Friday, April 20, 2012

Mimetic Role and Conflict of Portrayals in the Miracle Accounts

We have already encountered Mary’s role as a salvific figure in our previous readings. Thus, the theme of Mary as a co-redeemer is not a new one (i.e. without her and her specific nature, God’s incarnate salvation could not have occurred). In two accounts of the readings for Wednesday’s class (I.31 of The Miracles of Our Lady of Rocamadour and the Alfonso X’s account of Theophilus salvation in the Cantigas), however, Mary appears to step into the salvific role of her son in a more explicit manner, as she is portrayed as imitating and paralleling the actions and nature of her son as they are accounted in theology and scriptural accounts. The conception of Mary as stepping into the role of her Son is very interesting, as, in these two accounts, we can witness parallels of not only intercessory power but of salvific identity as well. Moreover, the main image that the wide range of miracle accounts seeks to emphasize is one of Mary’s intercession for those who devote themselves to her. In this post, however, I also wish to draw attention—through another account of The Miracles and a piece of one of Peter Damians’ letters—to a contrast of Marian depictions that might reflect a conflict in how Mary was portrayed in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Account I.31 of The Miracles merits consideration for the sake of identifying a new portrayal of Mary’s intercession. In this account, a man ‘Helias’ was returning from Jerusalem, being caught in a storm in the Mediterranean. The storm raged and the sailors were despairing for their lives. Further, in their distress they “prayed to God…begged help from the saints…” to no avail.  Finally they called upon the Lady of Rocamadour, and she, “the soother of storms…ordered the wind and sea to be calm.” 

Here we see Mary explicitly echoing a portrayal of Christ in scripture. Specifically, in Matthew 8:27, Jesus is asleep in a boat that is being battered by a storm. In this account, the disciples fear for their lives and wake Jesus, who first chastises them for their lack of faith and then rebukes the storm to calm. The disciples then say "What kind of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?" We can only imagine the writers of account I.31 of The Miracles asking the same question: “What kind of woman is this, that even the winds and sea obey her?”

I believe that in this piece (1.31) we can witness a theological development. Mary is not only held to be the ‘Theotokos’—even though this was a concept that was hotly debated at the Council of Ephesus—or a new Eve—who through her humble acceptance of the angel’s message brought forth the Savior of the world—no, this specific miracle account raises her up to an even higher status. We here witness a culmination of the esteem in which Mary is held: ordering ‘the wind and sea to be calm’, Mary seems to have powers over the forces of nature, paralleling those of her son in scripture, and thus is shown as playing a more concrete mimetic role.   

In the Cantigas account of the saving of Theophilus, Mary confronts the devil directly in interceding for Theophilus. Her confrontation is direct in the sense that she faces the devil and asks for the letter that Theophilus had previously signed with him (p. 6). In theology, Christ is believed to have descended to hell and faced the evil one and his servants, thus shattering the bonds of those captive there. By directly confronting the devil in saving Theophilus, Mary displays another more explicit parallel role to that of her son.

The theological development present in both account I.31 of The Miracles and Alfonso X’s account of the saving of Theophilus is interesting. What may be the implications of depicting Mary as more than just a more indirect salvific figure through giving birth to Christ—the actual salvation—and depicting her as overlapping scriptural and theological roles that Christ plays? Perhaps, some would consider this portrayal as too excessive a devotion.

That issue aside, I now wish to turn to the contrast of Marian depictions that we touched on in class. 

In account I.31 of The Miracles, given the element that God and the saints did not answer the prayers of the sailors, and Mary did, Mary’s benevolent mercy is emphasized. Her compassion and perhaps powers of agency are highlighted by the fact that, in the face of God’s silence, she enters the scene to save the despairing sailors. She is thus presented as a figure of consolation to the distressed

At the same time, however, it is worthwhile to note another particular account of The Miracles, which presents a striking contrast to Mary’s image as patroness of the distressed. I refer to (I.3), which we also discussed in class. In this account, a blind woman begged the Virgin of Rocamadour to restore her eyesight, promising to visit Mary’s church if her request was granted. The account says that Mary pitied the woman and restored her sight, but that the woman forgot to make good on her vow. Mary then “inflicted a harsher wound upon her, thereby forcing her to come to her church” (p. 103). A sharp bone was lodged in her throat and her body began to deteriorate. Only after ‘bewailing her guilt’ and moving others to pray for her did the Virgin relent, knocking the bone from her throat and restoring her health.

The italics of “thereby forcing her” are my own. I wish to emphasize that in this account we encounter a more vengeful and forceful image of Mary. 

This particular depiction of Mary seems to echo Peter Damian’s account in par. 33 of letter 142.  In this account, Peter Damian recounts of a certain monk, Gozo, who thought it superfluous to daily say the office of the Virgin in addition to the canonical hours. Because of this opposition to ‘the Queen of the World’, “such a storm of afflictions struck their monastery that menacing swords daily threatened the monks with death and destruction” (p. 141). He explains that since they cast ‘the Mother of Peace’ from their monastery, “they deserved to be engulfed by the winds and the waves of tribulation and disaster”, and that, only after they promised to never neglect the office of the Virgin did the weather clear up and they enjoy peace (p. 142).

Therefore, in account (I: 3) of The Miracles and in par. 33 of Peter Damian’s letter 142, we witness a portrayal of Mary that is different from the customary ones that portray her as a compassionate intercessor. Rather, in these two accounts, Mary appears to be imposing devotion by means of force and fear. It is worthwhile to ask the context in which these more forceful images of Mary emerged, since there is therefore a clash of images, between a compassionate intercessor and an agent of divine vengeance. Is this contrast perhaps a reflection of an internal conflict of Marian depictions within the Church during the 11th and 12th centuries? If so, which was more adhered to among the laity?



  1. Astutely observed! Yes, the depictions of Mary in the miracle stories are highly problematic for our understanding of her role in the economy of salvation. If she appears as the agent who answers the sailors' prayers or who punishes the sinner, is she in some way supplanting her Son? One thing that occurred to me as I was reading your post is that the miracle stories are trying to show her in action in much the same way (as, indeed, you point out) the Gospels show her Son: is there a way of giving her agency in such stories without having that agency impinge upon God's? Of course, her Son worked miracles during his human lifetime, whereas all of Mary's miracles are performed after her death. But even saying that does not get round the problem. I think that there is a way to answer the question theologically (that, like the saints, Mary works any miracles that she does through her faith in God), but I am not sure myself whether it I find it satisfying given the stories themselves.


  2. LW: I am largely sympathetic to your overall mimesis thesis (rhyme not intentional), and I think it is something that we see from some of the earliest “extra-scriptural” writings on Mary. Thus, I wonder how much of a “theological development” it represents in these readings. (Don’t get me wrong: I do think that there is plenty of “theological development” present in Mary’s intercessions in the stories you discuss. I just wonder if the mimesis that you point out does the “developing.”)

    Further, in the example of the sailors possibly thinking, “What kind of woman is this” that she can control the seas, etc. Yes. But remember that in the story of Jesus which this one would ostensibly reflect, Jesus was there, living alongside the apostles, their contemporary. In the Helias story from The Miracles, Mary was already a transcendent being, and her appearance alone should have evoked awe (though, of course, there is also the story of Jesus “appearing” as he walks towards the boat on the water). So, I think the calming of the storm does different work in the two stories. For the apostles, it was a sign that Jesus was God. In the Mary story, it could also be taken as a sign, but of her power to protect, as her transcendence is already established. Her deeds in these stories serve as “signs” of her intercessory role (both temporal and spiritual).

    In this sense, you are on to something very interesting, though I don’t know if mimesis is the key. Rather (especially given the variety of Mary’s deeds in these stories), are miracles always “signs” meant to communicate to us something that is essential about the one who performs them? If so, as you rightly point out, what are we to “get” about Mary’s essence, nature, or character in the more “aggressive” tales? (Just as we talked about in class, making uniform or systematic sense of these stories is difficult. We are reminded, perhaps, of the apocryphal, aggressive boy Jesus).

    As I think about it more, perhaps the mimesis of the Helias story does do this work, but is sly enough to have evaded me. I will have to think about this more.

  3. I wonder if your considerations of Mary's miracle stories and their theological import doesn't miss a key area for comparison: the miracles of other saints. Looking at the various SS lives that proliferated throughout the Middle Ages, we see saints that calm storms, that confront the devil in order to release the souls of those held captive (cf. Benedict), or even raise the dead (cf. Martin). Likewise, the seemingly sudden shifts from compassionate healer to avenging force is often found in the lives of saints. A good example of this is Gregory of Tours's miracle collections, which have saints shifting from healing the lame to flat out killing people who dishonor them in the space of a paragraph or two. Thus, if these miracle stories do signify underlying theological currents (and they most assuredly do), they are not unique to Mary. Perhaps, in order to trace these out, it would be helpful to see how exactly they do differ. Is the anger of St. Martin, or who have you, different from that of Mary? Is his succor? And what can that tell us about the understanding of Mary in relation to the saints. Is she exalted among them? distinct from them? Certainly, she is distinct from the rest of the saints in most of our commentaries on her nature, but does this view inflect our miracle stories, and what does that indicate? All really interesting questions (IMO) that your post brought to mind.