In Mother of God, Miri Rubin offers a sweeping journey through the evolution of the figure of the Virgin Mary, from its earliest enunciation in the Syro-Palestinian Near East to its kaleidoscopic refractions at the end of the twentieth century. Prodigiously richly textured, the material is presented in torrential prose punctuated with moments of vivid authorial insight summed up in pungent clusters of choice words. Vividly articulate and encyclopedically informed, the book is bound to become a milestone in the historiography of Mary.
The subject of the book is in essence the “Mary affect”: Mary as she has been expressed in the meditations of spiritual seekers, the exhortations of spiritual leaders, the cadences of poets and hymnographers, and the works of visual artists. The text moves from image to image, now visual, now verbal, sometimes aural, laced one to another in a sumptuous garland of truly awe-inspiring breadth and plenitude. Thousands of scholarly articles, hundreds of artifacts, dozens of deftly excerpted and translated quotations are woven into a fluent, impetuous flood of narrative that draws the reader unflaggingly forward. Theology, history, doctrine, and liturgy are introduced as the images demand them but are ancillary to the focal theme of Mary as she assumed shape in the imagination of those whom she moved. The Mary that emerges is one whose devotees become her children, who must believe fervently in her power, her compassion, and above all her purity.
A roughly linear, chronological narrative spanning twenty centuries, the book is organized around key metaphors of Mary as they emerged into prominence at particular points in time. Dominantly western European, it nonetheless embraces the globe, recognizing Mary’s role in Islam as well as Christianity, and acknowledging issues like gender in the response to Mary. Its theme is the unfailing fertility of Mary’s appeal—neither Islam, nor Protestantism, nor the spread of secularism curtailed Mary’s cultural currency—and its tone is one of wonder. Even the persistent anti-Semitic use of Mary is presented less as a condemnation than as yet another demonstration of the power of Mary’s appeal to flow over countervailing characteristics of her cult. After the critical methods of modernist books on Mary, most notably Marina Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976), Rubin’s book is postmodern, its fast-paced, paratactically aligned stream of images affirming the cumulative methods of research technology. At the same time, it is arrestingly retrospective in its dedication to literary form, with its comprehensive structure and lush prose.
Four hundred pages of lushness is a lot of lushness, and there are things the book is not. It is not analytical: though certain themes recur throughout the book, their recurrences are rarely compared. Thus it is hard to know, for instance, whether the forces that bound Mary to imperial power in Byzantium were the same or different from the forces that made her an icon of state authority in fifteenth-century Spain, or in sixteenth-century Ethiopia; whether it was the same or different tensions that made Mary the focus of the Byzantine and Protestant iconoclasms; or what made the interpenetrations of Mary’s life and Christ’s Passion in an eleventh-century Spanish retable, in liturgical dramas a century later, or in the rosary a century later still so very different. Repeatedly, one finds oneself asking, “Yes, but in what way?” By the same token, the text is not especially critical. We rarely pause to ask whether shifts in the terminology of Marian devotion are the product of altered perception or of shifting conventions of emotive expression. The fact that the text dwells in some eras and issues on visual evidence and in others on verbal evidence is not examined. The historical moment of the “emergence of Mary as the guardian of the poor and oppressed” (p. 395) comes and goes in a sentence, with no inquiry about why it comes only at the very end of the text. Recurrently, one wants ask, “yes, but what underlies this observation?” Though global, in turn, the book is not truly ecumenical, in the sense that its Mary is the Mary of Western...