A 6th century mosaic featuring Mary, Mother of Jesus, in the church in Ravenna
In the Christian world, the most important and festive holiday – Christmas - celebrates the birth of Jesus, the Christ child. His coming was foretold by the Jewish prophets, and his story and the founding of the Christian religion is well-known. Known as the “Son of God,”his mission was no less than to redeem humanity from sin.
His mother Mary also plays an important though curious role in the story of developing Christianity. As a virgin, conceiving “miraculously” thanks to God’s intervention, giving birth, it is told, in a manger in Bethlehem because there was no room in the Inn; fleeing to Egypt with Joseph and the baby to escape the child-murdering wrath of Herod the King, raising Jesus to manhood, and mourning his death. Celebrated in art throughout the ages, through painting and sculpture, we actually know very little about Mary the mother. We do know, though, that even though Mary is not included in the Christian trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), she is a central, highly attractive – even popular – figure in the religion as it spread across Europe and throughout the world, displacing but also merging with local pagan dieties.
One story has it that she died in Ephesus, where her identity as a sacred mother began to merge with that of Demeter or Artemis, the pagan goddess of fertility whose cult was celebrated there. Incarnated and worshipped variously throughout the centuries as the Black Madonna (in the Mediterranean regions), as Notre Dame or Our Lady (in France and throughout Europe), she became the object of a cult which became very important to women, especially those who were experiencing problems in conceiving a child or who were wracked by sorrow. Mary took on many aspects of the Great Goddess of pre-Christian antiquity and developed a huge following which continues today.
Further reading and sources:
The papal encyclical Ubi Primum and the response of Johannes Ronge, in Women, the Family, and Freedom, ed. Susan Groag Bell & Karen Offen (1983), vol. 1, documents 79 & 80. Some of the above text is taken from the headnote to these documents.
Marina Warner, Alone of all her sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976).
Wikipedia has an excellent article on Mary, with many references and illustrations, at the following URL: