Friday, May 01, 2009

Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary
Miri Rubin
533 pages
Yale University Press

This book's title is both accurate and a little misleading. By calling it Mother of God, Rubin rightly indicates that this is a history from the inside, detailing the sometimes shifting conceptions of Mary but basically from within the Catholic Church, though views of outsiders are duly noted. It is also a "history of the Virgin Mary" but though substantial, it is a partial one: from the birth of Christianity until 1600.

This is a clearly written history and a very attractive book, typographically, in its layout and presentation, and particularly in its well-presented illustrations. Rubin finds intriguing relationships between perspectives on Mary and cultural elements of the time. For example: "Early Christian writers developed a manner of thinking about the conception of Jesus in Mary as an act of hearing...Those who favored the ear made words the agents of conception..."

Rubin's treatment of how prevailing or changing cultural contexts and often competing constituencies affected the interpretations and status of Mary provide the historical storyline. Outside this book's purview however are some of the elements that interest me most: both the pre-history (the mythological roots and prior stories that prefigure Mary) and the later history, particularly Mary in the Americas, and the institution in 1959 of Mary's assumption into heaven as Catholic dogma, which suggested to Carl Jung that the trinity was now a quaternity, including the missing feminine.

Rubin does select a few elements of this later history at the end of her book, so perhaps she'll treat it in a future volume. Considering all that she does cover, it's churlish to complain. This book is handsome and readable, and can be read as a fascinating cultural history--using Mary as a Rosetta Stone to view the music, art, drama, philosophical thought and prevailing conceptions in various classes at different times and in various geographical locations. It's a substantial achievement and a superior book.

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