Miri RUBIN, Mary the Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2009.553 pages: Color illustration insert, notes and index ISBN 978-0-300-10500-1
Reviewed by Anthony M. STEVENS-ARROYO

Mary the Mother of God is a welcome addition to the “cross-over” style of scholarly books written for a general reader. The treatment of the subject matter is amply footnoted, but the narrative is in pleasant European English: dignified prose with occasional flowery phrasing. The design of the subject’s treatment is chronological, beginning in the first chapters with scriptural references to Mary, exploration of allusions to Mediterranean Mother goddesses, then entering into the Constantine’s creation of a Christian Empire with some side attention paid to Mary in the “Apocrypha” literature of the time. The other sections also follow the time-line treatment, with due diligence to differences between Christianity in the Byzantine East and emerging Roman West. Chapters 17 through 23 view Mary as “A Reformer” in the modern period and as a feminine symbol with into Christianity (especially into Catholicism) in the contemporary moment. Not surprisingly, the author considers Mary to have remained an important factor in theological formulations as well as in popular religion throughout the ages.

The great value of the book is found in Rubin’s sane and calm approach. Educated at Hebrew University in Jerusalem before taking her doctorate in Medieval Studies from Cambridge, Rubin is in charge of her subject. Now a professor at Queen Mary University in London, she also possesses a classroom teacher’s skill at never being dull. Her methodology reviews changes in politics and society before describing how these affect the image of Mary in popular devotion and institutionalized doctrine. Thus, for instance, in her treatment of Syriac Theology (beginning on page 34) she notes the influence of a large Jewish population in the region and the later introduction of Islam. Both provide for an idiosyncratic character to Syria’s Christian theology of Mary. This also opens the door to an informed description of how Mary is viewed in Jewish (more negatively) and Muslim (more positively) literature.

Rubin is not shy about documenting her observations with extensive citations. The Frankish Fortunatus (c.530-609) and the Visigoth Idelfonso of Toledo (607-667) are depicted as “beyond the Greek world” but nonetheless significant contributors to Marian devotion in the West. The independence of Marian theology in Gaul and Iberia, more or less because of isolation, provided a special cast to liturgical celebration of Marian feast days that continued to link Eastern and Western versions of Christianity. The feast days in the 7th century are listed as (pg.94): the Purification = February 2nd; the Annunciation = March 25th; the Assumption or Dormition of Mary = August 15th; the Nativity of Mary = September 8th; and the Annunciation of Mary’s birth = December 18th. This last feast day took place during what had been the pagan Saturnalia and coincided with the celebration in First Century CE Italy of the feast day of the Celtic goddess Epona. Such a fact apparently eludes the usually comprehensive treatment of Rubin, because as she notes without comment, in Rome there were only four Marian feasts, the December Annunciation being omitted (page 97).

This lapse is more than compensated by an insightful treatment of the role of the papacy which serves as prolog to her treatment of a Roman devotion to Mary. Although still highly influenced by Byzantium, Rome developed some unique features that blossomed under Pope Gregory the Great (c.540-604). By his pontificate, it is noted, major pagan basilicas like the Pantheon of Emperor Hadrian had been transformed into churches dedicated to Mary, preparing the way for Rome to eventually minimize local cults to the saints and martyrs with preference for Roman traditions in setting Marian devotion on a higher plane. In this way, Mary became a protector of what Rubin calls “the Imperial State.” To illustrate her case, we are presented with a detailed description of the symbolic devices in the Rome’s icon of the Madonna della Clemenza. Mary is dressed in a manner similar to the style used by the Empress Theodora, notes Rubin, and the graphics that so appeal to popular religion are neatly linked with an underlying message of statecraft.

It is clear that Rubin lacks the background of a Christian believer, as for instance, when she describes the “worship of Mary” (page 97) rather than the more conventional “honour of Mary” found in most other places. This is a minor grievance as is the contrasting use of the formal “Æ” (character 00C6 in the Unicode) instead of a more common “Ae” as in “Aelfric.” Her editors might be at fault here since both forms are found on the same page (112). These minor points scarcely matter in what is overall a splendid contribution to a subject that deserves the sociological and historical contextualizing in which Rubin excels. In a sense, her “outsider” status may even have helped her gain traction as a scholar of a religious topic, rather than as a promoter of a particular devotion.

If there is anything she has missed it might be the considerable enrichment to Marian devotion and theology that came from colonial Spanish America. She condenses her treatment of the Americas and includes them with Asia in a relatively short section, pages 385-399. This is the one area where Rubin’s “slip is showing.” She relies mostly on familiar sources, but demonstrates a rather shallow awareness of the attendant critical literature that provides nuance and insight. This misstep for Spanish America is all the more noticeable because of the previous use of extensive sources for Europe.

But such critique from me is admittedly about what she didn’t write rather than about what is in the book. For an understanding of the European development of Marian devotion, this is an extremely valuable source: in fact, I would suggest that it is an indispensable one.


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