Queen of Heaven, Empress of HellRoundup
tags: religion, Catholicism, medieval history, womens history, Virgin Mary
Vanessa Corcoran is an Academic Counselor in the Office of the College Dean at Georgetown University, where she also works as an adjunct professor in the history department. Her research interests include the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary, the intersection of gender and popular religious practices, and the textual representations of medieval women’s voices.
The Apostles’ Creed, a fourth-century text that many Christians still recite today, states that following Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial, “he descended into hell.” Often called The Harrowing of Hell, this is the moment when Christ “opened Heaven’s gates for the just who went before him.” Yet Christians in the later Middle Ages sought the protection of a different intercessor, one who would descend into hell to shame, debate, and even physically assault the devil to save people from damnation: the Virgin Mary.
Yes, the Mother of God, more familiar to modern audiences as the serene woman gazing at the Infant Jesus, was portrayed as the powerful Queen of Heaven and Empress of Hell in many later medieval devotional sources from Northern Europe.3 Miracle stories and manuscript illuminations show how quickly Christians believed the prospect of eternal damnation could be transformed into the hope of redemption through Mary’s swift and direct intercession with Satan and sinners alike. These concepts of Mary’s identity did not replace traditional depictions of her as steadfastly obedient to God’s will, which also proliferated in the period. Instead, they were all part of a larger religious culture that viewed Mary’s agency—her capacity to act of her own accord—as significant and complex.
Mary’s power and impact on Christian spirituality reached its apex in the later Middle Ages, roughly 1100-1500, with an outpouring of Marian devotion in the form of religious texts, images, and music, as well as shrines erected in her honor. But Christians had been asking Mary to serve as protector and intercessor long before this period, as seen with the third century prayer Sub Tuum Praedisium: “We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God; Do not despise our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin. Amen.”
Mary’s intercession always included two components: the initial petition for her aid followed by her intercession with God or her son Jesus on behalf of the petitioner. Yet even as Christ was typically depicted as willing to hear and acquiesce to Mary’s petitions, the miracle stories that emerged in the later Middle Ages increasingly depicted Christians who were more comfortable praying to Mary instead of Christ. Authors in this period composed devotional sources about Mary’s intercession that played with the conventional hierarchy of Christ’s sovereignty over Mary, leaving the son to take a somewhat-secondary role.
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