Mary and Literature


“For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” (Lk 1:48)

This blessing, pronounced by the Virgin Mary at the Visitation in response to her cousin Elizabeth’s greeting (“Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled”) and spoken again every time we pray the Magnificat, is a prophetic word, inspired by the Holy Spirit. The abundance of Marian literature proves the fulfillment of this prophecy and testifies to the great veneration men have for her through whom our Savior became incarnate. Marian literature takes on many different forms and draws from many different sources.




Marian Literature

The vast collection of Marian literature answers many needs, takes on many functions, and draws on many sources.  Thus, it is very difficult to define it other than as an art celebrating the Virgin Mary, under different forms and in different places.  The sources of Marian literature include the Bible, particularly the Gospels, as well as the apocryphal writings – some of which have been passed down by popular tradition and Christian liturgy (for example the Protoevangelium of James and the Transitus)[1] – and patristic literature.  Marian literature allows us to trace the figure of the Virgin Mary in the Old Testament by establishing the links between the symbolic representation of the Virgin in all of Scripture[2] and the dogmas of Mariology developed over time, linked to Church councils and pontifical documents, that is, to Sacred Tradition[3]. For instance, the dogma of Mary’s divine motherhood was established in 431 by the Council of Ephesus, and that of her perpetual virginity in 649 by the Lateran Council, and Marian literature played a major role in the explanation and diffusion of these dogmatic truths.  The parallel established between Eve and Mary, called the New Eve, has been the source of great inspiration for poets.  In the 17th century, Pierre Corneille composed a beautiful poem in Alexandrines which explores this parallel to highlight the figure of Mary:

“One had scarcely started breathing and is already a rebel,

The other,obedient is beyond compare;

The one led us to be banished, by the other we are called back;

The one brings evil, the other healing.”

Moreover, Marian literature took on a liturgical function and inscribed itself in the heart of the liturgy thanks to hymns by writers of great talent and renown in both the East and the West[4]. This Marian literary and musical creation was surely stimulated in the Western Church by the introduction of four great Marian feasts: the Presentation on February 2nd, the Annunciation on March 25th, the Assumption on August 15th, and the Nativity of Mary on September 8th.

Marian Prayers and Hymns

An abundant literature of hymns allowed for the development of the lyric tradition in the East – think, for example, of St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th c.) who composed more than four hundred hymns[5] – and in the West, thanks to St. Ambrose of Milan, doctor of the Church, who in the 4th century brought to the West the liturgical form of the hymn.  In the Confessions[6], St. Augustine speaks about the emotion in his heart when listening to St. Ambrose’s hymns.  From here, hymn-writing flourished in a spectacular manner. The hymn offers the possibility of combining poetry, chant, and theology, and this lyric form inscribes properly poetic images – often linked to images of day and night – into a Biblical context.  In this way it takes on a liturgical function very important for praise.  Countless Marian prayers have been composed to develop the liturgy, many suited to certain liturgical events and seasons.  The most ancient Marian prayer known is the Sub Tuum Praesidium, which dates to the 3rd century[7]]. The ancient Salve Regina, composed in the 9th century by Adhemar of Monteil, exalts Mary’s maternity, royalty, and glory.  The English poet and theologian Alcuin[8], master of the school at Charlemagne’s court, was the first to call the Blessed Virgin by the title “Queen, Lady”.

Theater, Miracles, and Mysteries

The Church’s desire to catechize the faithful led to the emergence of a new form of Christian literature, namely liturgical drama.  Inspired by the dramas of antiquity, this new Christian genre developed in England and Normandy from the high Middle Ages onward. These liturgical dramas were based on one of two themes and two principal times of the liturgical year, which were called cycles: the Christmas cycle or the Easter cycle. Actors performed scenes from the life of Christ, as well as of the Virgin Mary, who was sometimes even the narrator of the Passion drama. At first, these representations took place in the church.  Then, little by little, they became detached from official ecclesial functions, leaving the choir for the forecourt, and leading to a separate genre of theater, which inherited from the liturgical dramas their dialogue spoken in French verse. Another Medieval form of Marian literature was the dramatization of legends in narrative literature, stories which related the miracles worked by the Virgin Mary.  For example, Le Miracle de Theophile[9], written by Rutebeuf around 1260[10], is inspired by Les Miracles de Notre Dame by the clerk Gautier de Coincy and exalts the maternal virginity of Mary in a striking image of the sun shining through a window:

“Just as in a window,

The sun comes in and goes back,

And isn’t diminished,

So also was the Virgin whole.”

« Ainsi qu’en la verriere

Entre et revient arriere

Soleil et ne l’entame,

Ainsi fut Vierge entière »

The tradition of mystery plays of the Nativity or Passion will lead to salvation history dramas in which the Virgin Mary occupies an important place, and to Christmas carols, both religious and secular, composed by troubadours (such as Guillaume de Villeneuve in the 18th c.)[11].

Marian Devotion and Imagination

The development of Marian devotion in the 11th and 12th centuries, thanks most notably to St. Bernard, a Marian doctor, gave rise to an entire literary genre.  In the course of time, Marian writing freed itself from the strict liturgical domain and entered into that of literature.  The Virgin Mary was praised across the various literary types: fables, songs, poetry, novels, theater, mystical literature, etc.  Marian literature embraced the wanderings of an imagination exalting her blessed femininity and illustrating various dogmatic truths.  In the 12th century, for instance, the ubiquitous patronage of “Our Lady” transformed courtly love poetry into literature of a supernatural order, offering a sweet feminine echo to the prayer “Our Father” and exalting the virtues of the Blessed Virgin.  Marian literature praises the divine and universal motherhood of the Virgin Mary, which confers on her the powerful role of protector and intercessor.  According to the era, Mary was portrayed more or less as Advocate, or Queen of Heaven, or Mother of Sorrows – a theme particularly popular at the end of the Middle Ages, imitating the aesthetic of the Pieta images and statues of the 14th and 15th centuries.

The Marian literary imagination would make itself more or less lyrical, more or less critical, more of less mystical, depending on the era, and further developed in the melting pot of religious eloquence and in the wake of Marian apparitions.  Thus, the figure of Mary was treated differently according to different spiritualities, aesthetics, and eras, allowing one to find a theological Marian aesthetic proper to each age.

Let us enter into this abundant world of Marian literature.



Organisation of the section


The study proceeds in a chronological perspective. First, Paleo Christian literature is presented in reference to several works and authors and the Easter and Western fathers of the Church.  Then, the study highlights Medieval Marian literature, from the high Middle Ages (476-1000), to the Medieval Golden Age, to the end of the Middle Ages and the advent of the Renaissance, all the way to the Reformation. It continues with the study of modern Marian literature (from the Renaissance and Reformation until the 19th century) and finishes with contemporary Marian literature of the 20th and 21st centuries.