Alone of All Her Sex Critical Essays

Marina Warner


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The essence of the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman is her virginity. This concept, according to Warner, controls the structure of the Virgin’s myth and therefore provides a justification for the association of sex with sinfulness and for making women, with their reproductive processes, a continual reminder of this state of sin.

Accordingly, the first section examines how the Church and popular belief conspired to inculcate and reinforce the belief in Mary’s virginity. Warner’s discussion of this issue provides a good example of how she argues her thesis. She thoroughly analyzes the basic textual sources about Mary in biblical Scripture and in Apocrypha. In both cases, she demonstrates that there is little evidence for Mary’s virginity in general or for a virgin birth in particular. Only strained interpretations and mistranslations by early Christian theologians or popular literary invention in the Apocrypha provide textual basis for Mary as virgin. The heritage of antiquity added support for virgin birth through mythology and Aristotelian philosophy, which accorded the female only a subordinate physical place in conception and birth. Finally, the early Church Fathers added the crucial moral dimension by emphasizing sexuality as the Original Sin which led to death and by advocating virginity and asceticism as the ideal state in which a Christian should live. Thus while Mary’s virginity became essential to the idea of Christ’s divinity through his human incarnation, the exceptional status of the virgin birth reinforced the concept of women’s role in the sexual corruption of humanity.

A consequence of the belief in Mary’s virginity was the question of what happened to her body after death. Did her complete and unique purity absolve her from mortal decay? Warner takes up this problem in the second section on the Virgin Mary as queen. She first considers the doctrine of the Assumption. She recounts the theological sources and visual iconography that amplified the idea that although Mary died, her incorrupt body was assumed into heaven. By her position as Mother of God and the special privilege of her assumption, she became the Queen of Heaven. The power elites of the medieval period drew on her regal status to reinforce their hegemony. In this guise, she became particularly associated with the sacerdotal power of the Church in the papacy and with the secular power of medieval courts. This aspect of the Virgin Mary, however, only created a wider gap between the actual inferior position of women and the unattainable ideal of this virgin queen.

Bridal images associated with Mary are closely related to her...

(The entire section is 1083 words.)