The Emergence of the Cult of the Virgin Mary as the Patron Saint of Seafarers

The Emergence of the Cult of the Virgin Mary as the Patron Saint of Seafarers

By Ruthy Gertwagen

Journal of Mediterranean Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1/2 (2006)

Abstract: The veneration of the Virgin in the Mediterranean in association with matters to do with the sea has been widespread since the early modern period. The churches and the feasts dedicated to her and the naming of vessels after her by people who make their living from the sea or who live in close proximity to it are very evident demonstrations of this devotion. This paper, which sets out the preliminary findings of a work-in-progress, will look at the origin and evolution of this phenomenon up to the sixteenth century, map its distribution in the Mediterranean, and seek to establish the extent to which the emergence of this phenomenon was intentional.

Introduction: The various facets of Saint Mary as Virgin, Queen, Bride, Mother, and Intercessor have been the subject of a number of studies. There is, however, an aspect which may have not received the attention which it deserves, namely, the Blessed Virgin as patron saint of seafarers and seafaring communities, although this aspect of the Blessed Virgin, with its origins probably in the Hellenistic Isis Pelagia and other preceding Sea Goddesses, had been venerated in the Mediterranean since at least the late Middle Ages and has since become widespread.

Through the ages, Christian seafarers have had recourse to a number of saints in search of protection against the many perils of the sea. Some were intercessors whom seafarers shared with other, non-seafaring, members of the community, as was the case on the island of Malta where votive offerings from seamen constitute only part of the rich collections that can be found adorning churches dedicated to, amongst others, Our Lady of Victories, Our Lady of Light, Our Lady of Mercy, and Our Lady of Graces. Other patron saint have been specifically identified with matters maritime across time and space. Saint Peter, for example, has often been associated with fishermen, while Saint Elmo has been associated with seafarers. Saint Nicholas, on the other hand, has been identified with both fishermen and seafarers. In overall terms, it is nevertheless, probable that in the epoch under consideration the Blessed Virgin was as important as any of the aforementioned saints as a patron of those whose livelihood was dependent on the sea or who lived in close proximity to it.

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