- Representations of the Blessed Virgin Mary in World Literature and Art ed. by Elena V. Shabliy
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This collection of six essays, each one exploring a rich territory within the precincts of Mariology, was edited by then Harvard Visiting Fellow Elena V. Shabliy, who also wrote the volume’s introduction and conclusion. Representations is nothing if not an earnest and devoted homage to the broadest possible consideration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as the subtitle of Shabliy’s introduction, “Ave Maria,” emphasizes (xi). The reader reacts, too, with sympathy and understanding to Shabliy’s dedication of this collection to her own mother, understanding that the book is framed by motherhood sacred and secular, by the ways in which the most devout worship—or study—of the Blessed Virgin Mary also meditates upon the construction of Mary’s maternity, and about the working out of relationships among mothers and children.
Shabliy’s acknowledgments (ix) record that she attended Stephen J. Shoemaker’s seminar “The Scepter of Orthodoxy: The Cult of the Virgin and the Council of Ephesus” at Harvard Divinity School, and that fact says something important about the lineage of Representations. Shoemaker’s 2016 study, published by Yale University Press, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, literally writes the book on the development of Marian piety in the context of early Christian devotion to Jesus and to the saints, spanning the period from the latter half of the second century to the first half of the fifth century. Shoemaker’s careful erudition is displayed in this work and in related studies in which he analyzes the significance of the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE. Famously, at this Council, Christian bishops sought consensus on a number of crucial problems, including the challenge presented by Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople, who had argued against denominating Mary as Theotokos, God-bearer, and for according Mary the term Christotokos, Christ-bearer, implying a doctrine that understands Jesus as having two separate natures. In the Council’s final decrees, Nestorius was condemned as a heretic. Thus, in the post-Ephesian Christian church, Marian devotion ramified from the principle that saw Mary as the vessel in which Jesus, the hypostatic union of God and man, was borne. Shoemaker not only contextualizes this development within Christian saintly devotion, but also within the roiling cultural and political circumstances in which early Christianity grew, including the competition between Constantinople and Alexandria. Shoemaker comprehends the overheated rivalries of fifth-century Christianity in his study, yet examines this Ephesian Council as the serious conversation about Christology that it also was. Any recent scholarship on Marian devotion must take account of Shoemaker’s pathbreaking studies, methodology, and solid elucidation of complex issues. As Shabliy indicates, Marian studies must be in contact with Shoemaker’s thinking, and that [End Page 429] fact creates a sort of sphere of influence—with its anxieties. At its best, this collection then is a product of the expanding field of Mariology which Shoemaker has enlarged in such important ways.
The title of the volume and Shabliy’s introduction demarcate a huge intellectual region—world literature and art—in which to analyze the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the figure who “ . . . holds first place among human and angelic creatures, next to God Himself ” (xi). This slender collection, even generously construed, does not reach its promised span of endeavor, though it does suggest how much is offered by prudent study of Marian syncretism (examples here include practices in China and Japan), Mary’s influence on the medium of medieval hymns, and devotional practices that include representations of Mary. But perhaps short essays in a relatively short assemblage of essays should eschew the urge to generalize about Marian devotion, especially as the subject is one developing rapidly. It is not clear either at what audience this collection is aimed, for Representations contains elements both introductory and specialist, even within the same chapter.
The learned but quite lean essay by...