National Catholic Register


Scholar’s Historical Study Does Mary Justice

BY Jim Cosgrove

April 06, 1997 Issue | Posted 4/6/97 at 1:00 PM


Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture

(New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1996, 240 pp., $25)

THOUGH NOT QUITE over, the 20th century has already earned many unique epithets— for example, some have called it history's bloodiest century. But the years stretching from the late 1800s to our own fin de sieclehave also witnessed a happier distinction: a rising tide of literature devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus.

The Marian Library located at the University of Dayton, Ohio, for example boasts some 95,000 volumes on the Virgin, much of it penned in our lifetime. Remarkable when one thinks about it: All this paper and ink (and now cyberspace) devoted to an obscure Jewish woman who lived 2,000 years ago, who never traveled beyond the confines of the Middle East, and for whose life and utterances only a few dozen verses of Scripture will suffice.

After Vatican II, some Catholic scholars, eager to put the exuberant popular Marian piety of the preconciliar era behind them, imagined that the modern “age of Mary” inspired, in part, by 19thand early 20th-century apparitions at LaSalette, Lourdes and Fatima was on the wane. However, by the early 1980s, a major new wave of popular Marian devotion resurfaced, and with it a vast new outpouring of devotional, theological and historical reflection.

One of the hallmarks of the current revival is that public interest in the Virgin Mary has not been restricted to Catholics. The last 20 years has seen an unprecedented number of works by major scholars recognizing and examining the role the Blessed Virgin has played—and continues to play—in the development of culture.

As Marina Warner admitted, with studied reluctance, in her controversial 1976 feminist critique of Marian piety, Alone of All Her Sex: “the Virgin Mary has inspired some of the loftiest architecture, some of the most moving poetry, some of the most beautiful paintings in the world; she has filled men and women with deep joy and fervent trust, she has been an image of the ideal that has entranced and stirred men and women to the noblest emotions of love and pity and awe.”

Warner, of course, was not the first non-Christian to take notice of the Virgin's enormous place in the formation of world culture. That distinction belongs to the late 19th-century American writer Henry Adams who, though an unbeliever, in his Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres (1885), waxed nostalgic about the radiant figure of the Queen of Heaven at the heart of medieval life.

But while academia's growing fascination with the Virgin is welcome, it's safe to say that even the best and most exhaustive of the recent historical surveys— Warner's, Geoffrey Ashe's The Virgin, to mention a few—have> “designs on us,” to use Keats's phrase. There are feminist or neo-pagan polemics on display in many of these works that, however useful or interesting the research is, place them on a “ponder at your own risk” list for most Catholics.

Happily, that's not the case with scholar Jaroslav Pelikan's new large-scale study on the Virgin, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture.

A companion volume to Pelikan's 1985 work Jesus Through the Centuries, this book is the historical overview we've been waiting for. No wading through pages of feminist invective or anthropological “whistling in the dark” here. What Pelikan offers us is a sober, ironic and comprehensive tour of what two millennia of love for the Virgin has produced—in theology, biblical interpretation, philosophy, art and literature—and not only among Catholics, but in the Churches of the Protestant Reformation, and even in Islam.

The author is perhaps uniquely situated to produce such a wise and fulsome guide. Jaroslav Pelikan, a Lutheran, and Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University, is one of America's most honored scholars in the humanities, currently serving as president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Pelikan is the author of more than 30 books, among which his five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (1971-1989) stands as a foremost achievement.

While Pelikan is one of the world's best-known historians of the Protestant Reformation, his writings have always been marked by a freedom from polemics and by the sort of judiciousness and balance that most historians aspire to but few attain. For a Protestant scholar, surely, all those virtues were on call for a study on the Virgin Mary—but Pelikan more than rises to the challenge.

Indeed, for a Catholic reader, perhaps, some of Pelikan's most gripping pages involve those on Mary's place in the thinking of Reformation figures like Luther and Calvin, and, even further afield, in the Mariological speculations of some of the so-called Radical Reformers.

As Pelikan stresses, “It would be a mistake, and one into which many interpretations of the Reformation both friendly and hostile have all too easily fallen, to emphasize these negative and polemical aspects of its Mariology at the expense of the positive place the Protestant Reformers assigned to her in their theology. They repeated—and in many cases … reinforce[d]—the central content of the orthodox confession of the first five centuries of Christian history.”

Luther, for example, firmly asserted the perpetual virginity of Mary, among other Marion doctrines, and even radicals like Zwingli called Mary “the highest of creatures next to her Son.”

This retention of the central tenets of Marian theology in the early Protestant confessions and some surprising survivals of Marian honorifics in later Protestant hymns, Pelikan explains, have inspired some contemporary Protestant thinkers to rediscover the place of Mary in Christian life and provide renewed links with the Catholic world.

Pelikan balances that appreciation of the Mariological interests of Reformation theologians with some vivid, and horrific pages on the early Reformation's “wars against the idols” when “reforming committees” in Switzerland, and elsewhere, systematically hacked-up, hammered and burned centuries of Marian-inspired art.

“the Heroine of the Qu'ranand the Black Madonna” is the provocative TITLE of another unusual chapter in Pelikan's survey. It details not only the surprisingly large role Mary plays in the devotional life of Islam, but, as Pelikan writes, the Virgin's profound and persistent historical function “as a bridge builder to other traditions, other cultures and other religions.”

Western popular writers on Mary have only recently begun to factor Islam's extensive Marion lore into the mix, and wonder, as Pelikan does, what mediating role the Qu'ran-ic Mary may play in building bridges and lessening tensions between Islamic and Christian civilizations.

As Pelikan notes, no woman—not biblical figures like Eve or Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, nor esteemed Islamic “saints” like Fatima, daughter of Mohammed—are honored in the Qu'ran, Islam's Scripture, as is Mary, or Maryam, the mother of Jesus. She has a chapter in the Qu'ran all to herself (Surah 19), one of the longest in Islam's holy book, and not only is she mentioned far more than any other woman in the text, but is a far more significant figure in Islamic popular tradition than her son—for Islam, the prophet Issa, from the Greek Iouses, or Jesus.

An aspect of Pelikan's work for which one is particularly grateful is his thorough and eminently sane treatment of the rise of Marian devotion in the early Church. Whereas many scholars today assume in a facile way that early Marian TITLEs such as Theotokos, or, “Mother of God,” emerged from the simple transference to Mary, of popular devotion to pagan mother goddesses, such as Isis or Rhea, Pelikan situates the discussion firmly in the context of the Christological crises of the early Church. Marian devotion is not the product of some cheap accommodation to second-rate pagan enthusiasm, as 19th-century historian Adolf Harnack maintained, but, Pelikan urges, a phenomenon to be associated with the Church's ongoing reflection on the nature of Christ, its discovery that Mary was the guarantor of the orthodox view of the Incarnation, and Mary's virtually inevitable identification with biblical images like “the daughter of Zion” and “the second Eve.”

One final note: Pelikan's success as an historical guide through the complicated currents of Marian devotion is not due merely to his scholarly skills and vast experience—though that may account for the serene clarity of the book's analysis. What undoubtedly helps steady this particular account of the cultures Marian devotion has built, and warmly recommends it, is the author's quiet Christian faith, and, with that, his capacity not for easy answers but for wonder.

Gabriel Meyer, aRegister contributing editor, is based in Los Angeles.