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Romancing the Virgin

Posted On April 11, 2019 | 13:02 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Annemarie Weyl Carr tracks Mary’s journey from Byzantine hymns to romantic knights

Annemarie Weyl Carr, professor emerita of art history at Southern Methodist University, was a visiting scholar in Byzantine Studies in fall 2018. Her recent public lecture, “The Virgin and the Juggler: Mary East and West,” considered Mary's evolution from a core figure in Byzantine faith into the inspiration for female ascetics, the beloved of medieval knights, and much more.

Q&A with Annemarie Weyl Carr

We in the US tend to think of Mary as a mother, but how was she also seen as a bride or object of romantic love?

This is one of the great slippery problems with Mary—she is an enormously capacious woman.

One of the earliest really great pieces of writing about Mary is the Byzantine Akathistos Hymn, probably from the 5th century. Its refrain is “hail, bride unwed”—the woman who is fertile but was never penetrated. This refrain is sung recurrently in the Greek church. It emphasizes her virginity. Yet the overriding image of Mary has been as a mother of a great son. So from the very beginning Mary is a paradox, an unwed bride and a virgin mother.

As the story of Mary unfolds, different aspects of this paradox fall like a kaleidoscope into different kinds of patterns. In the West, she assumed a more literal physicality. For instance, Mary shows her care for humans in several 12th- and 13th-century stories by breastfeeding devotees—a very physical way of expressing care. People decided that her body really ascended into heaven as Christ’s bride and beloved, more his consort than his mother. Her suffering, too, is very physical. Women ascetics wanting to show they were worthy brides of Christ, like Mary, showed that likeness by their own intense bodily suffering. 

The story of the juggler of Our Lady (depicted in the recent exhibition Juggling the Middle Ages) is another example. What struck me in the story was the joyousness and adulation with which he offers himself to Mary. I said, “Where in the story of Mary do you find this kind of loving adulation?” And I decided, this is Mary the radiant bride in heaven, whom one serves the way the chivalric knight devotes himself in service to his lady.


Say more about Mary and chivalric romance during the Middle Ages.

The picture of Mary as a beautiful, receptive woman plays into medieval courtly love romance. You’ll see it in miracle stories. For instance, there’s a recurrent miracle of the knight who sees a statue of Mary, thinks it’s very lovely, and gives it his ring. He goes on through the world and falls in love with a woman—but he can’t make love with her. And he can’t understand why. Then in the night, Mary comes to him and says, “But you married me. You gave me your ring and said that I was your lady.”

There’s another story of a knight who saw a fundraising procession from a cathedral of Our Lady. He has only one possession, a gold chain. The people in the procession say, “oh, give it to the Virgin.” He thinks, “They’re very mercenary—it will just go into campaign ads.” But in the end, he does give his chain. He heads off on his knightly business, falls asleep, and dreams three women come to him and take him into a mysterious forest. The most beautiful of them tends him beautifully, and being in her presence is just incredible. When it comes time to say goodbye, she presses a gift into his hand and vanishes. When he wakes up, what is in his hand but his golden chain—a love-gift from Mary herself.

This evocative kind of imagery comes from courtly love—and carries over to Mary. She is, after all, Our Lady.


Why is Mary such an important figure in the Byzantine world and beyond? 

I showed a ring from the Byzantine Collection, an enchanting object that carries an enormously weighty message for something small enough to fit on your finger. The ring illustrates the remarkable conjunction between the God—the transcendent high God—and the honest-to-goodness human creature, Mary. It takes the union of those elements to produce the salvation of the world. Mary is the one who agreed in her will to bear God in the world. As such, I think she really is the core of Byzantine faith. Mary is the one who brings God to man, and man to God.

In Byzantium, the vast majority of miracle-working icons were icons of Mary. Some became very famous, with extravagant processions that triggered miracles. Visitors from the West—merchants, pilgrims, mercenary soldiers, scholars, diplomats—were enormously impressed by these spectacles. In the West, Mary’s pilgrimage sites became known for miracles. As the miracle stories were compiled there, tales of the miracles of Constantinople’s icons were eagerly absorbed. East and West, the message was the same: Mary was the infallible connector, linking humankind and God.


Julia Ostmann is Postgraduate Writing and Reporting Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, Postgraduate Digital Media Fellow.