Here are chapter summaries from my latest book, Imagining Mary: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Devotion to the Virgin Mother of God, published by Routledge (an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group), 2018.


Chapter 1. (Introduction: From a Humble Mother of Nazareth to “Our Lady of Everywhere”). There is precious little detail about Mary the mother of Jesus in scripture, and post-scriptural elaboration on her life was slow in coming.  But, by the fifth century she was already being represented by some as a kind of goddess. For many of her devotees, Mary was a mother and a virgin (simultaneously).  As if this were not enough of a cognitive clash, she also became the “bride” of her divine son, so that near-conscious fantasies of Oedipal sexuality (mother-son incest) became an integral part of the mariophile imagination. Despite these psychologically problematical phenomena, Mary’s grandeur increased in the medieval period, and reached a level where she was even deemed “omnipotent” by some, and a military “conquerer” by others.  In the modern period Mary retains much of her earlier grandeur in both the Catholic West and the Orthodox East.  At the same time Mary possesses many other specific qualities besides grandeur among mariophiles.  Thousands of special titles have been lavished upon Mary from all corners of the Christian world.  Mary has been – and continues to be – many things to many people (or peoples – ethnic groups, nation-states, and empires).

Chapter 2.  (Mary and the Foolishness of Wisdom).  In the medieval West some mariophile theologians appropriated the female figure of Wisdom from the Old Testament in order to represent Mary as near-divine. In more recent times Russian Orthodox Sophiologists did the same thing.  This practice contradicted Paul’s clear identification of Wisdom with the crucified Christ in the New Testament.  Mary herself, as represented by some early Christian thinkers such as Origen, was “scandalized” by the Pauline Wisdom of her son’s voluntary crucifixion.  Other Christian thinkers, such as Maximos the Confessor, represented Mary as understanding and accepting the idea that her dying son on the cross was “Wisdom herself.”  Such understanding has been rather uncommon, however, in most manifestations of the mariophile mind, including in marian iconography both East and West.  More acceptable is verbal and visual imagery which represents Mary as “containing” Wisdom – much as Mary’s body “contained the uncontainable God,” to quote the Greek Akathistos.

Chapter 3.  (Mary Dies and Goes to Heaven).  In 1950 Pope Pius XII issued an “infallible” statement about the “assumption” of Mary into heaven, where she is seated “at the right hand of her Son.”  The pope’s statement was a denial of death – Mary’s death. In the Orthodox East this denial is called the “deification” of Mary.  In both the East and the West a major theological justification for awarding such death-defying status to Mary is the idea that Mary and her son Jesus shared the very same flesh (there being no flesh from an earthly father, only from the virginal earthly mother Mary).  Mary deserved to relocate body and soul into heaven, just as her “con-carnate” son had risen from the dead and ascended body and soul into heaven.  Not only theologians but also ordinary mariophile believers deny Mary’s death.  After having died, Mary is still alive for them, she has not forsaken them, and she is always available as a maternal figure in their times of need.

Chapter 4.  (Daughter Zion, Mother Church).  Here I offer a critique of Christian supersessionism as it is manifested in the tendency of mariologists to appropriate from the Hebrew Bible such images as “Daughter Zion,” “Ark of the Covenant,” and “Burning Bush.”  This appropriation of images devalues their original Jewish source, where they had and still have their own meaning which has nothing to do with Christianity.  The historical Mary was a Jew, not a Christian.  Medieval folklore about Jews attacking visual images of Mary added an element of paranoia to the already hostile supersessionism.  The physical conversion of synagogues into marian chapels (and concommitant pogroms against Jews) leaves no doubt about the extreme anti-Jewish hatred which has existed in the minds of some mariophiles.

Chapter 5.  (Class Considerations).  In scripture Mary characterized herself as “slavewoman of the Lord” at the annunciation. These words hardly make Mary a feminist, nor do any of her actions in the New Testament.  Nor would it be right to say that Mary agitated on behalf of the poor of Israel, despite her Magnificat, and despite the claims of some liberation theologians.  Like her son, Mary was poor but, also like her son, she did not resist the socioeconomic exploitation of poor peasants.  In modern times one of Mary’s titles is “Mother of the Poor,” but occasional requests by Mary that her divine son intervene on behalf of poor individuals do not constitute a rejection of the blessedness of being poor.

Chapter 6.  (The Eucharist as Maternalized Son of Mary).  In the medieval West the title Tree of Life could refer either to Mary or to the cross on which her son died.  The anonymous poem Lignum vitae quaerimus takes advantage of this double referentiality, positing the idea that the Tree of Life is both Mary’s body and her son’s cross, with the eucharistic “fruit” on both Trees being Mary’s son.  The importance of the edible “fruit” imagery is here explored in light of the medieval eucharistic debate over transubstantiation.  Psychoanalytically speaking, both Mary and Jesus offer oral gratification, Mary normally to the infant at her breast, Jesus with masochistic grandiosity to the faithful from the “wound” in his side.  Those who were searching for the Tree of Life at the beginning of the poem found something more important, namely, its life-giving fruit.

Chapter 7.  (Mary’s Dispute with Her Son’s Cross: A Poem by Philip the Chancellor).  Philip’s poem deals with three primary topics.  First comes a stark picture of the crucifixion as seen by the traumatized mother of the victim.  Then the personified cross attempts to explain the blood shed by this victim in soothing eucharistic terms, that is, in terms of the wonderful wine which is not the literal blood of the victim.  Finally, sensing that this explanation has failed to persuade the mother of the victim, the cross nudges the mother to turn her attention toward the putative victimizers, i.e., the “perfidious and envious enemies” who drink the literal blood of the victim.  Forgetting that she is a Jew, Mary goes along with this. Her concluding outburst is a thinly disguised expression of religious hatred which would come to be known as the blood libel against Jews.

Chapter 8.  (Back to Scripture: A Son’s Grievance Against Mary).  There is no evidence in the gospels themselves that Mary was a “disciple” of her son.  Mary resisted joining the “metaphorical family” which Jesus was organizing, and which eventually would become the Church.  Mary was aware of the fact that devaluation of one’s own family was part of the message Jesus was preaching to his followers.  From the cross Jesus addressed his mother coldly as “woman” and turned her over to one of his disciples, pushing her into the clutches of his “metaphorical family.”  The son’s last words to his mother also indicate anger over the uncertainty of his paternity.

Chapter 9.  (Jesus at the Breast).  An abundance of visual imagery representing the divine nursing couple has been produced in both the Roman Catholic West and the Orthodox East (but not so much in Protestant areas).  The historical derivation and taxonomy of these images is not always clear, but the essential action depicted in all of them is obvious: Mary is breastfeeding her child.  Some medieval sources indicate that this primal and intimate form of care of one’s own child represents the maternal ideal, and some modern scholars rightly believe that visual images of Mary breastfeeding the Christ child shamed affluent mothers who could afford to farm out their newborn children to a wet nurse. There are also textual representations of Mary breastfeeding her child as far back as Greek and Latin patristic sources, and in poetry in many languages beginning with the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian. Medieval Latin hymnography abounds with references to Mary breastfeeding her child, as does (increasingly) medieval poetry in the vernacular.  To judge from a key passage in the gospel of Luke, however, Jesus would have disapproved of these many positive representations of Mary breastfeeding him.

Chapter 10.  (Marian Laments and the Psychology of Compassion).  Mary’s compassion for Jesus before, during, and after his suffering and death on the cross may be heard in numerous and varied laments.  In the Byzantine world the Good Friday kontakion of Romanos the Melodist eloquently expresses Mary’s anxiety over what her son is about to do to himself, yet he insists that he will rise from the dead.  In the later Greek and Russian Orthodox Holy Saturday liturgies Mary hears her son urging her to deny his death even when she beholds him dead in the tomb.

            The medieval West saw a surge in the production of liturgical texts, homilies, prose narrations, poetry, passion plays, mystery plays, and other genres which foreground Mary’s participation in her son’s passion.  In some of these works Mary’s lamentation gets quite complex and emotionally extreme. Sometimes Mary expresses a wish to die herself, but she never commits suicide (historical accuracy and theological correctness permit only her son the grandiose masochist to do that).  In the Latin prose work Quis dabit Mary rants against the “wicked Jews” for what they are doing to her son, asking that they crucify her in his place.  In the famous lament Planctus ante nescia anti-Jewish sentiments are again prominent, with Mary urging the “daughters of Zion” to repent and to accept Jesus.  The hymn Stabat mater dolorosa urges us all to participate in Mary’s compassion, to feel the enormity of our sins which have brought Mary’s son and Mary to Golgotha.  The religious vocabulary of sinfulness is quite appropriate here, for it is a way to express the guilt feelings – both in the sense of a punishing superego and in the sense of a nurturing conscience – experienced by believers.

            There also exist some texts in which Mary gets angry at someone besides the Jews.  An example is the early English Lamentacioun of Oure Lady in which Mary reproaches the angel Gabriel for tricking her into having to be the compassionate mother of a crucified God. Such works direct attention to God’s guilt, not the guilt of believers.  Mary accuses God himself of doing her wrong in at least one of these works, thereby suggesting that her pain was inflicted by a sadistic God.

Chapter 11.  (Time Future, Time Past).  Some visual representations of the annunciation show a fully formed Christ child descending from God the Father in heaven downward toward Mary – as if it were not up to Mary to do the work of conceiving, gestating, and giving birth to Jesus.  In some of these theologically incorrect images the child is already bearing his cross (e.g., the Mérode triptych of 1425), so that Mary receives proleptic knowledge of what will become of her son at a very early stage.  Other instances of such prolepsis include images of an apparently depressed, distant Mary holding the child in her arms, but with the instruments of Christ’s passion on the reverse (e.g., the 12th-century Vladimir Mother of God).  There also exist texts in which the Christ child himself traumatizes Mary by informing her of his future suffering and death on the cross (e.g., a 14th-century English nativity lament).

            The opposite of prolepsis is anamnesis, where Mary sees the past rather than the future.  Many images and texts which place Mary at the scene of the crucifixion enable her to think about her son as the child she once held in her arms.  In some of the Pietàs, for example, the dead Christ is reduced to child-like proportions, as if he were still alive.  In the Digby mystery Burial of Christ (late 15th-century) Mary repeatedly recalls breastfeeding the son who now lies dead on her lap.  In such works it is possible for Mary to indulge in a wishful denial of her son’s death even as she begins the work of mourning.

Chapter 12.  (Theologizing Mary at the Foot of the Cross).  From the later medieval period come some theologically correct interpretations of Mary at the foot of the cross which suggest not only that Mary was “saved” by her son’s death, but also that she rejoiced over it.  Medieval German images termed “the joyful Pietà” (starting from around 1300) depict Mary with a happy smile on her face.  Some Latin devotional works of the time urge Mary to rejoice (Gaude…) at having beheld her son hanging from the cross. These ideas contradict the psychologically more normal and abundant phenomena of marian lamentation.  Some, such as Girolamo Savonarola in the fifteenth century found Mary ambivalent, both “happy and sad” as she followed her son to his death.  In the twentieth century (in the document Lumen Gentium issued by Vatican II) Catholic theologians returned to this fraught issue, asserting that Mary gave her “loving consent” to the death of her son at Golgotha.

            By far the most radical interpretation in the twentieth century of what went on between Jesus and Mary at Golgotha was advanced by Hans Urs von Balthasar, who painted a picture of Mary being subjected to sadistic psychological cruelty by her son.  Jesus not only refers to his mother with the contemptuous term “woman,” but he also obliges her to “say yes” to the “earthly failure” of his life, he “abandons” her by dying in her presence, and furthermore he obliges her to “say yes” to his death.  As a result of this (and other manifestations of his) “training” of his mother, Mary supposedly becomes worthy of her subsequent role as “Mother of the Church.” Von Balthasar makes all of Mary’s “Yes”-saying follow from her initial “Yes” at the annunciation, which is to say that von Balthasar’s Mary is represented as being at least partially responsible for her son’s crucifixion.

Chapter 13.  (Mary of the Eucharist).  The most important sacramental manifestation of the relationship between Mary and her son is the eucharist.  In the 11th century Peter Damian wrote that the “body” of the child which Mary “brought forth” and “nurtured with motherly care” was “none other” than the “body” which members of the congregation receive “from the sacred altar.” This idea was developed by several other theologians and led to an extensive folklore about a “child in the host,” it being understood that the child was Christ.

            The Catholic priest who officiated at the eucharistic altar was said by some to be repeating an act which Mary had already accomplished in the incarnation of her son.  What the priest wore on this occasion was a complicated arrangement of “vestments” which resembled a woman’s attire, and which would have suggested the priest’s transvestism (outside of the liturgical context).  The key performative utterance made by the priest during his celebration of the mass effected the transubstantiation of the host which he held in his hands: Hoc est corpus meum.  With these magical words the priest gave birth metaphorically to Mary’s child.

            The priest’s performance at the altar is best interpreted as an imitation of what a pregnant woman does.  Anthropologists would recognize it as an instance of couvade.  Some of the medieval miracle tales (e.g., in the 13th-century collection of Caesarius of Heisterbach) go one step further, with a child literally replacing the host held in the priest’s hands; in at least two cases Mary herself is present with the priest (in his imagination) at the altar.  There are also various post-medieval writings in which the priest is said to imitate Mary’s birthgiving in some more mystical-spiritual sense.

Chapter 14.  (Mary the Priest).  Textual sources from both the Orthodox East and the Catholic West have represented Mary as a sacrificial altar (Greek trapezathusiastērion; Latin araaltaremensa), as have some visual images (e.g., works by Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden).  Mary was also a sacrificial “oven” in which Christ the “living bread” was placed to “bake” (e.g., a late 15th-century English carol).  Especially widespread since Augustine has been the equivalence of the Christ child on a manger in Bethlehem to the edible (eucharistic) Christ on a church altar. It seems that, from the very beginning of his life, Christ was being represented as a sacrificial victim, as Émile Mâle observed about certain medieval visual images where Mary has coldly deposited her newborn child on an elevated, altar-like manger.

            All of this sacrificial imagery would eventually result in explicit representations of Mary as a priest.  Early in the 17th century Ferdinand Quirino de Salazar wrote of Mary that “she offered and sacrificed him [Christ] on the altar of the cross, as did Christ himself.”  Mary’s co-priesthood here should not be confused with the psychologically more comprehensible idea that Mary co-redeemed humankind with her son at Golgotha. Both ideas imply considerable grandiosity on Mary’s part, but, in the history of such representations, a co-redemptive Mary is more likely to demonstrate compassion for her son than is a sacerdotal Mary.

            By the late 19th century an intensely mariophile papal magisterium was displaying sacerdotalist tendencies, but around 1913-1914 the popular title Virgo Sacerdos was suppressed.  Nevertheless, the 20th-century papacy kept issuing implicit endorsements of Mary’s priestly role.  Feminists who have lobbied for the ordination of women to the priesthood would not be likely to support such endorsements, for in them the mother of one’s God appears to be actively participating in a ritual murder.

Chapter 15.  (Our Lady of the Good Death).  Both the late medieval hymn Ave verum corpus and the traditional Catholic prayer Ave Maria bring a maternal Mary to the scene of the believer’s death.  This gives the believer an opportunity to ask for Mary’s intercession with her son who, after all, escaped death himself by rising from the dead.  There are many poems, prayers, and hymns on this theme. Various marian societies of “the good death” came into existence in the post-medieval West (but not in the Orthodox East).  “Our Lady of the Good Death” has been venerated at various times in France, Portugal, Brazil, Poland, and elsewhere.

            The contrast between what Mary did not do in the presence of her dying son and what she might do for others who are dying is here explored.  At one end of the range of options is extreme credulity, where believers (e.g., Saint Alphonsus de Liguori, the Blessed Daniel Brottier) are absolutely certain that Mary will intervene on their behalf in the final moments.  At the other end is atheist realism, where it is recognized that all humans die and remain dead, including Mary the goddess and her son Jesus the god.