We encounter images of the Virgin Mary constantly: in churches, tattoos, and local news stories reporting frequent visual manifestations of her iconic form. Myriad reasons inform why these images blanket the globe – ranging from the Crusades and European colonization to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and the ideas of Marshall McLuhan. Mother of God, a new book by Miri Rubin, presents a history that demonstrates how the myth of Mary, at its core, has not exclusively been about understanding her as a conduit for the son of God, but as a reflection of universal human identity.
Consider this: Mary is mentioned only 19 times in the Bible, in the Qur’an 34 times. The creation of the Mary story and all that it has come to represent today is a direct result of the earliest biblical scholars taking those handful of appearances in the Bible and extrapolating theories and beliefs about Mary and her Old Testament heritage in order to proselytize.
Biblical exegesis, reverent and polemical, was undertaken by religious thinkers: Jews did not believe that a mortal human could carry the divine, Islam resisted figurative images, Christians sought to convert nonbelievers. Christianity achieved the status of an imperial religion with Mary as the focal point due to her benevolent duality, the sublime contradiction of human form serving as a vessel for the divine. This eventually secured the belief of Mary as Theotokos – Bearer of God – influencing how Christianity would spread west across Europe, and eventually to the New World and Asia.
The visual portrayals of Marian devotion were very much inspired by this understanding of Mary’s place in the Trinity narrative. By the turn of the first millennium, Mary crowned the “hierarchies linking heaven and earth,” her figure able to straddle the two realms. This was thanks to the creation of stories concerning her end—which was not death but an Assumption to heaven, “and so veneration was mediated by objects that had been close to that body.”
In her introduction to Mother of God, Rubin muses on the act of writing the book. She mentions all of the people that repeated the story of Diana Duyser and her infamous $28,000 Grilled Cheese Virgin Mary eBay auction. In light of Rubin’s intensive scholarship, extensive travel to archives, the heated academic debates and the overall seriousness of her endeavor, it is hard not to imagine her rolling her eyes as she typed this throwaway anecdote of which she says no more than: “Mary marketed with the electronic efficiency of the twenty-first century.” In fairness, Rubin’s study of Mary ends at 1600, but the story very much continues today in these instances of faith and absurdity that so often run roughshod through the media.
Written and visual interpretations of Mary have always possessed similarities to the grease-smear and wood-grain manifestations of her form so common today. As early as the fifth century, a robe believed to have been Mary’s was fabled to bear “milk-stains, traces of this Child Christ’s feeding at Mary’s breast.” And then there is the sixteenth century story from Mexico of Juan Diego discovering the image of Mary on his tilma, helping secure Christianity’s foothold in the New World through the creation of Our Lady of Guadalupe. More than the building of a religion, representations of Mary, as Rubin sees it, explored the bond between a mother and her child, which “deeply affected European – and later global – ideas about motherhood, beauty and affection.”
Throughout Mother of God runs Rubin’s belief in the “vernacular Mary” and how it helped to shape Europe, and in turn, a great deal of the world: “The sheer variety of shape and colour, of form and gesture that she ultimately came to embody are reflections of human yearning, ingenuity and creativity.” This idea carries easily into our 21st century context. The painting and carving of icons, the debates about Mary’s origins and the stories of her miracles were altered, appropriated and ornamented by the locals, merging local beliefs and landscapes with the encroaching tropes of Christianity.
Today, the power of the image still reigns supreme and, as people look for meaning, or at least something to talk about, the recognizable form of Mary appears unexpectedly, disseminated by cellphone cameras and email. Certain such stories are no doubt questionable and quizzical but they can also possess a sacred sincerity that people find empowering. With Mother of God, Miri Rubin captivatingly elucidates the history of one of the world’s greatest narratives and in doing so equips her readers with the gear to navigate the digital terrain that serves as the landscape for this narrative’s continuation in our image-reliant world.