The readings on Marian apparitions brought to the fore the shifting nature of legitimacy when it comes to seeing the Virgin. This concern is particularly clear in the Christian, which records the visions through a formalized documentation of their authentication. There is a change in who is receiving visions of the virgin and in why these recipients are considered worthy. In the previous accounts of Marian visions we have read the recipients of the visions are all women who have taken Holy orders [Technically, no--only priests take holy orders. The women had taken vows. --RLFB]. These women spent most of their lives immersed in prayer and meditation centering around Christ and the Virgin, and several of them were well known for their theological and scholastic work as well. They form a stark contrast with the recipients of visions in the Spanish account; poor, uneducated shepherd boys and a girl whose parents are “known to be stupid”. The factors that mark a given person as a suitable visionary have been altered.
The women were seen as acceptable and even perhaps natural recipients of visions because of their high levels of piety and devotion. They had all chosen a religious life and had received a more thorough spiritual education because of this. The young visionaries seem to have been seen as legitimate for exactly the opposite reasons. They were young, with no known special spiritual education or understanding before their visions. Their lack of education in spiritual matters is key. The previous visionaries would have had all kinds of detailed scriptural knowledge of what Mary should look like. Their religious education made them far more likely to have false visions - whether knowingly or unknowingly. Their knowledge was now seen as contaminating their possible vision. The young children did not have this problem; because of their supposed ignorance their visions could be “tested to determine their validity
Except it’s not quite that simple. Although the imagery in the visions draws on a long and theologically complex tradition there are ways in which the Spanish vision recipients could have been exposed to it despite their lack of higher religious education. The imagery of their visions came from the same tradition that would have influenced the sermons and services they heard at church. More importantly, it would have influenced the visual depictions of the Virgin, present at her alter. Despite not possessing the complex scriptural knowledge to interpret the visions, they very well may have seen visual representations of it before. In fact several of them even mention recognizing the Virgin because she resembled her statue. So while the idea may have been to locate visions in people deemed to be outside the tradition, it is possible that its permeation led to it being the latent image source in the population.
This positional shift in legitimacy also plays into a couple of the larger questions which have been coming up in class, namely to what degree was the Marian tradition ”popular” and what role skepticism played, particularly in light of the focus on authentication.
To the first point, getting at the level of permeation this tradition had in the general population is incredibly difficult because the written records and examples of this tradition come from the educated, literate, religious elite. Those sources that do deal with unlettered masses tend to do so from a surface level perspective. They engage with the story through their actions but the finer points of their driving thought processes, which might contain clues as to how they arrived at their belief in the virgin, remain opaque. The surviving physical representations of this tradition - primarily statues and other alter decorations - and the accounts of the vision recipients in Spain point toward at least a rudimentary understanding of the practical application of the Marian tradition, if not its deeper theological basis. This could be compared to the many people today who recognize that H2O is water, but may not know that H20 stands for dihydrogen monoxide, or have any understanding of the molecules that compose it and the bonds that hold them together. They understand the end result, that the formula H2O stand for water, without seeing all the steps taken to reach that formula. It could be possible to understand that the alter statue of Mary represents her without seeing all the encoded meaning and scriptural interpretation required to create it. In this way the Marian tradition could be extremely “popular” while still remaining fully accessible only to a few.
The second question centers around whether or not people where accepting these vision and miracle accounts at face value or with reservation. While there is potential skepticism at play here it is not, as might be expected by a modern reader, concerning the visions themselves. Belief in the Virgin’s power to work miracles and do the impossible seems to be as strong as it ever was. There is a marked concern with ensuring that the visions are authentic, however this actually strengthens the argument that people really believed. Fraudulent visions, whether wholly falsified or of demonic origin, are only of concern if people might believe them and be misled. If people where skeptical of the truth Marian visions then there would be no need to authenticate them because they would hold very little power. The idea of policing miraculous claims about the Virgin is also not a new development. Pilgrimage sights such as Rocamadour had done so for centuries by controlling the record of miracles attributed to their Virgin. If there is skepticism at play here, it seems to be directed at the institutions of the Church, not the Virgin herself. There is a sense of unease with vision recipients who are to close to the church, not with the visions. Although the church still has the power to decide on the truth of visions it has lost at least part of its place as an acceptable source of them.
- M. Coker