The Cult of the Virgin Mary and Its Consequences


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

In the eastern Roman Empire, Greek theologians elevated the veneration of the Virgin through the development of a new doctrine—that Mary, alone of all human beings, had been born without the stain of that original sin. Instead, Mary had been conceived by her mother Anna in a miraculous manner, without any act of sexual intercourse with her husband, Joachim. Rather, the couple had merely exchanged a chaste kiss. This meant that Mary was not only a perpetual virgin, she was also conceived as immaculate, unstained by sin.

Mary, mother of God monument
Mary is regarded as a holy person unstained by sin. (Image: Mariochom/Public domain)

A Continuous Sanctification

This doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, like the dogma of Perpetual Virginity, was then popularized in the western Roman Church during the 12th century. Although it remained a topic of controversy among theologians, it eventually attained the status of dogma in 1854. 

At the same time, other medieval doctrines raised Mary from the position of humble handmaiden—as she had declared herself in Luke’s Gospel—to the Queen of the Angels, with the power to intercede on behalf of even the worst sinners, especially women. 

For example, collections of Mary’s miracles always included the story of “the pregnant abbess”, about the leader of a community of nuns who succumbs to the temptations of lust and then tries to hide her sin. In some versions, she aborts the baby; in others, she contemplates infanticide. In all of them, the Virgin intervenes, either by making her pregnancy disappear or by spiriting the baby away so that the erring abbess can return to her monastery. 

The Figure of Perfection

This burgeoning medieval cult of the Virgin had two paradoxical outcomes. On the positive side, it raised a woman to the top of the official Church’s otherwise patriarchal hierarchy and, in doing so, celebrated femininity and womanly virtues—motherhood, healing, nourishment, kindness, and mercy. 

But at the same time, it made Mary an unattainable figure of female perfection. What other woman could aspire to be a virgin and a mother, the bride of God and the birther of Christ, the Lord’s handmaid and His queenly consort, all at once? No one. No real woman could really emulate her, and so real women were much more likely to be avatars of Eve—scheming, disobedient, weak, and deceitful seducers. 

And as it happened, the glorification of a solitary ideal woman coincided exactly with the suppression of real women’s access to positions of power within the Church. As the cult of the Virgin grew, the opportunities for aspiring holy women shrank.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval LegacyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

A Trend That Would Last Long

A painting of Heloise
Heloise was a great intellectual of her day. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

This narrow constriction of opportunity was not lost on many of the real women who experienced this trend in real time. The great intellectual of her day, Heloise former pupil and wife of the philosopher Peter Abelard, and founder of a new religious order for women, was vehement in her account of the ways that avenues of advancement for women were being blocked and denounced the centuries-long tradition that insisted on the inherent sinfulness of all women. 

Her exact contemporary, Hildegardof Bingen, was even more outspoken in her denunciation of attempts to thwart women’s advancement to positions of authority in the Church. Like Heloise, she was a highly original thinker.

But unlike Heloise, who was a trained scholar, Hildegard was a self-taught mystic who claimed to receive regular revelations from God—which she described in her own version of Latin and had illustrated under her close supervision. She also composed hymns and ambitious musical dramas for her nuns to perform, and prepared treatises on subjects as diverse as cosmology and medicine. Her advice was frequently sought by religious and secular authorities, and she even received a special papal dispensation that allowed her to preach publicly. 

Women’s Wisdom

Through all of these multimedia campaigns, Hildegard insisted, not only on women’s spiritual equality, but on their superior authority and access to divine wisdom. As she insisted, God had chosen an average woman to be the conduit of his greatness; by extension, he had thereby glorified all women. Hildegard even made this point in a visionary, feminist depiction of the Mass—the ritual in which the presiding priest transforms earthly bread and wine into the divine flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. 

In Hildegard’s Eucharist, the priest is not a man, but a woman—the female embodiment of the Church, ecclesia, represented as a queen. As you can probably guess, Hildegard’s daring and strenuous efforts to elevate the status of women were barely tolerated during her lifetime, while her supporters’ attempts to have her declared a saint were unsuccessful for over 800 years. It was not until 2012 that she was formally canonized. 

The Visions of the Virgin

The championship of women’s spiritual authority, as exemplified by Hildegard and Heloise, thus runs counter to most contemporary representations of the Virgin, many of which were also contradictory. Alongside depictions of Mary as alma mater (nourishing mother), mater misericordiæ (mother of mercy), or mater doloros (the sorrowful mother mourning her dead Son), there was the quite pragmatic Mary of the “pregnant abbess” legend, condoning or even effectively assisting in the abortion (or “disappearance”) of a child. 

There was also a long artistic tradition that associated the Virgin with Venus, the goddess of love and sexuality. And, as the historian Amy Remensnyder has shown, there was Mary la Conquistadora—the force behind the reconquest of Christian Spain and the scourge of Muslims and Jews. 

By the end of the 15th century, all of these visions of the Virgin were available to the conquerors, colonists, and missionaries who spread Catholic Christianity to the New World and beyond, as part of the medieval legacy.

Common Questions about the Cult of the Virgin Mary and Its Consequences

Q: How was Mary conceived as immaculate and unstained by sin?

This happened after Greek theologians in the eastern Roman Empire began to elevate the veneration of the Virgin, claiming Mary had been born without any act of sexual intercourse between her parents, Anna and Joachim.

Q: What was the result of developing the vision of Mary into an unattainable figure of female perfection?

It was impossible for other women to have all of Mary’s traits all together: a virgin and a mother, the bride of God and the birther of Christ, the Lord’s handmaid and His queenly consort. Therefore, as the Cult of Virgin grew, there were fewer opportunities for aspiring holy women.

Q: Who was Heloise?

She was an intellectual of her time, as well as a former pupil and wife of the philosopher Peter Abelard. She also found a new religious order for women and criticized the centuries-long belief regarding the inherent sinfulness of all women except Mary.

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