THE time frame for Lilla Grindlay’s fascinating book is an important one to note. It is “early modern English writing”.
To gain access to late-16th- and early-17th-century texts, Grindlay examines their origins in late-medieval devotion. There are some slight challenges for those of us who are unfamiliar with the medieval English texts quoted in the first chapter. Do not let that put you off.
What follows plunges us into a world that has recently stimulated popular interest. It emerges from the two instalments of Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial biography.
Although Grindlay’s exploration is not organised in a strictly chronological sequence, its themes do follow the succession from Tudor to Stuart dynasties.
The shock of early Protestant reform that violently dismantles sacred images is carefully assessed. The ritual of their destruction indicates a nervous recognition of the spiritual power that they held. The shock of the burning of wooden statues that had nurtured the nation’s devotional practices must have been similar to the impact so widely felt as the world watched the burning of Notre-Dame in Paris.
Grindlay’s analysis of this is generally drawn from literary references. But she also explores how the power of the imagery of the Queen of Heaven touched dynastic and political life, was denounced as subversive of patriarchal power in both home and church, inspired theological polemic that demonised Catholicism, raised the spectre of witchcraft, and justified martyrdom.
The first part of Grindlay’s study summarises these trends with an intriguing chapter, “Sham Queens of Heaven”. Part Two looks more systematically at the literary work of Shakespeare, contemporary women writers on women and sovereignty, and poets such as John Harrington, Henry Constable, and John Southworth.
Here we find an exploration of sacred and erotic expressions of love which blur the boundaries of human experience. The congruity of desire in sacred and in physical realms is a theme that many will already recognise in the work of John Donne. Grindlay presents it to us in the context of the persistent attraction of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in whom the contraries of virgin and mother, mother and bride, and queen and handmaid are seen to meet.
It was a happy coincidence that I concluded my reading of Grindlay’s imaginative literary survey while I was on pilgrimage in Walsingham. The biblical texts used to justify the 16th-century protests that Grindlay explores are heard annually in Walsingham, in public protest about the Church of England still acclaiming Mary as mother and queen.
This made me wonder whether there is a deeper protest that is being voiced today as an echo of the 16th-century fears and anxiety from which modern England emerged. Issues of who rules this realm and how that is to be done seem remarkably familiar. Issues of gender and power, human identity, and our capacity to stretch its boundaries in ways that seem contrary to language and habit are also current in our public discourse.
Grindlay writes about an era that was going through a sort of adolescence, as new forms of power emerged in the body politic, in academia, and in the market place. In our own time, we face a similar sort of adolescence as the issues of communication, intelligence, and human identity confront us. This thoughtful study of the Virgin Mary reminds us that it is in beauty rather than function that the heavenly power and attraction of the Mother of Christ resides.
Today’s world is characterised by sham and synthetic beauty. In contrast, the attraction of the Virgin Mary, so intriguingly identified in this book, encourages our recovery of delight in the beauty of God seen in Jesus Christ and in God’s image restored in us.
Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.
Queen of Heaven: The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin in early modern English writing
Notre Dame Press £47.95