Maria Mediatrix: Mediating the Divine in the Devotional Literature of Late Medieval and Early Modern England

Our_Mother_of_Perpetual_Help - Virgin MaryMaria Mediatrix: Mediating the Divine in the Devotional Literature of Late Medieval and Early Modern England

Clare Marie Snow

University of Toronto: Doctor of Philosophy Centre for Medieval Studies (2012)


Christianity, as a religion centered on the Incarnation of a spiritual being, is always necessarily a religion of embodiment, but its attitude toward that embodiment has always been one of distrust. The juxtaposition of seemingly opposing forces—flesh and spirit, affect and intellect—results in problematic but inevitable troubling of binary oppositions. Late medieval devotion is replete with mediators that serve to focus meditation and prayer in order to bring the individual closer to God, but they can also represent the physical presence of God and bring God closer to the individual. A study of these various modes of mediation will reveal how the connections between spiritual and physical were conceived. Mediation—whether of language, the senses and emotions, texts and objects, or saints—reveals and reestablishes our connection to the divine.

Using the depictions of the Virgin Mary, the Mediatrix, found in the devotional literature of medieval England as a starting point, this study explores the mechanism of mediation in medieval Christian thought. The first two chapters examine the problem of the erotic in religious discourse, focusing primarily on architectural allegory and imagery and language borrowed from the Song of Songs. Architectural allegories representing the female body of the Virgin Mary and the female religious draw on both spiritual allegories and allegories found in secular love poetry and romance. The use of eros in devotional discourse creates a tension between the prescribed chastity and sensory restriction and the highly sensual, sexual language and heightens the emotional effect of the text. The second two chapters focus on compassion, first looking at planctus Mariae, or Marian laments, to examine how a meditating reader is drawn into the scene of the passion through dialogue with Mary and through Mary‘s control of the meditative gaze. The final chapter examines how devotional images can be used as mediators because of their ability to represent (and in some sense be) an invisible, divine reality.

Click here to read this article from the University of Toronto

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