Ever-virgin Mother of God

14 July 2009

Judith Maltby traces the history of an idea

Protectress: the Virgin in Piero della Francesca’s Polyptych of the Misericordia, 1445-62; one of 595 colour images in Sacred Symbols: Peoples, religions, mysteries, edited by Robert Adkinson (Thames & Hudson, £12.95 (£11.65); 978-0-500-51455-9) MUSEO CIVICO, SANSEPOLCRO

Protectress: the Virgin in Piero della Francesca’s Polyptych of the Misericordia, 1445-62; one of 595 colour images in Sacred Symbols: Peoples, religi...

Mother of God: A history of the Virgin Mary

Miri Rubin

Allen Lane £30


Church Times Bookshop £27

The Mary of the Celts

Andrew Breeze

Gracewing £9.99


Church Times Bookshop £9

MIRI RUBIN’s Mother of God: A history of the Virgin Mary is a big, ambitious book by a leading cultural historian of late-medieval Europe. Its aim is to present a history of Mary from the New Testament to the late 1600s. Professor Rubin’s book is not so much a history of Mary per se as an exploration of the reception and construction of “Mary” over a dizzying range of cultures, as her narrative strides over countries and centuries at a breathless pace.

Such a wide-ranging and ambitious book invites an “open hunting season” for those of a donnish and pedantic disposition, and it is easy for specialists with knowledge of only one or two of the centuries or societies under examination to pick holes. None the less, there is a significant disconnect between the learned and extensive endnotes and the actual text. The endnotes reveal scholarship on a vast and dazzling scale; whereas the text reads at times very superficially, or at best like a good undergraduate essay. I have the sense that the book was rushed to press, and that we are presented with a draft rather than a polished product.

Mother of God contains errors and misleading assertions. The most annoying for me was Rubin’s repeated insistence that the New Testament says “very little” about Mary, whereas one could equally argue that it says a surprising amount about her. She contrasts Mary’s low number of search hits in the New Testament with the Qur’an, where her name appears more often than in the Bible. Technically true; and the Qur’an has some interesting things to say about Mary, including several intriguing versions of the annunciation, the significance of which Rubin does not explore. But most of the search “hits” on Mary are part of the construction “Jesus, Son of Mary”. In other words, they are references to Jesus, the Son of Mary, making what is in Islamic theology an important point about Jesus’s nature.

And it is theology that is most lacking in this book. One cannot do everything, of course, but, since theology is a human activity and part of human culture, cultural historians who write about religion need to be well informed about it. Rubin speaks repeatedly of the “salvation narrative” of Christianity, but her version seems to exclude almost entirely the resurrection of Jesus, as though that narrative ends at the cross. The book is concerned a great deal with “bodylines”, and yet has nothing to say on how the “risen body” might be part of this discussion.

In the chapters dealing with the Reformation, she is silent on the striking fact that the magisterial Reformers all rallied round the notion of Mary’s perpetual virginity, more anxious about the Arian threat from sections of the radical Reformation than they apparently were about defending sola scriptura. Indeed, in regard to Mary’s having other children, you could argue that the New Testament tells us more about her than the “tradition” would like to hear.

Andrew Breeze’s The Mary of the Celts is a collection of articles pub­lished over the past two decades on Mary in the Celtic imagination, ancient and modern. As a result of this, it reads as a set of discrete es­says rather than as a book possess­ing a coherent argument.

Indeed, despite its title, references abound from Continental sources, as well as authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, John Donne, and T. S. Eliot. None of these strike me as especially “Celtic”, which raises questions about the criteria for inclusion: there appears to be a degree of randomness. Breeze maintains that “it is not a devo­tional or spiritual work,” but The Mary of the Celts does not read as a particularly academic work, either.

Canon Maltby is Chaplain and Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and Reader in Church History in the University of Oxford.

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