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Reviewed by:
  • Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary
  • Bridget Heal
Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary. By Miri Rubin. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2009. Pp. xxvi, 533. $35.00. ISBN 978-0-300-10500-1.)

This is an astonishingly wide-ranging and detailed account of Marian devotion from the time of the early Church to the seventeenth century, with afterthoughts on Mary’s significance for the modern world. In twenty-three chapters, Rubin asks how and why Mary emerged from relative obscurity in the Gospels to become a “constant presence” (p. xxi) in European history. Drawing with great sensitivity on a variety of sources—theological and devotional writings, music, poetry, and images—Rubin explores Mary’s significance not just for leading churchmen and nobles but also for ordinary laymen and -women. The heart of this book may be its description of the Western European Marian devotion of the Middle Ages, but its chronological and geographical span give it a significance that no more narrowly focused study could possibly have.

No single narrative or analytical theme could ever explain the profusion of Marian devotion that Rubin documents. There is a great wealth of material here; a rich tapestry of examples that the reader will sometimes struggle to fit into a meaningful framework. The book can be dizzying as well as dazzling: the chapter on the Marian devotion of late-medieval kings and princes, for example, jumps from fifteenth-century Burgundy to Ethiopia then back to Bernardino of Siena. Yet key themes do emerge from the profusion of raw material: Jewish traditions and their role in shaping Marian devotion; Mary’s polemical role in combating heresy; the centrality of motherhood to Marian piety. Moreover, this is not just the story of Mary’s role in Christian devotion but also of her role in Christianity’s relations with other faiths.

While much of Rubin’s theological and devotional material may be familiar to specialist readers, one of the great strengths of this book is the way in which ideas are intergrated with sociocultural evidence. As a result, this book does much more than any purely theological study could to explain the why as well as the how of Mary’s cult. Moreover, by tackling such a broad period, Rubin forces us to think outside our normal intellectual boxes. An early modernist reading this work, for example, will certainly be forced to rethink a few assumptions about the transition from late-medieval to early-modern piety.

Although there are a few well-produced color illustrations, given the extent and refinement of the author’s engagement with visual as well as textual [End Page 499] sources, it is a great pity that more could not have been included, and that those that are reproduced could not have been properly integrated into the text. But this book is a pleasure to read—beautifully written, engaging, and thought provoking. Much broader than Jaroslav Pelikan’s largely theological work (Mary through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (New Haven, 1996) and much more temperate than Marina Warner’s provocative book (Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, London, 1976), Rubin’s book will undoubtedly remain the most useful panoptic study of Marian devotion for years to come.

Bridget Heal
University of St. Andrews