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Mary (the Virgin Mary), Saint

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The Virgin Mary was the mother of Jesus and the wife of Saint Joseph. She features briefly though significantly in the Gospels and, from the early Christian period onward, has figured prominently in the development of Christianity. The importance of Mary’s role as * Theotokos (Mother or Bearer of God) was discussed frequently by early Christian theologians and was formally established at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Majestic images of the *Madonna and Child and pictorial narratives concerning Mary appear in early Christian art and throughout the medieval period. Devotion to the Virgin Mary increased through the Middle Ages, reaching a special peak in the Romanesque and Gothic periods when, under the influence of theologians such as Saint *Bernard of Clairvaux, works such as the * Golden Legend and newly composed *miracle collections, the Virgin Mary assumed an eminent position in church doctrine, popular literature, and artistic iconography. The following provides a roughly chronological, biographically ordered survey of the rich imagery devoted to Mary and her life in early Christian and medieval art, and notes the special symbols and formulae developed in representations of Page 168  Mary. (In all cases, further information can be found under the cross-indexed entries.)


The canonical Gospels contain no information about Mary’s birth, childhood, or early life. These details were supplied by apocryphal works (such as the Protevangelium of James ), which describe her birth to the elderly couple *Anne and *Joachim, her early *Education, *Presentation and Service in the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as her *Marriage to Joseph .


The virginal Mary appears in two canonical Gospels (although the Gospels diverge somewhat in their coverage and inclusion of these episodes) receiving news from the *angel *Gabriel about the upcoming birth of Jesus (Annunciation), meeting with her kinswoman Elizabeth (Visitation), and giving birth to Jesus (*Nativity). Following the *Adoration of the Magi, *Purification of the Virgin, *Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and *Circumcision of Jesus, the *Holy Family’s *Flight into Egypt precedes their return to Nazareth. Mary is mentioned again in the episode of the *Dispute in the Temple, discovering the young Jesus engaged in learned discussion with the elders.


Mary features less prominently in the Gospels during Jesus’ public life, although she was influentially present at the *Marriage at Cana and witnessed the *Crucifixion of Jesus. Her appearance in scenes of the *Deposition and *Entombment of Jesus (events more detailed in apocryphal works such as the Acts of Pilate than in the canonical Gospels) doubtless results from her presence at the Crucifixion, as does her prominence in representations of the *Lamentation over the dead body of Jesus, further developed in images such as the * Pietà.


After the *death of Jesus, Mary is mentioned again in the Acts of the Apostles, praying with the disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 1:13-14); thus she is sometimes included in scenes of *Pentecost and as a witness to the *Ascension of *Christ. Details about Mary’s later life again must be sought in apocryphal sources and later legends which tell how Jesus entrusted Saint *John with her safekeeping and describe the last years of her life near the city of Ephesus before her death * , *Assumption, and *Coronation in Heaven.


Many of these themes were greatly expanded in the Golden Legend and a number of medieval mystical and devotional works (e.g., the * Meditationes vitae Christi ) as well as numerous hagiographic and legendary accounts of miraculous appearances of Mary, especially to persons in need of spiritual assistanceThe role of Mary as an intercessor for humankind is also given visual form in the * Deësis composition, and she frequently appears thus also in scenes of the *Last Judgment.


In addition to the forms and narrative subjects noted above, Mary appears frequently in a number of other visual and symbolic contexts. She is often prominently placed in visual schemes illustrating the genealogy of Christ ; she may appear as a stern and imposing figure—the Throne of *Wisdom or as a tender mother Her purity is emphasized in images which show her in an enclosed garden setting , with her floral attributes: lilies and roses ; she may also be accompanied by other virgins. Her *Seven Joys and *Seven Sorrows are illustrated in series, especially in later medieval art. Specific Byzantine types of Mary, frequent in *icons, and often influential on western art, may be found described under the headings * Blachernitissa, *Eleousa, *Hodegetria, *Platytera .

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