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Down to the Council of Nicaea

Devotion to Our Blessed Lady in its ultimate analysis must be regarded as a practical application of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. Seeing that this doctrine is not contained, at least explicitly in the earlier forms of the Apostles' Creed, there is perhaps no ground for surprise if we do not meet with any clear traces of the cultus of the Blessed Virgin in the first Christian centuries. The earliest unmistakable examples of the "worship" -- we use the word of course in the relative sense -- of the saints is connected with the veneration paid to the martyrs who gave their lives for the Faith. From the first century onwards, martyrdom was regarded as the surest sign of election. The martyrs, it was held, passed immediately into the presence of God. Over their tombs the Holy Sacrifice was offered (a practice which may possibly be alluded to in Revelation 6:9) while in the contemporary narrative of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp (c. 151) we have already mention of the "birthday", i.e. the annual commemoration, which the Christians might be expected to keep in his honour. This attitude of mind becomes still more explicit in Tertullian and St. Cyprian, and the stress laid upon the "satisfactory" character of the sufferings of the martyrs, emphasizing the view that by their death they could obtain graces and blessings for others, naturally and immediately led to their direct invocation.

A further reinforcement, of the same idea, was derived from the cult of the angels, which, while pre-Christian in its origin, was heartily embraced by the faithful of the sub-Apostolic age. It seems to have been only as a sequel of some such development that men turned to implore the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. This at least is the common opinion among scholars, though it would perhaps be dangerous to speak too positively. Evidence regarding the popular practice of the early centuries is almost entirely lacking, and while on the one hand the faith of Christians no doubt took shape from above downwards (i.e. the Apostles and teachers of the Church delivered a message which the laity accepted from them with all docility) still indications are not lacking that in matters of sentiment and devotion the reverse process sometimes obtained. Hence, it is not impossible that the practice of invoking the aid of the Mother of Christ had become more familiar to the more simple faithful some time before we discover any plain expression of it in the writings of the Fathers. Some such hypothesis would help to explain the fact that the evidence afforded by the catatcombs and by the apocryphal literature of the early centuries seems chronologically in advance of that which is preserved in the contemporaneous writings of those who were the authoritative mouthpieces of Christian tradition .

Be this however as it may, the firm theological basis, upon which was afterwards reared the edifice of Marian devotion, began to be laid in the first century of our era. It is not without significance that we are told of the Apostles after the Ascension of Christ, that "all these were persevering with one mind in prayer with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren " ( Acts 1:14 ). Also attention has rightly been called to the fact that St. Mark, though he tells us nothing of our Christ's childhood, nevertheless describes Him as "the son of Mary" ( Mark 6:3 ), a circumstance which, in view of certain known peculiarities of the Second Evangelist, greatly emphasises his belief in the Virgin Birth.

The same mystery is insisted upon by St. Ignatius of Antioch , who, after describing Jesus as "Son of Mary and Son of God ", goes on to tell the Ephesians (7, 18, and 19) that "our God, Jesus Christ , was conceived in the womb of Mary according to a dispensation of the seed of David but also of the Holy Ghost," and he adds: "Hidden from the prince of this world were the virginity of Mary and her childbearing and likewise also the death of the Lord -- three mysteries to be cried aloud". Aristides and St. Justin also use explicit language concerning the Virgin Birth, but it is St. Irenæus more especially who has deserved to be called the first theologian of the Virgin Mother. Thus he has drawn out the parallel between Eve and Mary, urging that, "as the former was led astray by an angel's discourse to fly from God after transgressing His word, so the latter by an angel's discourse had the Gospel preached unto her that she might bear God, obeying His word. And if the former had disobeyed God, yet the other was persuaded to obey God : that the Virgin Mary might become an advocate for the virgin Eve. And as mankind was bound unto death through a virgin, it is saved a through virgin ; by the obedience of a virgin the disobedience of a virgin is compensated " (Irenaeus, V, 19). No one again disputes that the clause "born of the Virgin Mary" formed part of the primitive redaction of the Creed, and the language of Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, etc., is in thorough conformity with that of Irenaeus ; further, though writers like Tertullian, Hevidius, and possibly Hegesippus disputed the perpetual virginity of Mary, their more orthodox contemporaries affirmed it.

It was natural then that in this atmosphere we should find a continually developing veneration for the sanctity and exalted privileges of Mary. In the paintings of the catacombs more particularly, we appreciate the exceptional position that she began, from an early period, to occupy in the thoughts of the faithful. Some of these frescoes, representing the prophecy of Isaias, are believed to date from the first half of the second century. Three others which represent the adoration of the Magi are a century later. There is also a remarkable but very much mutilated bas-relief, found at Carthage, which may be probably assigned to the time of Constantine.

More startling is the evidence of certain apocryphal writings, notably that of the so-called Gospel of St. James, or "Protevangelion." The earlier portion of this, which evinces a deep veneration for the purity and sanctity of the Blessed Virgin, and which affirms her virginity in partu et post partum , is generally considered to be a work of the second century. Similarly, certain interpolated passages found in the Sibylline Oracles, passages which probably date from the third century, show an equal preoccupation with the dominant role played by the Blessed Virgin in the work of redemption (see especially II, 311-12, and VIII, 357-479). The first of these passages apparently assigns to the intercession "of the Holy Virgin" the obtaining of the boon of seven days of eternity that men may find time for repentance (cf. the Fourth Book of Esdras, vii, 28-33). Further, it is quite likely that the mention of the Blessed Virgin in the intercessions of the diptychs of the liturgy goes back to the days before the Council of Nicaea, but we have no definite evidence upon the point, and the same must be said of any form of direct invocation, even for purposes of private devotion.

The Age of the Fathers

The existence of the obscure sect of the Collyridians, whom St. Epiphanius (d. 403) denounces for their sacrificial offering of cakes to Mary, may fairly be held to prove that even before the Council of Ephesus there was a popular veneration for the Virgin Mother which threatened to run extravagant lengths. Hence Epiphanius laid down the rule: "Let Mary be held in honour. Let the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost be adored, but let no one adore Mary" ( ten Marian medeis prosknueito ). Nonetheless the same Epiphanius abounds in the praises of the Virgin Mother, and he believed that there was some mysterious dispensation with regard to her death implied in the words of Revelations 12:14: "And there were given to the woman two wings of a great eagle that she might fly into the desert unto her place." Certain it is, in any case, that such Fathers as St. Ambrose and St. Jerome, partly inspired with admiration for the ascetic ideals of a life of virginity and partly groping their way to a clearer understanding of all that was involved in the mystery of the Incarnation, began to speak of the Blessed Virgin as the model of all virtue and the ideal of sinlessness. Several striking passages of this kind have been collected.

  • "In heaven ", St. Ambrose tells us, "she leads the choirs of virgin souls ; with her the consecrated virgins will one day be numbered."
  • St. Jerome (Ep. xxxix, Migne, P. L., XXII, 472) already foreshadows that conception of Mary as mother of the human race which was to animate so powerfully the devotion of a later age.
  • St. Augustine in a famous passage (De nat. et gratis, 36) proclaims Mary's unique privilege of sinlessness
  • In St. Gregory Nazianzen's sermon on the martyr St. Cyprian (P.G., XXXV, 1181) we have an account of the maiden Justina, who invoked the Blessed Virgin to preserve her virginity.
But in this, as in some other devotional aspects of early Christian beliefs, the most glowing language seems to be found in the East, and particularly in the Syrian writings of St. Ephraem. It is true that we cannot entirely trust the authenticity of many of the poems attributed to him; the tone, however, of some of the most unquestioned of Ephraem's compositions is still very remarkable.
  • Thus in the hymns on the Nativity (6) we read: "Blessed be Mary, who without vows and without prayer in her virginity conceived and brought forth the Lord of all the sons of her companions, who have been or shall be chaste or righteous, priests and kings. Who else lulled a son in her bosom as Mary did? Who ever dared to call her son, Son of the Maker, Son of the Creator, Son of the Most High?"
  • Similarly in Hymns 11 and 12 of the same series, Ephraem represents Mary as soliloquizing thus: "The babe that I carry carries me, and He hath lowered His wings and taken and placed me between His pinions and mounted into the air, and a promise has been given me that height and depth shall be my Son's" etc.
This last passage seems to suggest a belief, like that of St. Epiphanius already referred to, that the holy remains of the Virgin Mother were in some miraculous way translated from earth. The fully-developed apocryphal narrative of the "Falling asleep of Mary" probably belongs to a slightly later period, but it seems in this way to be anticipated in the writings of Eastern Fathers of recognized authority. How far the belief in the "Assumption" which became generally prevalent in the course of a few centuries, was independent of or influenced by the apocryphal "Transitus Mariae", which is included by Pope Gelasius in his list of condemned apocrypha, is a difficult question. It seems likely that some germ of popular tradition preceded the invention of the extravagant details of the narrative itself.

In any case, the evidence of the Syriac manuscripts proved beyond all question that in the East before the end of the sixth century, and probably very much earlier, devotion to the Blessed Virgin had assumed all those developments which are usually associated with the later Middle Ages. In some manuscripts of the "Transitus Mariae" -- dating from the late fifth century -- we find mention of three annual feasts of the Blessed Virgin:

  • one two days after the feast of the Nativity,
  • another on the 15th day of Iyar, corresponding more or less to May, and
  • a third on the 13th (or 15th) day of Ab (roughly August), which probably is the origin of our present feast of the Assumption.
Moreover, the same apocryphal relation contains an account of the Blessed Virgin's miracles, purporting to have been forwarded from the Christians of Rome, and closely resembling the "Marienlegenden" of the Middle Ages . For example we read: Often here in Rome she appears to the people who confess her in prayer, for she has appeared here on the sea when it was troubled and raised itself and was going to destroy the ship in which they were sailing. And the sailors called on tke name of the Lady Mary and said: 'O Lady Mary, Mother of God , have mercy on us,' and straightway she rose upon them like the sun and delivered the ships, ninety-two of them, and rescued them from destruction, and none of them perished.

And again we are told:

She appeared by day on the mountain where robbers had fallen upon people and sought to slay them. And these people cried out saying: 'O Lady Mary Mother of God , have mercy on us.' And she appeared before them like a flash of lightning, and blinded the eyes of the robbers and they were not seen by them" (ib., 49).

Of course the wild extravagance of this apocryphal literature cannot be questioned. It is all pure invention and a comparison of the various texts of the "Transitus" shows that this treatise in particular was continually being modified and added to in its various translations, so that we cannot be at all sure that the "Liber qui appellatur transitus, id est Assumptio, Sanctae Mariae apochryphus," condemned by Pope Gelasius in 494, was identical with the Syriac version just cited. But it is highly probable that this same Syriac version was then in existence, and apocryphal as the text may be, it undoubtedly testifies to the state of mind of at least the less instructed Christians of that period. Neither is it likely that feasts would be spoken of and ascribed to the institutions of the Apostles themselves if no such commemoration existed in the locality in which this fictitious narrative was so widely popular. In point of fact, scholars give good reason for believing that a feast described as mneme tes hagias Oeotokou kai aeikarthenou Marias was ceIebrated at Antioch as early as the year 370, while from the circumstance that it was connected with the Epiphany we may probably identify it with the first of the feasts referred to in the Syriac Transitus.

There is also confirmatory evidence for such a feast to be found in the hymns of Balai, a Syriac writer of the beginning of the fifth century; for not only does this writer use the most glowing language about Our Lady , but he speaks in such terms as these: "Praise to Thee Lord upon the memorial feast of Thy Mother" (Poem 4, p. 14, and Poem 6, p. 15). Another clear testimony is that of St. Proclus, who died Patriarch of Constantinople, and who in 429 preached a sermon in that city, at which Nestorius was present, beginning with the words "The Virgin's festival ( parthenike panegyris ) incites our tongue today to herald her praise." In this, we may further note, he describes Mary as

handmaid and Mother, Virgin and heaven, the only bridge of God to men, the awful loom of the Incarnation, in which by some unspeakable way the garment of that union was woven, whereof the weaver is the Holy Ghost ; and the spinner the overshadowing from on high; the wool the ancient fleece of Adam; the woof the undefiled flesh from the virgin, the weaver's shuttle the immense grace of Him who brought it about; the artificer the Word gliding through the hearing" (P.G., LXV, 681).

This discourse illustrates in a remarkable degree how the controversies which bore fruit in the canons of Ephesus and the title theotokos had led to a deeper understanding of the part of the Blessed Virgin in the work of Redemption.

Turning to another Eastern land, we find a very remarkable monument of Marian devotion among the Coptic Ostraca (p. 3), dated to about A. D. 600. This fragment bears in Greek the words: "Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, because thou didst conceive Christ, the Son of God , the Redeemer of our souls ". This oriental variant of the Ave Maria was apparently intended for liturgical use, much as the earliest form of the Hail Mary in the West took the shape of an antiphon employed in the Mass and Office of the Blessed Virgin. Relatively late as this fragment may seem, it is the more valuable because the direct mention of the Blessed Virgin in our earliest liturgical form is of rare occurrence. None such, for example, is found in the prayer-book of Serapion, or in the liturgy of the Apostolic Constitutions, or in the fragments of the Canon of the Mass preserved to us in the Ambrosian treatise "De Sacramentis". Certain Syriac hymns by Cyrillon as (c. 400) and especially by Rabnlas of Edessa (d. 435) speak of Mary in terms of warm devotion; but as in the case of St. Ephraem there is a certain element of uncertainty regarding the authorship of these compositions. On the other hand the dedication of many early churches undoubtedly afford an indication of the authoritative recognition at this period extended to the cultus of the Blessed Virgin. Already at the beginning of the fifth century St. Cyril wrote: "Hail to thee Mary, Mother of God, to whom in towns and villages and in island were founded churches of true believers" (P.G., LXXVII, 1034). The Church of Ephesus, in which in 431 the Ecumenical Council assembled, was itself dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Three churches were founded in her honour in or near Constantinople by the Empress Pulcheria in the course of the fifth century, while at Rome the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua and Santa Maria in Trastevere are certainly older than the year 500. Not less remarkable is the ever increasing prominence given to the Blessed Virgin during the fourth and fifth centuries in Christian art. In the paintings of the catacombs, in the sculptures of sarchophagi, in the mosaics, and in such minor objects as the oil flasks of Monsa, the figure of Mary recurs more and more frequently, while the veneration with which she is regarded is indicated in various indirect ways, for example by the large nimbus, such as may be seen in the pictures of the Crucifixion in the Rabulas manuscript of A.D. 586 (reproduced in THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, VIII, 773). As early as 540 we find a mosaic in which she sits enthroned as Queen of Heaven in the centre of the apex of the cathedral of Parenzo in Austria, which was constructed at that date by Bishop Euphrasius.

The Early Middle Ages

With the Merovingian and Carlovingian developments of Christianity in the west came the more authoritative acceptance of Marian devotion as an integral part of the Church's life. It is difficult to give precise dates for the introduction of the various festivals, but it has already been pointed out in the article CALENDAR that the celebration of the Assumption, Annunciation, Nativity and Purification of Our Lady may certainly be traced to this period. Three of these feasts appear in the Calendar of St. Willibrord of the end of the seventh century, the Assumption being assigned both to 18 January, after the practice of the Gallican Church, and to August (which approximates to the present Roman date ), while the absence of the Annunciation is probably due only to accident. Again we may quite confidently affirm that the position of the Blessed Virgin in the liturgical formula of the Church was by this time securely established. Even if we ignore the Canon of the Roman Mass which had taken very much the form it now retains before the close of the sixth century, the "praefatio" for the January festival of the Assumption in the Gallican Rite, as well as other prayers which may safely be assigned to no later date than the seventh century, give proof of a fervent cultus of the Blessed Virgin. In poetic language Mary is declared not only marvellous by the pledge which she conceived through faith but glorious in the translation by which she departed" (P. L., LXII, 244-46), the belief in her Assumption being clearly and repeatedly taken for granted, as it had been a century earlier by Gregory of Tours. She is also described in the liturgy as "the beautiful chamber from which the worthy spouse comes forth, the light of the gentiles, the hope of the faithful, the spoiler of the demons, the confusion of the Jews, the vessel of life, the tabernacle of glory, the heavenly temple, whose merits, tender maiden as she was, are the more clearly displayed when they are set in contrast with the example of ancient Eve " (ib., 245). At the same period numberless churches were erected under Mary's dedication, and many of these were among the most important in Christendom. The cathedrals of Reims, Chartres, Rouen, Amiens, Nîmes, Evreux, Paris, Bayeux, Séez, Toulon etc., though built at different dates, were all consecrated in her honour. It is true that the origin of many of these French shrines of Our Lady is impenetrably shrouded in the mists of legends. For example, no one now seriously believes that St. Trophimus at Arles dedicated a chapel to the Blessed Virgin while she was still living, but there is conclusive evidence that some of these places of pilgrimage were venerated at a very early date. We learn from Gregory of Tours (Hist. Fr., IX, 42) that St. Rhadegund had built a church in her honour at Poitiers, and he speaks of others at Lyons, Toulouse, and Tours. We also possess the dedication tablet of a church erected by Bishop Frodomund in 677 "in honore almae Mariae, Genetricis Domini", and as the day named is the middle of the month of August ( mense Augusto medio ), there can be little doubt that the consecration took place upon the festival of the Assumption, which was at that time beginning to supplant the January feast. In Germany the shrines of Altötting and Lorch profess to be able to trace their origin as places of pilgrimage to remote antiquity and though it would be rash to pronounce too confidently, we may probably feel safei in assigning them at least to the Carlovingian period.

In England and Ireland the evidence that from the earliest period Christianity was strongly leavened with devotion to Mary is very great. Bede tells us of the church consecrated to the honour of Our Lady at Canterbury by St. Mellitus, the immediate successor of Augustine; we also learn from the same source of many other Mary churches, e.g. Weremouth and Hexham (this last dedication being due to the miraculous cure of St. Wilfrid after invoking the Mother of God ), and Lastingham near Whitby, while St. Aldhelm, before the end of the same seventh century, informs us how the Princess Bugga, daughter of King Edwin, had a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin on the feast of her Nativity:


Istam nempe diem, qua templi festa coruscant,
Nativitate sua sacravit Virgo Maria. And Our Lady's altar stood in the apse :
Absidem consecrat Virginis ara.

Probably the earliest vernacular poetry in the West to celebrate the praise of Mary was the Anglo-Saxon; for Cynewulf, slightly before the time of Alcuin and of Charlemagne, composed most glowing verses on this theme; for example to quote Gollancz's translation of "the Christ" (ii, 214-80):


Hail, thou glory of this middle-world!
The purest woman throughout all the earth.
Of those that were from immemorial time
How rightly art thou named by all endowed
With gifts of speech! All mortals throughout earth
Declare full blithe of heart that thou art bride
Of Him that ruleth the empyral sphere.

To speak in detail of all that we find in the writings of Aldhelm, Bede, and Alcuin would be impossible; but it is well to note the testimony of an Anglican writer with regard to the whole period before the Norman Conquest. "The Saint," he says, "most persistent!y and frequently invoked, and to whom the most passionate epithets were applied, trenching upon the Divine prerogatives, was the Blessed Virgin. Mariolatry is no very modern development of Romanism"; and he instances from a tenth-century English manuscript now at Salisbury, such invocations as "Sancta Redemptrix Mundi, Sancta Salvatrix Mundi, ora pro nobis"; The same writer after referring to prayers and practices of devotion known in Anglo-Saxon times, for example the special Mass already assigned to the Blessed Virgin on Saturdays in the Leofric Missal, comments upon the strange delusion, as he regards it, of many Anglicans, who can look upon a Church which tolerated such abuses as primitive and orthodox.

Not less remarkable are the developments of devotion to the Mother of God in Ireland. The calendar of Aengus at the beginning of the ninth century is very remarkable for the ardour of the language used whenever the Blessed Virgin's name is introduced, while Christ is continually referred to as "Jesus Mac Mary" (i.e. Son of Mary). There is also besides certain Latin hymns, a very striking Irish litany in honour of the Blessed Virgin, which as regards the picturesqueness of the epithets applied to her, yields in nothing to the present Litany of Loreto . Mary is there called "Mistress of the Heavens, Mother of the Heavenly and earthly Church, Recreation of Life, Mistress of the Tribes, Mother of the Orphans, Breast of the Infants, Queen of Life, Ladder of Heaven." This composition may be as old as the middle of the eighth century.

The Later Middle Ages

It was characteristic of this period, which for our present purpose may be regarded as beginning with the year 1000, that the deep feeling of love and confidence in the Blessed Virgin, which hitherto had expressed itself vaguely and in accordance with the promptings of the piety of individuals, began to take organized shape in a vast multitude of devotional practices. Long before this date a Lady altar was probably to be found in all the more important churches -- St. Aldhelm's poem on the altars takes us back to before the year 70 and many records testify that at such altars paintings, mosaics, and ultimately sculptures reproduced the figure of the Blessed Virgin to delight the eyes of her clients. The famous seated figure of the Madonna with the Divine Infant at Ely dated from before 1016. The statue of the Blessed Virgin at Coventry, round the neck of which Lady Godiva's rosary was hung, belongs to the same period. Even in Aldhelm's day Our Lady was besought to hearken to the prayers of those who bent the knee before her shrine.


Audi clementer populorum vota precantum
Qui . . . genibus tundunt curvato poplite terram.

It was especially for such salutations that the Ave Maria, which probably first became familiar as an antiphon used in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, won popular favour with all classes. Accompanying it each time with a genuflection, such as tradition averred that the Angel Gabriel himself had made, Mary's clients repeated this formula before her images again and again. As it was destitute at first of its concluding petition, the Ave was felt to be a true form of salutation, and in the course of the twelfth century came into universal use. To the same epoch belongs the wide popularity of the Salve Regina, which also seems to have come into existence in the eleventh century. Though it originally began with the words "Salve Regina Misericordia" without the "Mater", we cannot doubt that something of the vogue of the anthem was due to the immense diffusion of the collections of Mary-stories (Marien-legenden) which multiplied exceedingly at this time (twelfth to fourteenth century), and in which the Mater Misericordia motif was continually recurrent. These collections of stories must have produced a notable effect in popularising a number of other practices of devotion besides repetitions of the Ave and the use of the Salve Regina, for example the repetition of five salutations beginning "Gaude Maria Virgo," the recitation of five psalms, the initials of which make up the word Maria, the dedication of the Saturday by special practices to the Blessed Virgin, the use of assigned prayers, such as the sequence "Missus Gabriel," the "O Intemerata," the hymn "Ave Maris Stella," etc., and the celebration of particular feasts, such as the Conception of the Blessed Virgin and her Nativity. The five Gaudes just mentioned originally commemorated Our Lady's "five joys" and to match those joys spiritual writers at first commemorated five corresponding sorrows. It was not until late in the fourteenth century that seven sorrows or "dolours" began to be spoken of, and even then only by exception.

In all these matters the first impulse seems to have come very largely from the monasteries, in which the Mary-stories were for the most part composed and copied. It was in the monasteries undoubtedly that the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin (see PRIMER) began to be recited as a devotional accretion to the Divine Office , and that the Salve Regina and other anthems of Our Lady were added to Compline and other hours. Amongst other orders the Cistercians, particularly in the twelfth century, exercised an immense influence in the development of Marian devotion. They claimed a very special connection with the Blessed Virgin, whom they were taught to regard as always presiding unseen at the recitation of Office. To her they dedicated their churches, and they were particular in saying her hours, giving her special prominence in the Confiteor and frequently repeating the Salve Regina . This example of a special consecration to Mary was followed by other later orders, notably by the Dominicans, the Carmelites, and the Servites. Indeed, almost every such institution from this time forward adopted some one or other special practice of devotion to mark its particular allegiance to the Mother of God. Shrines naturally multiplied, and although some, as already noted, are in their origin of later date than the eleventh century, it was at this period that such famous places of pilgrimage arose as Roc Amadour, Laon, Mariabrunn near Klosterneuburg, Einsiedeln etc., and in England, Walsingham, Our Lady Undercroft at Canterbury, Evesham, and many more.

These shrines, which as time went on multiplied beyond calculation in every part of Europe, nearly always owed their celebrity to the temporal and spiritual favours which it was believed the Blessed Virgin granted to those who invoked her in these favoured spots. The gratitude of pilgrims often enriched them with the most costly gifts; crowns of gold and precious gems, embroidered garments, and rich hangings meet us at every turn in the record of such sanctuaries. We might mention, to take a single example, that of Halle, in Belgium, which was exceptionally rich in such treasures. Perhaps the commonest form of votive offerings took the shape of a gold or silver model of the person or limb that had been cured. For example Duke Philip of Burgundy sent to Halle two silver statues, one representing a knight on horseback, the other a foot-soldier in gratitude for the cure of two of his own bodyguard. Often again the special vogue of a particular shrine was due to some miraculous manifestation which was believed to have occurred there. Blood was said to have flowed from certain statues and pictures of Our Lady which had suffered outrage. Others had wept or exuded moisture. In other cases, the head had bowed or the hand been raised in benediction.

Without denying the possibility of such occurrences, it can hardly be doubted that in many instances the historical evidence for these wonders was unsatisfactory. That popular devotion to the Blessed Virgin was often attended with extravagance and abuse, it is impossible to deny. Nevertheless we may believe that the simple faith and devotion of the people was often rewarded in proportion to their honest intention of paying respect to the Mother of God. And there is no reason to believe that these forms of piety had on the whole a delusive effect, and fostered nothing but superstition. The purity, pity, and motherliness of Mary were always the dominant motive, even the "Miracle" of Max Reinhardt, the wordless play which in 1912 took London by storm, persuaded many how much of true religious feeling must have underlain even the more extravagant conceptions of the Middle Ages.

The most renowned English shrines of Our Lady, that of Walsingham in Norfolk, was in a sense an anticipation of the still more famous Loreto. Walsingham professed to preserve, not indeed the Holy House itself, but a model of its construction upon measurements brought from Nazareth in the eleventh century. The dimensions of the Walsingham Santa Casa were noted by William of Worcester, and they do not agree with those of Loreto. Walsingham measured 23 ft. 6 in. by 12 ft. 10 in.; Loreto, 31 ft.3 in. by 13 ft. 4 in.

In any case the homage paid to Our Lady during the later Middle Ages was universal. Even so unorthodox a writer as John Wyclif, in one of his earlier sermons, says: "It seems to me impossible that we should obtain the reward of Heaven without the help of Mary. There is no sex or age, no rank or position, of anyone in the whole human race, which has no need to call for the help of the Holy Virgin." So again the intense feeling evoked from the twelfth to the sixteenth century over the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is only an additional tribute to the importance which the whole subject of Mariology possessed in the eyes of the most learned bodies of Christendom. To give even a brief sketch of the various practices of Marian devotion in the Middle Ages would be impossible here. Most of them -- for example the Rosary, the Angelus, the Salve Regina etc. and the more important festivals -- are discussed under separate headings. It will be sufficient to note the prevalence of the wearing of beads of all possible fashions and lengths, some of fifteen decades, some of ten, some of six, five, three, or one, as an article of ornament in every attire; the mere repetition of Hail Marys to be counted by the aid of such Pater Nosters, or beads, was common in the twelfth century, before the time of St. Dominic ; the motive of meditating on assigned "mysteries" did not come into use until 300 years later. Further, we must note the almost universal custom of leaving legacies to have a Mary-Mass, or Mass of Our Lady, celebrated daily at a particular altar, as well as to maintain lights to burn continually before a particular statue or shrine. Still more interesting were the foundations left by will to have the Salve Regina or other anthems of Our Lady sung after Compline at the Lady altar, while lights were burned before her statue. The "salut" common to France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries formed only after development of this practice, and from these last we have almost certainly derived our comparatively modern devotion of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

Modern Times

Only a few isolated points can be touched upon in the development of Marian devotion since the Reformation. Foremost among these may be noticed the general introduction of the Litany of Loreto, which though, as we have seen, it had precursors in other lands as remote as Ireland in the ninth century, not to speak of isolated forms in the later Middle Ages , itself only came into common use towards the close of the sixteenth century. The same may also be said of any general adoption of the second part of the Hail Mary. Another manifestation of great importance, which also like the last followed close after the Council of Trent, was the institution of sodalities of the Blessed Virgin, particularly in houses of education, a movement mainly promoted by the influence and example of the Society of Jesus, whose members did so much, by the consecration of studies and other similar devices, to place the work of education under the patronage of Mary, the Queen of Purity. To this period is also due, with some occasional exceptions, the multiplication in the calendar of minor feasts of the Blessed Virgin, such as that of the Holy Name of Mary, the festum B.V.M. ad Nives, de Mercede, of the Rosary, de Bono Consilio, Auxilium Christianorum, and so on. Still later in date (seventeenth century at earliest) is the adoption of the custom of consecrating the month of May to the Blessed Virgin by special observances, though the practice of reciting the Rosary every day during the month of October can hardly be said to be older than the Rosary Encyclicals of Leo XIII. Not much controversy was maintained regarding the Immaculate Conception after the indirect pronouncement of the Council of Trent, but the dogma was only defined by Pius IX in 1854. Undoubtedly, however, the greatest stimulus to Marian devotion in recent times has been afforded by the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin in 1858 at Lourdes, and in the numberless supernatural favours granted to pilgrims, both there and at other shrines, that derive from it. The "miraculous medal" connected with the church of Notre-Dame des Victoires at Paris also deserves mention, as giving a great stimulus to this form of piety in the first half of the nineteenth century.


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