CLIO TALKS BACK: The Christ Child and his Mother Mary

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.

Michelangelo’s Pieta
In the mid-nineteenth century, the newly-elected pope, Pius IX, following his flight from Rome and the revolutionaries, drafted the encyclical letter Ubi Primum, in which he called on Roman Catholic bishops to support his intention of honoring the Virgin Mary, elevating her status in the Church by proclaiing her to be free of (sexual) sin thanks to the exceptional privilege of her Immaculate Conception (i.e. being conceived by her mother Anne without a sexual act). The debate over Mary’s purity had occupied Christian theologians since medieval times but had never received formal endorsement from the Church. It seemes more than coinciddental that Piou IX provoked this move only when the Church was suffering from the tumult of revolution – and secular disenchantment – and when the specter of war stalked the Italian peninsula and the rest of Europe and men were falling away from the Church. What an extraordinary coincidence that the Pope should attempt to rally support by invoking a principle of female purity to buttress the Church in its hour of need! SSome six hundred and twenty bishops responded to the encyclical, nearly all in the affirmative, and in December 1854, back in Rome, Puis IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Opponents, such as Johannes Ronge, who objected to popery in general, insisted in 1849 that what needed celebrating was not some supernatural idea of Mary, but rather “the majesty and dignity of womanliness” and the “redeeming power of love” in humanity. The “sanctifying image of Mary,” he insisted, should be found “only in humanity.” He denied “voicing so-called theories of emancipation” but rather “seeking the inner liberation and elevation of the female sex through a lofty ethical principle.” He called on German women to embody this idea and look to the needs of the oppressed classes and especially the plight of children.

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: