Women in Late-Medieval Art: The Image of Mary

Copy of image-eve

The Virgin Mary was the spoonful of sugar to help the Medieval medicine go down. Eve stands as her anti-thesis in Medieval imagery and boy, don’t we know it. If you haven’t read the first part of this series, in which we take on the path of sin, don’t be afraid to spiral down ahead of this dose of moral elevation. This’ll read as a more pious turn, with Mary taken from the same biblical source, but held up as the very model of perfection.


Byzantium mosaic, Virgin Mary Amid the Emperors Justinian and Constantine in the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, Southern Portal Narthex, c. 990 A.D.

Let’s talk about the rampant cult of the Virgin: A theme which crops up in Medieval art to the tune of devotion and veneration. The Cicstercians used Mary in their efforts for moral purification – with the abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1090 – 1153) adding fuel to the holy fire. Mary was the Cinderella of the Western Church, starting out as rather lowly, before being re-cast as the belle of the ball. How did this holy vessel rise up in the minds and hearts of the people who loved her? By a brush with Constantinople during the Crusades: Our religious folk came into contact with the Eastern Church, where their household Mary was glittering floor-ceiling as a devotional idol and protector! This was a turn for the books.


Sepulchre of Ludovico, Giannotto, Antonello and Manella Caracciolo with Saint John the Baptist, Giannotto Caracciolo, the Virgin Mary with Child, Manella Caracciolo, Antonello Caracciolo, Saint Anthony Abbot (Black Death 1347), in the  Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore in Naples

It was essentially fear that made Christians change their tune towards the First Lady of the bible. The order of Cluny attached a veil to Mary as the ‘Mother of Mercy’ and fear-mongering sparked a bit of a Holy Mother frenzy. This fear came from The Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453), Black Death (1346 – 1353) and other worldly misfortunes which prompted a growth in Marian worship. It could be supposed that they needed a convenient way out from purgatory, hellfire, eternal damnation and an excruciating death by the pox.


The Virgin of Mercy protecting a group of nuns under her mantle. Sano di Pietro, 15th century.

These efforts softened the view of women through adoration of The Virgin Mary’s many virtues whilst offering a counterpoint to the low view of ‘ordinary’ women, i.e., the Eve’s of the world. Indeed, Mary was seen as a woman without sin: the (rather paradoxical) ‘non-woman woman’ or (avenger-esque) ‘anti-Eve’ and this reversal was further emphasised by the crossover from “Eva” to “Ave”.

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‘The Vision of St Bernard’ shown in a North Netherlandish Book of Hours, c. 1470; illuminated manuscript. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

In the context of late Medieval piety, the representation of Mary in art functions as an exemplar to women and an ideal point of contact. Particularly in the devotional Book of Hours, personal, intimate relationships are formed. How intimate you ask? Let’s take a peak at ‘The Vision of St Bernard’ as shown in a North Netherlandish Book of Hours, c. 1470: St Bernard kneels before the Virgin and Child and its all eyes to Mary’s boob. That’s right, the milk from Mary’s breast is being squirted into Bernard’s mouth – but there’s not meant to be anything kinky about it. All above board, Mary’s milk comes from a place of motherly love. Its supposed to be nourishing and nurturing in the spiritual sense and one can’t help but think of Popeye and his spinach, only, its a monk and his milk.

Hence, moral instruction to a didactic effect becomes apparent in the perception of women through the Virgin Mary who is clearly idealised and revered in Late-Medieval art. Where can we go from this sacred antidote to Eve? Such an unattainable ideal as the Virgin Mary begins to inform the medieval perception of women through other forms of art, reaching out from the religious sphere, into the secular sphere…

Part 3 of this series will, with much heraldic trumpeting, bring out the ‘Amour Courtois’ so loved by gallant Kings, Knights and their Ladies of the realm.

My completed series, Worlds within Worlds – Dutch Dollhouse Culture of the 17th Century can be found, from the beginning, here.

If you’d like to find out about Victorian Morality, I’ve written on the lessons in temperance here.

Follow this link for the first part in my series on Women in Medieval Art.

Sources Used: 

Crooks, Robert L. and Baur, Karla, Our Sexuality (Cengage Learning, 2013).

Ferro, Jessica, ‘Eve and Her Daughters: Eve, Mary, the Virgin and the Lintel Fragment at Autun’, Vexillum: the undergraduate journal of classical and medieval studies [online] Issue 2, 2012. Available at: http:// http://www.vexillumjournal.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Ferro-Eve-and-Her-Daughters-Eve-Marythe-Virgin-and-the-Lintel-Fragment-at-Autun.pdf [accessed 19 April 2017].

Just, Felix, ’An Overview of Christian History’, Catholic Resources [2005-2006], http://catholicresources.org/Courses/Christianity-Gilles.htm [accessed 24 April 2017].

Kraus, Henry, ‘Eve and Mary – Conflicting Images of Medieval Woman’, in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, ed by N. Broude and M. D. Garrard (Westview Press; First Edition, Second Impression edition, 1982).

Yoshikawa, Naoë Kukita, Marian, ‘Virtues and Margery Kempe: The Influence of Carmelite Devotion to the Virgin’, The British Province of Carmelite Friars [n.d.], http://www.carmelite.org/documents/Heritage/ yoshikawamargerykempe.pdf [accessed 20 April 2017].

Thank You-2

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