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Averil Cameron

The Early Cult of the Virgin

From “Mother of God; Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art”.
Edited by Maria Vassilaki.

First Part

IT IS BOTH difficult and fascinating to attempt to trace the development in Christian consciousness of the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her place in the history of Christianity has been studied by countless theologians, historians and art historians, and she has been and is the subject of devotion and veneration to millions of the faithful all over the world. Mariology -the study of Mary- is a recognized field of study, not only among Roman Catholics, with its own very numerous publications, including journals, and its own centers of research(1). This exhibition focuses on one particular aspect, the figure of Mary as she appears as the Mother of God in Eastern Orthodox art, but the history of Mary in the early period of Christianity, and indeed for many centuries thereafter, is a shared one, not divisible between a Western and an Eastern tradition. These were the formative centuries for the faith, and the figure of Mary the mother of Jesus very quickly came to be seen as occupying a pivotal position in the Christian understanding of the Incarnation of Christ. As the faith spread and as it underwent critical stages of development, so also did Christian understanding of Mary deepen and develop. Moreover, when Christianity emerged as a major and public religion when it received imperial support in the fourth century, both the nature of the faith and the role of Mary were influenced by, just as they in turn influenced, the character of Late Antique society and culture. While the most prominent doctrinal issues of these centuries centered on problems of Christology, the figure of Mary was in some ways also a touchstone for other developments. She attracted intense interest and popular devotion, and pre-iconoclastic images of the Virgin and Child greatly outnumber surviving or known images of Christ alone (2). It is the purpose of this contribution to trace the stages by which this history took shape.

In theological terms, the doctrine of the Virgin Mary, or the Mother of God, as she is more usually called in Eastern circles (3), belongs to the realm of tradition and (in its technical sense) ‘development’. References to her in the Gospels are very limited, confined in the main to the stories of the events later known as the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, with the Adoration of the Magi and the Flight into Egypt, and the scene of Mary and St John at the foot of the Cross. Thus there is little or no Scriptural authority for the role she came to play later in both the Eastern and the Western Church. The doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Virgin were declared canonical in the Roman Catholic Church by papal decree only in 1854 and 1950, respectively (4). Neither did other beliefs such as her perpetual virginity find direct Scriptural reference. But as Christians reflected on the meaning of the life and death of Christ, and on the narratives which told the story, the desire to find authority for Mary’s role gave rise, at an early stage, to the search for both Old and New Testament references which, though not explicit, could nevertheless be held to refer to her. The same impulse found a response in writings later labelled as apocryphal (and therefore non-official in the Church's eyes, despite their enormously wide circulation and influence). In addition, modern scholars and Byzantine homilists alike have sought to resolve the dilemma by explaining the silence in the canonical texts as in some way intentional, either an indication of her extreme holiness or a sign of theological reserve (5).

An important development in the first category was to trace Mary’s descent from the line of David, even though this is not made explicit in the Gospel accounts (6). This provided the essential link for the lineage of Jesus between the Old and the New Testament. In the second century, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons developed the concept of Mary as the second Eve, who played a role in relation to Christ, the second Adam, parallel to that of the first Eve in relation to the first Adam, and whose virtue would cancel out the transgression of the first woman.(7) A passage in the latter's Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching encapsulates the several themes contained in this comparison: “Adam had to be recapitulated in Christ, so that death might be swallowed up in immortality, and Eve in Mary, so that the Virgin, having become another virgin’s advocate, might destroy and abolish one virgin’s disobedience by the obedience of another virgin”. Here we already find the themes of Mary's crucial role in the Divine Economy (recapitulation), her advocacy or mediation, her obedience, and her virginity. The emphasized disobedience of Eve, and Mary's contrasting simplicity, obedience and virginity, were themes pursued in detail by many later Fathers, with corresponding implications for their views on women, sexuality and marriage.(8) Other attempts to find Old and New Testament pointers to the role of Mary also continued in later exegesis: Mary’s virginity found an Old Testament foreshadowing in the reference in the Song of Songs to a hortus inclusus, ‘an enclosed garden’,(9) and she was seen as the woman clothed with the sun in the Book of Revelation.(10) In the second and third centuries there was still as yet no clear doctrine about Mary, but Clement of Alexandria already likened her in her purity, her love and her motherhood to the Church itself,(11) and Origen too emphasized her virginity, her motherhood and her holiness; for him, following Ignatios of Antioch, her betrothal and marriage to Joseph were God's way of protecting her virginity from the world.(12) In contrast, while accepting that Jesus’ descent from the line of David came through his mother, Tertullian did not accept that Mary remained a virgin and has earned the disapproval of Catholic scholars for seeming to be critical towards her.(13)

Nevertheless, even Tertullian accepted the virgin birth of Christ, and these early testimonies in general, even without going into great detail, lay stress on the mystery of Mary's status as the virgin mother of Christ, and on her obedience to God's planned role for her in the salvation of the world. A different type of writing altogether, which was to become extremely important for later generations, was the apocryphal text known as the Protevangelium of James, also of the second century. This expanded the bare details offered by the Gospels into a charming narrative of Mary's own birth, infancy and childhood, in which she too, like her Son, was marked out from before her birth by God for her divine destiny.(14) This belongs within a wider group of infancy narratives and stories of Mary's early life, and already contains many of the features which were later to become so well known in visual art, and especially in the Byzantine cycles of the life of the Virgin. Her parents are named as Joachim and Anne, and the birth as a divinely sent answer to their prayers for a child; Anne receives a visitation from an angel who tells her that she will conceive. Anne vows her child to God, and the baby is born, and takes her first steps at only six months old. Anne sings a song of joy and, like many parents in similar circumstances in later saints’ lives, she and Joachim present her at a young age to be brought up in a holy place, in their case in the Jewish temple, where she is marked out by the priests as the subject of prophecy and is fed by angels. A husband, Joseph, is found for her at the appropriate time of puberty when she must leave the temple, but this is in fact a way of guarding her virginity, which is later, after Christ's birth, attested by the midwife and her assistant Salome, who appear in so many Byzantine Nativity depictions. The individual elements from which this story is constructed are clearly recognizable, though little is known of its composition or early circulation. One of its chief concerns was certainly to underline the theme of Mary’s virginity. Nevertheless it also provided an imaginative scenario for the background and childhood of the Virgin which complemented the laconic statements in the canonical Gospels and which was to have tremendous appeal to subsequent generations.

The date and origins of the first Christian art, especially the art of the catacombs, remain highly controversial, but it seems that scenes of Jesus and Mary in the Roman catacombs did not appear before the late third or fourth century, and even then they are few in number.(15) When Mary does appear it is typically in scenes of the Annunciation or the Adoration of the Magi, which also feature, though here in Roman imperial style, in the surviving fifth-century mosaics in the Roman church of Santa Maria Maggiore.(16) It took the major strides in Christian church building, which followed the support of the Church by Constantine and his successors in the fourth century, before Christian schemes of decoration developed, and even then depictions of the Virgin were extremely slow to become established. As a female figure of Christian devotion one might say that she was outranked by Thekla, the virginal heroine of the late second-century Acts of Paul and Thekla, whose important shrine at Meryemlik, near Silifke in Isauria was visited by the pilgrim Egeria in the late fourth century.(17) his comparative lack of representation of the Virgin in visual art makes the proliferation of images of the Virgin and Child from the sixth century onwards all the more remarkable; it would seem then that, despite the Protevangelium and despite her increasingly important role in doctrinal debates, the personal veneration of the Virgin known to later generations was not yet the norm, even in the fourth century. It is in practice only after the Council of Ephesus and the recognition of her title as Theotokos in AD 431 that we find the real development of the cult of the Virgin which was to find expression in the sixth century in particular in the establishment of Marian feasts, increasing numbers of images of the Virgin for both private and public use, stories of her appearances and of miracles performed by her, and a new note of Marian spirituality struck by such key literary texts as the Akathistos Hymn and the kontakia of Romanos the Melodos.

First, however, we must consider the place of the Virgin in the great debates of the fourth century and in the writings from what has often been called the golden age of patristic literature. Two main aspects need to be borne in mind: first, the complex relation of the theology of the Virgin and the general trend towards asceticism in fourth century Christianity, and second, the increasingly prominent role which the figure of the Virgin came to play within the Christological debates which so dominated the fourth and fifth centuries. In practice, the two aspects often interlocked. Mary was cited as a perfect example of ascetic virginity, especially of course for women, while the identification of the exact physical details of the birth of Christ became more and more critical to ascetic debates. At the same time, it was Mary who was seen as having made possible the union of two natures in Christ, which now became the central issue of several centuries of intense Christological argument. Indeed, on one reading of Byzantine Iconoclasm, the discussions which took place in the eighth and early ninth centuries about the possibility of depicting the divine marked the final struggle in this Christological debate. As the human mother of Christ the figure of Mary necessarily lay at the heart of these doctrinal arguments, and while they were willing to whitewash or destroy her images even the Iconoclasts drew back from attacking her own status and holiness.(18) The roots of these debates, as of the proliferation of images of the Virgin before and after Iconoclasm, belong in the patristic thought of the fourth century to which we must now turn.

While the impulse towards asceticism in both pagan and Christian thought itself began much earlier, the beginnings of its formalization as a way of life for Christians are generally put at the end of the third century, whether as organized monasticism or in more individual forms.(19) Not long afterwards Methodios of Olympus composed his Symposium, a dialogue on virginity conceived as a Christian counterpart to Plato's famous dialogue of that name on the nature of eros.(20) Its heroine, tellingly, is not the Virgin Mary but a virgin called Thekla. But Mary’s reputation did benefit from the growing literature on virginity, which included commentaries on the Song of Songs as well as treatises on the topic itself.(21) She was seen as a model of virginity, and her own virginity was prefigured by female figures in the Old Testament.(22) According to Cyril of Jerusalem, the Virgin provided an ideal of virginity which rendered the lives of those who possessed it like the life of angels.(23) The privileging of virginity also lay behind fourth-century writing about marriage, and again the chaste marriage of Mary and Joseph provided a touchstone. For Augustine, it proved that it was not sexual relations but consent that constituted a marriage.(24) The few Scriptural references to Mary were also interpreted according to ascetic principles(25) and Augustine was only one of several authors who were at pains to explain that the references to Mary as gyne, at Galatians 4:4 and John 2:4, did not necessarily imply that she was a married woman in the full sense of having had sexual relations with her husband.(26) This issue did pose difficulties; Basil of Caesarea, for example, admits that Matthew 1:25 might imply the reverse, but concludes that the universal confidence of Christians in the continued virginity of the Theotokos is sufficient to establish it as truth.(27) Jerome's opponent Helvidius had also taken the commonsense view of the text, and Jerome vigorously refuted it in his treatise against him.(28) Equally, according to Jerome, only John, himself the virginal disciple, was worthy to be entrusted with the care of the Virgin Mary at the Crucifixion.(29) For many fourth-century writers on virginity, for instance Gregory of Nyssa, the opening chapters of Genesis were crucial; sexuality, and even marriage itself, could be seen as a punishment for Eve’s transgression, symbolized in the ‘coats of skins’ with which Adam and Eve were clothed on their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.(30) It was an essential part of the argument of Gregory's treatise On Virginity that it was the virginity of Mary, the Mother of God, that cancelled out death, which had come to mankind through the sin of Adam and Eve. It was equally important to argue, as for example Jerome and John Chrysostom did, that Adam and Eve had been virginal while in Paradise; correspondingly, although John Chrysostom also produced practical arguments in favor of virginity and against the troubles and distractions of marriage, Mary's virginity was logically required in order to balance the equation. It was logically necessary too, according to Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation of the Song of Songs, that Mary the virgin should give birth in joy, in contrast with Eve, whose sin had condemned her and all other women to give birth in sorrow.(31) Moreover, it was important, as we have seen, that Mary should have remained a virgin in partu, that is, even during and after the birth of Christ. This mystery caused Gregory of Nyssa to liken her in a homily to the Burning Bush, which burned but was not consumed, an analogy which found its way into many later icons of the Virgin.(32) But it was Jerome who debated the matter in the most minute detail, both in his treatise against Helvidius and in his later defensive arguments after the condemnation of Jovinian, who had taken the opposite position.(33) Even so, he cannot explain the mystery, and is compelled to leave it as such.

There was as yet no ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’ position on the doctrine of the Virgin.(34) Ambrose, Bishop of Milan from 373/4 until 397, is one of the most important Marian writers of the fourth century, author of treatises on virginity, on virgins and on the dedication of a consecrated virgin, and of many references to Mary in his other works.(35) He expresses attitudes and views on the Virgin similar to those expressed by the Eastern Fathers, including some of the devotional and indeed emotional language that is so apparent in Ephraim the Syrian and later Byzantine writers. Mary is an example for all virgins, although truly the Mother of God; she is also the type of the Church. But for Ambrose the figure of Mary had a crucial local importance, both in his defense of consecrated virgins against considerable contemporary opposition and in his arguments against what he saw as incorrect doctrine about the Incarnation. He was also deeply engaged with the problem of human sinfulness and sexuality, a debate to which the virgin birth was of critical importance.(36) Later in his life he addressed the contemporary debate about Mary’s perpetual virginity, which he passionately defended. It symbolized for him not only the true nature of Christ, but also the purity of the Church and the ideal of virginity which he energetically promoted against much opposition as a social and ecclesiastical aim.(37) His praise of Mary therefore belonged, at least in his later years, in a context of intense social as well as theological debate about the place of virginity in family life and in the Church generally, a debate which deeply concerned the noble families of Rome and Milan and which is apparent in the writings of Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine.

In his memorable account of his own conversion in the garden at Milan in 386, Augustine records his personal debt to Ambrose, by whom he was subsequently baptized, and the impact on him of the Latin translation of Athanasios’ Life of Anthony, the classic ascetic text which had recently been taken up in his circle.(38) From both sources he absorbed the enormous importance attached to virginity, and despite already having a son by a loved companion, who was now entering his teens, proceeded to take steps towards living a life of chastity henceforth himself. Like Ambrose he wrote directly about virginity, and in relation to Mary he emphasized her own free choice as well as her membership of the Church as the mother of Christ, its Head. He works with the idea of motherhood to attribute motherhood to the whole Church, and to say of Mary that she is spiritual sister and mother to Christ as well as his physical mother. (39)


1. Some idea of the scale is given by the notes and bibliography in Gambero 1999 (a useful handbook to the texts compiled by a Roman Catholic position). There is also much wide-ranging bibliography cited in Pelikan 1996, a helpful general survey, though weaker on the Eastern side and with some omissions, and see e.g. Theotokos. Graef 1985 is briefer on the early period but has more on Byzantine developments.

2. Only five 6th-century items appear in this exhibition.

3. See below for the title Theotokos.

4. Ineffabilis Deus (Pius IX); Munificentissimus Deus (Pius XII).

5. For the latter, Gambero 1999,27-29, noting a similar general silence on the part of the Apostolic Fathers.

6. Luke 2:4; Matth. 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-28.

7. Justin, ‘Dialogue with Trypho’ 100, PG 6,709-712; Irenaeus, ‘4dv. Haer.’ 3, 22, 5, 19, PG 7, 959-960, 1175-1176.

8. Clark 1983, ch. 1; Pagels 1988.

9. Song of Songs 4:12.

10. Rev. 12:1.

11. ‘Paedagogus’ 1.6, PG 8, 300-301.

12. Origen, ‘Comm. on Gal.’, PG 14, 1298; ‘Comm. on John’ 32.16, PG 14,784; ‘Hom. on Luke’ 17.6-7, SC 87 1962), 256-58; ‘Hom., on Luke’, 6.3-4, SC 87, 144-146.

13. Graef 1985, 42-43; Gambero 1999, 59-66 (attributing Tertullian's attitude to the ‘uncertain mentality’ of Christians towards her in the early centuries).

14. Elliott 1993; Strycker 1961. The ‘Gospel of Thomas’ fills out the ‘missing’ years Jesus's childhood in much the same way.

15. Corby Finney 1994; cf. also depictions on arcophagi Lowden 1997,48-51.

16. Lowden 1997, 54-55.

17. for a description of the complex, Hill 1996, 208-225.

18. See the essay by Niki Tsironis, ‘The Mother of God in the Iconoclastic Controversy’, in the present volume, 27-39.

19. In general Brown" 1988. The extraordinary intensity of the debate can be seen in Clark 1999.

20. For Methodios, Brown 1988, 183-188; Cameron 1991, 177-178.

21. Briefly Clark 1999, 87-88.

22. Clark 1999, 89,104.

23. ‘Catechesis’ XII, 34, PG 33, 768-769.

24. ‘Catechesis’ XII, PG 33, 254.

25. In Tatian's earlier ‘SyriacDiatessaron’, or harmonization of the Gospels, the problem was solved by omitting Mary's marriage to Joseph altogether.

26. Clark 1999, 116-117.

27. Basil, ‘Homily on the Holy Generation of Christ’, 5, PG 31, 1468B.

28. ‘Against Helvidius’, 5, PL 23,198.

29. ‘Against Helvidius, 5, PL 23,165,202.

30. Gen. 3:21, a passage which gave rise to lively discussion. Clark 1986, 353-385; Cameron 1989, 184-205.

31. Greg. Nyss., ‘Comm. on the Song of Songs, 13, PG 44,1052D-1053B.

32. ‘Hom. on the Birth of Christ’, PG 46, 1133D-1156B.

33. For the latter, Hunter 1987, 45-64.

34. Contra Gambero 1999, 189 and passim.

35. Neumann 1962; Brown 1988, 353-356.

36. Brown 1988, 351-352.

37. Brown 1988, 357; 359-362 on the differing views held e.g. by Jovinian.

38. For Augustine's famous account of his conversion see his ‘Confessions’, book 8.

39. ‘On Holy Virginity’, 5, PL 40, 399.

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