Impassioned Mother or Passive Icon: The Virgin's Role in Late Medieval and Early Modern Passion Sermons

Article excerpt

On 13 April 1403, Parisian chancellor Jean Gerson delivered one of his most famous sermons, a sermon on the Passion of Christ entitled "Ad deum vadit." That evening, in the second part of the sermon, Gerson set forth the central and most dramatic portion of the Passion narrative, the crucifixion of Jesus. As he had done throughout the story, Gerson sought to recreate the feelings, responses, and very words of Mary as she witnessed her son's suffering. In an anguished question that echoed Jesus' own, Gerson proclaims that Mary was able to cry to God,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken the flesh that was taken from me with such holiness and purity, conceived and born from the overshadowing and work of the Holy Spirit? I suffer in it, since it is one flesh with mine, its grief comes back to me. As of old, sin passed by woman to man, thus the grief of man returns to me, a woman; and by it I purchase and buy back the sin of Eve. And I am willing to suffer, since this pleases God. I consent that I be in some small way a partner and cause of redemption for the human race. And considering this, my grief and even greater grief pleases me if God wills to send it.(1)

Gerson attributes to the Virgin the dignity of being both a "partner" and a "cause" of human salvation. She is at the heart of the action, beside Jesus himself; and for Gerson, Mary's portion of Jesus's suffering stems from the common flesh that they share as mother and son.

Saint Francois de Sales, popular Catholic preacher and reformer of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, was also concerned with presenting in his sermons the relationship between Mary and the Passion of Christ on the cross. His version of the event, however, is strikingly different from Gerson's. According to de Sales, the Virgin, in keeping with her usual circumspect behavior, said "not a single word" at Calvary. She strove instead to listen to the words of her son.(2) In addition, de Sales explains, "The body of our Lady was not joined to and did not touch that of her son in his Passion, but in her soul she was inseparably united to the soul, to the heart, and to the body of her son, and if the blows that the blessed body of the Savior received on the cross did not wound the body of Our Lady, they were massive wounds to her soul."(3) De Sales continues to highlight the Virgin's suffering as she beholds her son's death, but he is insistent that her pain was in no way due to a mystical union of their flesh. She is also silent in de Sales's account, not speaking to Jesus, to the bystanders, or to the soldiers responsible for his agony.

The juxtaposition of these excerpts from the Passion sermons of two well-educated and popular Catholic preachers suggests that by the later sixteenth century, some preachers were beginning to modify their conception of the close ties that bound Mary to Jesus and therefore to alter as well their portrayal of the manner in which the Virgin shared in the sacrifice of the cross. These texts also point to one of the central issues involved in this change, the bodily relationship between the Virgin mother and her son.

Mary's physical relationship with Christ was the primary inspiration for the devotion surrounding her in the late Middle Ages. This was due in large part to the emphasis on the concrete and bodily aspects of worship so pervasive at the time. Piety was imbued with a sacramental and incarnational quality in which there was no hesitation to express the experience of God in ways that have seemed at best simplistic and at worst crude to some modern historians.(4) Yet both Caroline Walker Bynum in her innovative study Holy Feast and Holy Fast and Gail McMurray Gibson in The Theater of Devotion have rejected this purely negative assessment of later medieval religion. They uncover instead a rich tapestry of symbolism in the religious lives of late medieval women and in popular religious plays. Gibson identifies the "incarnational aesthetic" as the most significant facet of medieval English art and drama, and she is certain that it is for this reason that Mary plays so prominent a role in East Anglian drama in the fifteenth century. …