against humankind. 

Throughout the Middle Ages some writers stressed the matchlessness of the Virgin: her immaculate qualities, her divine purpose, her sinless life. Mary was identified as a woman, with the qualities of a woman and yet the comparison between Mary and other women emphasized how far she surpassed them. As Warner states: “…her freedom from sex, painful delivery, age, death, and all sin exalted her ipso facto above ordinary women” (153).  Meanwhile others “made an effort to consider the Virgin Mary, unusual as she may have been, in the same category as ordinary women” (Gold 75). This was one way to worship a more real being, someone divine and yet someone also mortal.  In one twelfth-century sermon, for example, women are exhorted “to consider how their attainment of paradise is made natural because of their commonality with Mary” (Gold 68).  Thus, even if a woman cannot be as perfect as Mary was, she must worship the mother of God and strive to live a life of obedience like the Virgin’s.

            The Virgin Mary is an important symbolic figure. Mary is still seen as a model for women, especially

mothers, and for all people, and is glorified for her purity. During the Middle Ages the worship of Mary involved

different religious practices. In order to instill the key religious values personified in Mary, painters represented

her realistically, painted patrons at the holy scene, and used various techniques such as religious symbolism to

portray the Virgin’s greatness. Writers also composed hymns and poetry praising Mary and displaying her as a

symbol of everyday piety. This treatment of the holy figure of the Virgin implanted Mary into everyday

consciousness and in a religious culture in which the people practiced affective piety. Mary was no longer just

the bearer of God. She was viewed as realistic: she was a woman, a mother, a holy divine character whose great

worship began in the Middle Ages and continues until this day. The Virgin Mary herself seems to predict the

people’s continued admiration of her in the Gospel of Luke 1:46, in her Magnificat when she says “for behold,

from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.”