The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture

The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture

The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture

The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture

Synopsis

Nineteenth-century America was rife with Protestant-fueled anti-Catholicism. Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez reveals how Protestants nevertheless became surprisingly and deeply fascinated with the Virgin Mary, even as her role as a devotional figure who united Catholics grew. Documenting the vivid Marian imagery that suffused popular visual and literary culture, Alvarez argues that Mary became a potent, shared exemplar of Christian womanhood around which Christians of all stripes rallied during an era filled with anxiety about the emerging market economy and shifting gender roles. From a range of diverse sources, including the writings of Anna Jameson, Anna Dorsey, and Alexander Stewart Walsh and magazines such as The Ladies' Repository and Harper's, Alvarez demonstrates that Mary was represented as pure and powerful, compassionate and transcendent, maternal and yet remote. Blending romantic views of motherhood and female purity, the virgin mother's image enamored Protestants as a paragon of the era's cult of true womanhood, and even many Catholics could imagine the Queen of Heaven as the Queen of the Home. Sometimes, Marian imagery unexpectedly seemed to challenge domestic expectations of womanhood. On a broader level, The Valiant Woman contributes to understanding lived religion in America and the ways it borrows across supposedly sharp theological divides.

Excerpt

Francis Lieber, the celebrated German American political theorist and author of the “Lieber Code” of military ethics, described encountering Raphael’s Sistine Madonna as one of the seminal moments of his life— comparable to watching Napoleon’s forces enter Berlin when he was six. As a young man, Lieber journeyed a hundred miles on foot from Jena to Dresden, where he immediately sought out its famous art museum. There he found himself standing in awe before Raphael’s vision of the Virgin Mary, cradling the infant Christ while standing on billowing clouds surrounded by countless, nearly imperceptible angel faces. Lieber recalled being so “overcome” by emotion in the gallery that he attracted the attention of a stranger, Dorothea Tieck, daughter of the Romantic poet Johann Ludwig Tieck. Tieck spoke with him at length and, approving of his profound response to the painting, “encouraged his sentiment.” Biographies of Lieber cite this anecdote as evidence of his particularly “generous and sensitive nature,” but accounts like this were not uncommon. Nineteenth-century memoirs and travelogues frequently depicted Protestants (Lieber was Lutheran) finding themselves moved, overwhelmed, and transformed by encounters with Marian art.

A few decades later, Louisa Parsons (Stone) Hopkins, a well-known poet and kindergarten movement advocate, lyrically described her ideal kindergarten, highlighting the Marian reproduction presiding over the imagined scene. “In the morning hour,” she wrote, “as they fold their little hands and sing the prayer and happy song with such a reverent and believing spirit, the scene is holy and blessed. The picture of the Madonna, which hangs upon the wall, seems almost lit up with glory at such a bringing in of the glad tidings of joy to childhood. Multiply the kindergartens and train up motherly teachers … to have each generation better trained for life than the last.” In her vision, kindergartens were nearly sacred spaces with Mary’s prominently displayed image signifying both the female, motherly spirit of the movement and its sanctifying, nonsectarian Christian environment. To the Congregationalist Hopkins, kindergarten teachers were surrogate mothers, professional mothers, and Mary was the symbol par excellence of motherhood . . .

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