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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 353-354
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From Sacred Body to Angelic Soul:
Understanding Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe
From Sacred Body to Angelic Soul: Understanding Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. By Donna Spivey Ellington. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press. 2001. Pp. xi, 284. $59.95.)
It is generally acknowledged that the cult of the Virgin Mary came to full flowering in Europe during the High Middle Ages and continued to flourish through the Renaissance, despite the scathing critiques leveled against many aspects of medieval piety by sixteenth-century Humanists and Reformers alike. Yet to affirm the constancy of Marian devotion is not therefore to imply that its character remained unchanged through these different periods. In this study, Donna Ellington brings to light some important distinctions in the way that the Virgin Mary was portrayed prior to and after the Reformation. She convincingly argues "that the Church's portrait of the Virgin gradually changed during the sixteenth century and became less focused on her body and more on her soul as religious life in Western Europe was increasingly dominated by a piety that stressed the inner life at the expense of the concrete and the material" (p. viii).
Ellington's "window" into the world of Marian piety of the late medieval and early modern periods is the popular sermon, primarily though not exclusively the published sermons of mendicant friars who were known for promoting devotion to Mary among the masses. Some of the more prominent figures of her study include for the medieval period Jean Gerson and the Franciscan St. Bernadine of Siena whereas St. Francis de Sales, St. Lawrence of Brindisi, and the Jesuit saints Peter Canisius and Robert Bellarmine are the principal representatives of the post-Tridentine period. The reader is thus given access to the Mariology of some of the most influential churchmen of each period while also being introduced to less familiar preachers such as the Dominicans Gabriel Barletta and Guillaume Pepin and Franciscans Michel Menot and Christopher Cheffontaines.
Perhaps one of the most basic distinctions to come out of Ellington's research is that between the very "active" Virgin of the Middle Ages and the more "quiet and passive" Virgin who emerges in the sixteenth century. The medieval Mary was regarded as the most powerful of intercessors precisely because of her physical relationship to Christ as mother. In one of the more fascinating [End Page 353] parts of her study, Ellington throws new light on the intercessory role of the Virgin by showing its relation to the doctrine of the Assumption. Not only was the bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven a source of hope to medieval Christians for the salvation of their own bodies and souls, but it gave them the added assurance that "her intercession would be heard, for she was bodily present in heaven" (p. 103). Ellington points out that the Assumption captures the very incarnational approach to the sacred which characterized the Middle Ages. Bodily present in heaven, Mary's power lay in her ability to speak directly to her Son or even, as St. Bernadine of Siena put it, to arouse his pity by showing him the bosom and breasts that had nursed him.
Such an emphasis on the physical relationship between mother and Son is in stark contrast to the post-Reformation emphasis on Mary's spiritual motherhood. Ellington interprets this new perspective as reflecting both the social and religious pressures brought on by the Protestant Reformation as well as the concerns of the Council of Trent to promote among the laity growth in virtue and a more interiorized piety. Catholic sermons of this period thus focus on Mary's interior virtues: her humility, submission, and obedience to the will of God. While all of her prerogatives such as her immaculate conception or her perpetual virginity continue to be affirmed and defended at this time, the emphasis on her physical relationship to Christ and her intercessory power...