"Mary: Mediterranean Maid and Mother in Art and Literature"

Jerome H. Neyrey
University of Notre Dame



Biblical Theology Bulletin 20 (1990) 65-75

Devotion to Mary developed in the Mediterranean world, based originally in the canonical and apocryphal gospels and then in other writings. These as well as the early conciliar discussions of Mary were formulated by Mediterranean males, both those from the Latin West and the Greek East. My hypothesis can be simply stated: Mary was presented both in art and literature precisely in terms of specific cultural perceptions of females in that Mediterranean world, both as maid and mother. The writers and preachers of the early Church perceived her according to the categories of their Mediterranean culture. The focus of this study, then, is not formally Mariology, but the way Mediterranean culture perceives females and so structures their place in that social world. The presentation of Mary may be the best illustration of this cultural perception. Although Mary is unique in the Mediterranean world as a virgin mother, the presentation of her virginity and her maternity fully reflect the general cultural evaluation of females in Mediterranean culture.

What then are some of the specifically Mediterranean perceptions of females that shaped the way Mary was perceived and presented? The Mediterranean cultural area was, and still is, a world divided according to gender: every person, place, object, action is known either as male or female. Philo prefaces his exposition of the ideal behavior of females with a summary of what is called "the moral division of labor." Its citation here helps to illustrate Mediterranean cultural perceptions of males and females:

Market-places and councils-halls and law-courts and gatherings and meetings where a large number of people are assembled, and open-air life with full scope for discussion and action--all these are suitable to men both in war and peace. The women are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house, within which the middle door is taken by the maidens as their boundary, and the outer door by those who have reached full womanhood (Philo, Spec. Leg. III. 169; see Xenophon, Oecumenicus VII).

From Philo and other Mediterranean writers, ancient and modern, we cull the following sketch of the moral division of the world into male and female spheres.

MALES: Their world is the public and they are the outward-oriented members of the family. Their place is the public square, the field, the out-of-doors; their objects are farm tools, weapons; their animals, sheep and horses. Male behavior is aggressive and honor-seeking.

FEMALES: Their world is the private sphere and they are inward-oriented toward the house and the family. Their place is within the house and the areas linked with it, such as wells, common ovens, etc.; their objects are those of the household: hearth objects, the loom, etc. Female behavior focuses on defense of family chastity and honor (Malina: 42-48).

First, females in the Mediterranean typically take their identity from the males in their life, first father and then husband (Philo, Q. Gen. 27). They are always embedded in some male figure and are known as the daughters of so-and-so (e.g., Mark 5:21-24; Acts 21:9) and the wives of so-and-so (Matt 14:3; Luke 8:3; Acts 5:1; 24:24). Second, while males compete for honor (aggressive, agonistic behavior), females defend their "shame," that is, both their virginity as maidens and their chastity as wives. Much of this defensive posture is realized by females being out of sight and out of mind in the world of males (Thucydides II.45; Plutarch, In Praise of Women, 271F, 220D). Third, females are oriented to the sphere of the house and places where household affairs take them, such as wells and ovens. Their labor is that associated with the house and family, food preparation (drawing water, grinding grain, baking bread) and clothing production (weaving) (Epstein: 68-103). In all of these the pivotal value for females is their "shame," that is, the defense of their virginity or chastity. It is small wonder that Mary's preeminent soubriquet is "the Blessed Virgin."

These typical perceptions of females become the dominant images according to which Mediterranean writers describe Mary and in which their artists portrayed her. This essay will present a survey of these descriptions of Mary, along with representative illustrations of them from the wealth of church art. We present the survey, not in strict chronological terms, but according to the topics and themes illustrative of the cultural perception of females in the Mediterranean world: "shame" and virginity.

Real Space Appropriate to Mediterranean Maidens

Mediterranean culture dictates that females, especially maidens, be solicitous of the space where they live and work. They are not to be found in the company of men outside the family home; even within the house, there are specifically women's living quarters, as well as areas pertinent to female tasks (hearth, oven and well), where men are out of place. Writers and artists sensitive to these cultural norms portray the Annunciation to Mary in space appropriate to females.

The Annunciation to Mary in Luke 1:26-38 did not locate the scene, except to say that it happened in "a city of Galilee named Nazareth." The earliest legendary expansion of the story created a lasting tradition that Mary was drawing water at a well when Gabriel spoke to her.

And she took the pitcher and went forth to draw water, and behold, a voice said: "Hail, thou that are highly favored, [the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou] among women." And she looked around on the right and on the left to see whence this voice came. And trembling she went to her house and put down the pitcher and took the purple and sat down on her seat and drew out (the thread) (Proto-evangelium of James 11.1)

This legendary expansion echoes the biblical narratives of patriarchs meeting their future wives at wells: Isaac's agent and Rebekah (Gen 24:11-21), Jacob and Rachel (Gen 19:1-13) and Moses and Zipporah (Exod 2:15-22). This tradition dominated the Eastern churches and representations of it are quite numerous. It represents clearly the cultural sense of the proper space of females and their proper tasks.

Besides the well, both writers and artists depict the Annunciation occurring in Mary's house as she spun thread. Again, the scene is appropriate female space (house) and proper female labor (cloth production). The same legend which narrates the first part of Mary's annunciation at a well continues the story with her home spinning thread: "She took the purple and sat down on her seat and drew out (the thread)" (Proto-evangelium of James 11.1). But the legend at this point only elaborates on the earlier narrative of how Mary came to spin and weave "the purple." As a young maiden, Mary was selected to spin and weave a cloth for the Temple to cover the Holy of Holies:

Then they brought them into the temple of the Lord, and the priest said: "Cast me lots, who shall weave the gold, the amiant, the linen, the silk, the hyacinth-blue, the scarlet and the pure purple." And to Mary fell the lot of the "pure purple" and "scarlet." And she took them and worked them in her house" (Protoevangelium of James 10:2).

Thus the earliest legends about Mary's annunciation reflect the Mediterranean cultural perceptions of females, what space and labors are appropriate to them, wells--food preparation and homes--clothing production. [Other illustrations: Schiller, plates 66, 72, 73, 95, 142]

Long after the Virgin was described in terms of the conventions of Mediterranean female spaced, the later church portrayed her in terms of comparable spatial norms. The simple girl of Galilee was transformed according to prevailing ideals of noble Mediterranean females. And one of these depictions results in Mary no longer doing female tasks in the traditional female spaces, but acting like a cloistered nun with a vow of virginity and doing the things nuns did.

Cloister served to protect female virtue by walling out worldliness and defending total dedication to God. In time Mary was cloistered, not just in monastic settings, but symbolically in a walled garden. The Song of Songs, interpreted in a Marian perspective, states: "A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed . . . a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon" (Song of Songs 4:12, 15). Mary's virginity was a garden always locked. Within her virginity paradoxically was fertility and life, a fountain, albeit a sealed fountain. Even when the scene of the annunciation occurs indoors, often there are flowers strewn on the floor which reflect the sense of Mary as a walled garden. [Other illustrations: Schiller, plates 127-129]

What should a noble virgin do in her cloister? What nuns customarily do: read the Scriptures, sing the hours, and pray. This is what one medieval writer described Mary doing when the angel announced God's message to her.

The Blessed Jerome writes this about her life: "The Blessed Virgin established this rule, that in the morning she prayed until the third hour, from the third to the ninth hour she was busy spinning, and from the ninth hour she again prayed continually until the appearance of the angel from whose hand she received her food. She improved so constantly in her study of the works of God that she became first in the vigils, the best informed in the law of God, the most humble in humility, the best read in the verses of David, the most gracious in charity, the purest in purity, the most perfect in all virtues" (Pseudo-Bonaventure, Meditations on the Life of Christ).

Nun's devotions are a far cry from the domestic female tasks of drawing water and weaving cloth. But the principle remained the same: Mary was perceived doing what her Mediterranean culture thought appropriate to females, in this case an upper-class female. (Other illustrations: Schiller, plates 104, 111, 114, 118-121]

Appropriate Maiden's Behavior: "Shame"


How should a Mediterranean female, maid or wife, behave in the presence of strangers, possibly or presumably male strangers? The culture dictates a defensive posture, which seems to be reflected in Luke's account that Mary was "troubled" by Gabriel's approach (Luke 1:29). Many artists capture this defensiveness, even repulse, in the frowns and gestures of Mary pushing the intruder away. In the perception of readers and viewers, Mary indeed had "shame," the virtue of defending her virginity; she was not "shameless."

Chastity and virginity, of course, would be valued by Mediterraneans as a female's greatest virtues. What could better defend female sexual exclusivity than a formal vow of virginity. The evangelist Luke says nothing about this, but later writers, who were influenced by the practice of monks and nuns, developed stories which narrate Mary pronouncing such vows. The Pseudo-Gospel of Matthew, which embroidered narratives about Mary's childhood, describes her as having made such a permanent defense of her virginity, a total dedication to God.

Now it came to pass that she attained the age of fourteen so that the Pharisees found occasion to say that the time had come for obedience to the custom that no woman of that age should abide in the Temple of God. The High Priest called the people together, and addressed them thus: "Hear me, O sons of Israel, and receive my word into your ears, Ever since this Temple was built by Solomon, there have been in its virgins, the daughters of kings and prophets, and of high priests and priests: they were great and worthy of admiration. But when they come to the proper age they were given in marriage and followed the course of their mothers before them and were pleasing to God. But one alone, Mary, has found a new way of pleasing God; she has vowed to remain a virgin" (Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 8.1).

According to this account, Mary was approaching menarche and marriage. The ideal purity of a maiden must inevitably be compromised by these events. But Mary remained the perfect maiden and maintained her ideal purity by her "vow to remain a virgin." As Mediterranean culture dictates, she was always defensive of her purity and her "shame." She fulfilled the defensive role par excellence.


We learn, however, that Mary is pregnant, and not by her spouse (Matt 1:18-24). If virginity is the premier female virtue, then a crisis has arisen because the pregnant Mary, vowed virgin and paragon of purity, becomes suspect of lying and deceit. The bible dealt with just such situations by providing a test of innocence: drinking the waters of contention (Num 5:11-22). This trial by poison called the all-knowing God to judge, either to expose the woman's lie by her death or to confirm her chastity by her survival. Thus God became the guarantor of chastity and purity.

A second-century document imagined a scenario according to Numbers 5 in which both Mary and Joseph drank the "waters of contention." The virginity of the Virgin was tested, but confirmed:

And the high priest said: "I will give you both to drink of the water of the conviction of the Lord. And it will make manifest your sins before your eyes." And the high priest took it (the water of bitterness) and gave it to Joseph to drink and sent him into the hill country; and he came back whole. And he made Mary also drink, and sent her into the hill country; and she returned whole. And all the people marveled, because the water had not revealed any sin in them. And the high priest said: "If the Lord God has not made manifest your sins, neither do I condemn you." And he released them. And Joseph took Mary and departed to his house, rejoicing and glorifying the God of Israel" (Protoevangelium of James 16:1-2).

Mary, then, defended her virginity both by her being "troubled" at the approach of Gabriel and by her survival of the "waters of contention." To Mediterranean readers, she demonstrates maximum concern for her "shame," the defense of her sexual exclusivity.

The Intrusion of the Holy Spirit into Virgin Space

Not a few presentations of the annunciation divide with a wall the space where the virgin is from the space where the angel stands. Visually this represents Mary as the "walled garden" mentioned above; and it replicates the sense of private women's quarters in a house, where males should not enter. Angels in popular iconography have masculine traits and perform male actions in male space: they are public messengers, they wage war, they attend the Sovereign and act as his agents. Gabriel, even an angel of God, poses some threat to Mary; hence, a wall separates him from her and she is appropriately "troubled" by his announcement that she will be pregnant.

If the artists were sensitive to an angel's invasion of a virgin's private, female space, there was also considerable hesitancy concerning the portrayal of the Holy Spirit in the virgin's quarters. Luke states: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (1:35). The problem lies in the popular culture which knew of the Greek legends of Zeus disguising himself in various forms and having sexual intercourse with women, as in the story of Leda and the Swan. We know of a second-century critic of Christianity who compared Isaiah 7:14 and its remark about a "virgin conceiving" with comparable Greek legends (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho LXVII). This may explain the lateness of the representation in Christian art of the Spirit overshadowing Mary at the annunciation. Only when the legend has sufficiently faded from popular imagination could the annunciation scene include the overshadowing Spirit without in any way compromising the virginity of Mary.

Women, Biology, and the Mediterranean Views of Conception

The mention of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary leads us to examine the "biology" of conception according to popular Mediterranean perceptions. In conception, what do males contribute, what females? What contribution or agency is attributed to the Spirit in Luke 1:35 and what to Mary? Modern, scientifically educated people need to remember that the female ovum was first discovered in 1827, only with the advent of the microscope; so there is no empirical evidence of a female contribution before this. But what was the popular understanding before the advent of King Science?


Simply put, the female's contribution to conception was to provide a field into which the male's seed was sown (Delaney). In effect, males contributed all, and females provided space for this to grow. Tertullian said it succinctly: "The whole fruit is already present in the semen" (Apologia 9.8). This perception would portray the humanity of Jesus in no way dependent upon Mary, but upon God. Moreover, before microscopes etc., there was no understanding as we have of the growth of sperm and ovum to blastosphere to fetus. The whole person (homounculus) was present in the male sperm; it only grew larger as it nested in the womb. What the male sowed, then, was the already formed child. This helps to explain certain developments in iconography. In some pictures, the whole, already formed Jesus appears in the Virgin's belly at the angel's annunciation. [See Schiller, plates 2, 98] It was even possible to dramatize the Incarnation by depicting a fully formed baby Jesus descending from heaven.

In time the church rejected this, probably in the interest of the humanity of Jesus. Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence, condemned this depiction in the fifteenth century: "Painters are to be blamed when they paint things contrary to our faith . . . when in the Annunciation, they represent a small infant Jesus in the Virgin's womb, as if the body he took on were not of her substance."

All of this is mentioned in light of the extreme care to preserve and promote Mary's "shame," her virginity. Artists and writers, then, were sensitive to the implications of the overshadowing of the Spirit in Luke 1:35, because their popular notions of conception suggested that the physical substance, the fully formed Jesus, had to come from someone, and not from the female involved.


There is also a curious development in which the biological virginity of Mary is further safeguarded. In many pictures which show the fully formed baby Jesus descending from heaven to Mary, the trajectory of his descent is not to her womb, but to her ear. In complete deference to her virginity, the conception had nothing to do whatever with her female sexual organs, which remained forever intact. She did not conceive through her womb, but through her ear.

Several factors are operative here. Indisputably, writers and artists are striving to celebrate the total purity of Mary and the absence of any stain on her virginity. But they are also influenced by a Marian reading of a psalm: "Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father's house; and the King shall desire your beauty" (Ps 45:10). Applied to Mary, "incline your ear" becomes a statement about the mode of conception as well as about her obedience to God. Mary is portrayed as the virgin whom the King of Kings desires to bear His son, Jesus. She does not become God's concubine, because by "inclining her ear," she remains a virgin even as she receives the royal son.

The legend of Mary's conception of Jesus through her ear is quite early, and one instance of it can be dated to the early seventh century. Venantius Fortunatus wrote:

Let ages henceforth marvel

that an angel brought the seed,

that in ear (hearing) the virgin conceived

and in heart believing she delivered.

Literary evidence of this motif was quite common in the early church (Steinberg: 26-32); art illustrations emerged in Renaissance Italy, in particular. But it was embedded in the popular literature of the Mediterranean world, Greek and Latin, in writing and art.

Occasionally we find formal evidence that Mary's conception through her ear accorded fully with the Mediterranean value placed on her complete virginity and total transcendence of any attention given to her sexual organs. As one Spaniard noted:

The Blessed Virgin in conceiving a son neither lost her virginity nor experienced any venereal pleasure . . . it did not befit the Holy Spirit to produce such an effect or to excite any unbecoming movement of passion (Francis Suarez, "The Dignity and Virginity of the Mother of God").

Conception through Mary's ear not only safeguards the physical nature of her virginity, but models a profound spiritual Christian truth. "Faith comes from hearing" (Rom 10:17). Mary is often portrayed as not seeing the angel, but only hearing his voice. Hearing in faith a word from God, she believes. Indeed Elizabeth praised Mary precisely for this: "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord" (Luke 1:45). Not only is Mary's physical virginity maintained by her conception through her ear, but her holiness as well. For she becomes not only virgin Mother of God, but model disciple of the Word.

Eve, Sex, and Sin

Even as Mediterranean writers and artists celebrate Mary's virginity, certain other cultural expectations of this world need to be dealt with concerning the conception and bearing of children. We should be aware of a cultural sub-text, a biblical understanding of sexuality which is never illustrated but often talked about. Basically, from St. Paul (1 Cor 7) and since St. Augustine of Hippo, there has been a cultural perception among Mediterranean Christians that physical intercourse is unclean (Brown; Pagels). The discussion often centers on Eve and the birth of her children.

Some legends suggest that Eve's first act of intercourse was with Satan, disguised as an angel of light (Dahl). Furthermore, Eve was "cursed" in Genesis 3 with the sentence of bearing children in pain, a scenario reflected in part in 1 Timothy 2:14-15. Both sexual intercourse and childbearing are related to sin and uncleanness. If this is the case, and if Mary bore a child, then is she in some way perceived as sinful? is her childbearing a curse? an act of punishment?

This cultural bias was offset by the presentation of Mary as the new Eve, the antithesis of Eve. First, her "fiat" or act of obedience balances the "no" or disobedience of the first Eve. As sin came into the world through one woman (and man, Rom 5:12), so redemption came through one Virgin (and her Son, Rom 5:17). Eve, seduced by Satan disguised as an angel of light, is balanced in salvation history by Mary, who conceived most chastely in faithfulness to God. The angel who drove Eve and Adam from the garden is balanced by the archangel Gabriel who stands in Mary's garden to open paradise again to Eve's children (Guldan). Frequently, then, artists painting the annunciation to Mary juxtaposed that picture with images of Genesis 2, both images of God's blessing of the first Eve (and Adam) and images of Satan's seduction of them both.

Hence, Mary's status is immensely raised to be parallel to that of her redeemer Son. The simple maid of Galilee becomes the archetypal female, the new Eve; her actions take on cosmic significance. And as the antithesis of Eve, her conception and childbirth become celebrations of remarkable physical virginity and total purity. They are completely removed from the sphere of popular cultural interpretations of "shamelessness" and loss of exclusivity and celebrated precisely as the opposite. [Other illustrations: Gulden, plates 50-69]

Childbirth Yet Abiding Physical Virginity

It is not simply a matter of Mediterranean culture that childbirth means the total opening of the female sexual organs, and so the complete loss of physical virginity. In no way can a mother nursing a child be considered any longer a virgin, except for Mary, of course. Since the second century, Christian writers acclaim Mary after the birth of Jesus a virgin, indeed the Virgin Mother.


We must detour for a moment, for there is something we must know before we treat the miraculous phenomenon of a Virgin Mother. Our modern scenario of the Christmas creche is really a recent development in art and theology. From the earliest times, both in art and in literature, Mary (although a virgin) was understood to have had a normal childbirth. First, like all women, she gave birth in pain. Second, Jesus when born was polluted with blood and other bodily excretions in virtue of where the birth channel is (inner urinam et faeces nascimur). Finally, like other women, Mary experienced some form of post-partum blues. It helps to remember the triple "p's" (pain, pollution, post partum blues) when considering the ancient and traditional depictions of the birth of Jesus in the art of the early Church.

Visually we tend to see Mary reclining, suggesting the pain and exhaustion she suffered in an otherwise normal childbirth. The infant Jesus needs maidservants or midwives to wash him of his pollution. And some pictures clearly portray Mary in a despondent state after her delivery, experiencing a type of post partum blues.

One may legitimately ask why the birth of Jesus was depicted so realistically. Part of the answer must come from an artist's borrowing from daily experience of the details of a typical birth scene in the Mediterranean world. Yet part of the answer may lie in the insistence on Jesus' full humanity as part of the orthodox response to Docetism. Once more Tertullian speaks in this regard, clearly stating the doctrinal issue latent in the depiction of Jesus' normal childbirth. Here he attempts to refute the heretic Marcion, contrasting Marcion's docetic image of Jesus with the orthodox one:

(According to Marcion) (Jesus) . . . was never shed forth upon the ground, amidst the sudden pains of parturition [pain], with the unclean issue which flows at such time through the sewerage of the body [pollution], forthwith to inaugurate the light of life with tears, and with that primal would which severs the child from her who bears him [post partum blues?]; never did he (Marcion's Jesus) receive the copious ablutions, nor the medication of salt and honey, nor did he initiate a shroud with swaddling clothes; nor afterwards did he ever wallow in his own uncleanness; in his mother's lap, nibbling at her breast (Adv. Marc. IV. xxi).

We emphasize the realism of the scenes of Mary's delivery of Jesus. Both in picture and in story, it was a genuine childbirth, with the mother's customary pains and post-partum blues and the child's pollution. Yet all this happened to a virgin, nay, to the Virgin. How can this be?


The midwives are the key to the ancient tradition of the post-partum virginity of Mary. We noted above that they are needed to wash the baby Jesus of pollution as a result of a real childbirth. But early on they served a second and more symbolic function. Since the second century, midwives were present at the delivery of Mary, not so much to attend her, but as witnesses to her post-partum virginity, as the following legend describes:

And the midwife (Zalome) came out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: "Salome, Salome, I have a new sight to tell you; a virgin has brought forth, a thing which her nature does not allow." And Salome said: "As the Lord my God lives, unless I put (forward) my finger and test her condition, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth." And the midwife went in and said to Mary: "Make yourself ready, for there is no small contention concerning you." And Salome put forward her finger to test her condition. And she cried out, saying: "Woe for my wickedness and my unbelief; for I have tempted the living God's; and behold, my hand falls away from me, consumed by fire!" And she prayed to the Lord. And she bowed her knees before the Lord, saying: "O God of my fathers, remember me; for I am the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; do not make me a public example to the children of Israel, but restore me to the poor. For thou knowest, Lord, that in thy name I perform my duties and from thee I have received my hire." And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before Salome and said to her: "The Lord God has heard from prayer. Come near, touch the child, and you will be healed." And she did so. And she said: "I will worship him, for (in him) a great a king has been born to Israel." And Salome was healed as she had requested, and she went out of the cave justified" (Protoevangelium of James 19:1-20:4).

In certain early carvings, the midwife Salome holds her withered hand before Mary, whose virginity she tested. This apocryphal scene amply illustrates the high value put on the physical aspects of virginity in the Mediterranean world. The miraculous anomaly of a virgin mother is noted by one witness but contested by another. Two witnesses are needed for testimony to be true, and two are finally secured. Of course they could never be men, but the witness of two midwives to the virgin state of Mary's body would be all the testimony one could hope for. Moreover, there are echoes in the narrative of the Eastern scene: two witnesses at the empty tomb and two witnesses of Mary's virginity. Just as Thomas refused to believe until he had put his hand in the open wounds of the risen Jesus (John 20:25), so Salome's challenge verbally resembles Thomas'.

The point, then, remains: despite realistic depictions of Mary's delivery, the ancient tradition steadfastly maintained the physical perfection of her virginity. Not only spotless before conception, Mary remained the consummate virgin, even after childbirth. Nothing less is appropriate to the mother of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. His Mediterranean mother is perfect, as Mediterranean females should be perfect. This elaborate scenario, however, was about to change.


In the fourteenth century, Brigit of Sweden had visions of the birth of Jesus. They were quickly published and immediately swept over Italy and then the rest of Europe. The content of her visions clashed visually with the details of the traditional representation; yet in Brigit's new scenario, the physical virginity of Mary is even more exalted. What was the substance of Brigit's vision and what effect did it have? The best thing is to quote Brigit herself:

When I was present by the manger of the Lord in Bethlehem, I beheld a virgin of extreme beauty . . . well wrapped in a white mantel and a delicate tunic through which I clearly perceived her virgin body. . . . With her was an old man of great honesty, and they brought with them an ox and an ass. These entered the cave and the man, after having tied them to the manger, went outside and brought to the Virgin a burning candle; having attached this to the well he went outside, so that he might not be present at the birth. Then the Virgin pulled off the shoes from her feet, drew off the white mantel that enveloped her, removed the veil from her head, laying it aside, thus remaining in her tunic alone with her beautiful golden hair falling loosely down her shoulders. The Virgin knelt down with great veneration in an attitude of prayer and her back was turned to the manger, but her face was lifted up to heaven. . . . She was standing lost in an ecstasy in contemplation in a rapture of divine sweetness. And while she was thus in prayer, I saw the child in her womb move and suddenly in a moment she gave birth to her son, from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendor, that the sun was not comparable to it, nor did the candle that St. Joseph had put there give any light at all, the divine light totally annihilating the material light of the candle, and so suddenly and instantaneous was this way of bringing forth, that I could neither discover nor discern how or by means of which member she gave birth. . . . I saw the glorious infant lying on the ground naked and shining. His body was pure from any kind of soil or impurity.

According to Brigit's vision, then, Mary was a Virgin before, during, and after childbirth. What is different here, however, is the absence of the three "p's" characteristic of the traditional delivery scene. Mary suffered no pain, for the child in an instant existed her body. Nor did the baby Jesus need cleansing from pollution: "His body was pure from any kind of soil or impurity." Forestalled also is any possibility of post-partum blues, for the Virgin was "lost in an ecstasy of contemplation, in a rapture of divine sweetness."

Whatever was implicit in the tradition, however, is now made vividly clear in Brigit's vision. Mary is the Permanent Virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. And what could only be suggested concerning Mary's virgin hymen, Brigit makes quite explicit. "And so suddenly and instantaneous was this way of bringing forth, that I could neither discover nor discern how or by means of which member she gave birth." The babe exited from Mary as light passes through glass. There was no amniotic fluid nor bodily excretions whatsoever in this birth. There could be no hint, then, of any impairment to the Virgin's body during childbirth. And so there could be no question but that she remained a virgin after delivery. Brigit's vision, then, took issue with all of the details of the traditional nativity scene, but it embellished even more the tradition of Mary's physical virginity during and after delivery. If anything, the Mediterranean appreciation of female virtue and virginity were at a fuller tide than ever before.

It is a matter of record that Brigit's vision spread rapidly and became the normative scenario for thinking about and visualizing the birth of Jesus. Her vision influences us today, for our Christmas creches are based on Brigit's description, not the traditional birth scene of the first millennium. [Illustrations: Schiller, plates 200-206]


Two centuries later, the feast of Christmas was renamed and celebrated as "The Solemnity of the Virgin Mary." The Roman church decidedly and formally celebrated the virginity of Mary, an emphasis dear to the heart of the Latin, Mediterranean church. In this climate, we learn of one theologian, Johannes Molanus of Louvain, who took theological issue with the traditional presentations of Mary's delivery in favor of Brigit's version. Given the focus on Mary's physical virginity before, during and after childbirth, this theologian saw problems in maintaining the perfect physical virginity of Mary and the realism of the traditional depiction of the Nativity. He championed the new style over the old one.

Complaining of the traditional scenario of the Nativity, Molanus writes:

The Virgin is shown pale with pains, the midwives prepare a small (narcotic) drought for the childbirth. Why this? Is it because the Virgin Mary would have held back from any pain of childbirth, when in fact she brought forth her divine son without pain? And what pertains to the midwives who are mentioned in the apocryphal Book of the Infancy? Jerome says: There was no midwife! No obtrusiveness of women intervened! She, the Virgin, was both mother and midwife! I saw in not a few places the picture of the blessed Virgin lying on a bed, depicting childbirth, and she was suffering pains from this birth, but that is not true. How stupid! Those artists ought to be laughed at who paint Mary in the very act of childbirth pains, accompanied with pain, midwife, bed, little knives (to cut the umbilical cord), with hot compresses, and many other appurtenances. . . . Rather, those pictures should be promoted which show the birth of Christ in which the Blessed Virgin Mary with arms folded and on bended knee before her little son, as though he was just now brought forth into the light (Johannes Molanus, De Imaginibus Sacris 1570)

The established value of promoting the virginity of Mary was so strong that it looked at earlier depictions of the Nativity as compromising her virginity in many ways. Insofar as older scenarios envisioned the scene as a real delivery, they imply pain from uterine contractions and pollution from uterine fluids. Although post-partum virginity was part and parcel of older Marian literature, the realism of traditional Nativity art seemed to rebut it, at least in the eyes of some. Molanus is but one voice in a chorus which sang the song of Brigit of Sweden, even if he did not identify her with the new Nativity scene. The virginity of Mary, in its physical detail and symbolic meaning, dictated how the Nativity should be viewed. The pivotal value of Mediterranean females never lost its hold on Christian imagination.


This essay has shown several things. First, it brought to light the cultural perceptions of the way females were viewed and valued in typical Mediterranean society. The pivotal values of the Mediterranean world, both ancient and modern, are (male) honor and (female) shame. The moral division of labor completely divides society into male and female worlds. According to cultural perceptions, females belong to the private sphere, in particular the house; theirs are the domestic tasks related to that female space, both food preparation and clothing production. Female behavior should be defensive of virginity for maidens and chastity for wives, that is, defensive of "shame"; they must never be "shameless." This material is not entirely new to readers, but it is worth restating here as the hypothesis of this essay.

These cultural observations are amply illustrated in regard to the most important Mediterranean female, Mary. Mediterranean writers and artists both perceived Mary in terms of the pivotal value in their culture, "shame," or in her case perpetual virginity. In fact, learning about Mary, we learn information useful for understanding the role and status of women in general in the ancient Mediterranean world. And if our description is correct, the ancient cultural perceptions survived and even thrived in time; what was true in the first centuries remained true of Mediterranean perceptions of females a millennium or more later.

Given the cultural equation of virginity and female "shame," Mary became surrounded in legend with more and more attestations of the physical integrity of her virginity, from the testimony of midwives to the visions of saints. Whole scenes were imaginatively constructed to safeguard and promote this pivotal societal value. Annunciation scenes block the entrance of the angel into Mary's private space by a wall. Or the scene takes place in a walled garden, a protected environment for a maiden. Even the dramatization of conception is shifted from any consideration of her female sexual organs to her ear. So important was this, even the natural depictions of Jesus' birth were sacrificed in favor of a childbirth totally devoid of any hint of loss of physical integrity to the Virgin's womb. In short, if Mary is a Mediterranean maid, it is logical that she be depicted according to the pivotal values of that cultural world. And if she is the mother of the most honorable of Mediterranean men, then she must be ideally portrayed in terms of the ultimate female virtue, virginity. To say "Mediterranean" maid is to say "virgin."

Acknowledgement: Photographic reproductions by permission of ART RESOURCE, New York, NY 10012.

Works Cited

Brown, Raymond E.

1978 Mary in the New Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Dahl, Nils A.

1964 "Der Erstgeborene Satans und der Vater des Teufels." Pp. 70-84 in Walter Eltester (ed.), Apophoreta. Berlin: Töpelman.

Daley, Brian

1986 "The 'Closed Garden' and the 'Sealed Fountain': Song of Songs 4:12 in the Late Medieval Iconography of Mary." Pp. 255-79 in Medieval Gardens. Garden Symposium Volume. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

Delaney, Carol

1987 "Seeds of Honor, Fields of Shame." Pp. 35-48 in David D. Gilmore (ed.), Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean (American Anthropological Association special publication # 22). Washington: American Anthropological Association.

Epstein, Louis M.

1948 Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism. New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc.

Guldan, Ernst

1966 Eva und Maria. Eine Antithese als Bildsmotiv. Graz: Heermann Böhlaus

Malina, Bruce J.

1981 The New Testament World. Insight from Cultural Anthropology. Atlanta: John Knox.

Pagels, Elaine H.

1988 Adam, Eve and the Serpent. New York: Random House.

Schiller, Gertrud

1971 Iconography of Christian Art. Vol. 1. London: Lund Humphries.

Steinberg, Leo

1987 "'How Shall This Be?' Reflections on Filippo Lippi's Annunciation in London," Artibus et Historiae 16:25-44.


Return to A Selection of Jerome H. Neyrey's Articles

Return to Jerome H. Neyrey's HomePage

Jerome H. Neyrey