All studies of Mary, the Mother of God, relate directly to the core of the Christian "creed" and kerygma, both in the theological sense and also from the historical point of view. Therefore, any description of the spread of "Marian devotion", both in Europe and elsewhere, goes hand in hand with the history of the birth, growth and spread of Christianity itself. It could not be otherwise as the figure of the Madonna has always played a fundamental role. The role of the Madonna, however, is one of being "at the service" of the central and infinitely more important figure of the Son, Jesus Christ, or God made man. "Ad Jesum per Mariam", wrote St. Louis Grignion de Monfort (1673-1716, France), thus coining an apt and from then on well-known Latin expression that clearly shows how Mary is "simply" the "instrument", the "way" by which one reaches the destination, which is Jesus, God.
It must be made clear that an authentic and fitting configuring of Marian devotion does not parallel the evolution of the very first Christianity. Marian devotion arrives in the territories evangelized by the first Christians a little later. This is understandable if we consider that in the Gospels themselves the figure of Mary is not "quantitatively" treated in the way one would expect the figure of Mary to be considered looking at her today. We have a much greater awareness of her importance and her role in the Christian faith than that which the early Church had.
It is at the Council of Ephesus (431, in present-day Turkey) that the veneration of the people of God for Mary begins. A veneration and love that grows in prayer and imitation. At the Council, in fact, she was recognised as the "Mother of God", a title that we can rightly consider as the first and most important of those subsequently given to her (Holy Virgin, Immaculate, Assumed into Heaven, Mother of the Church ...). The title and role of Mary as “Mother” highlights her direct connection to the Son of God.
The Council of Ephesus saw the start of a rapid expansion of Marian Devotion influencing the life of Christians and influencing also the liturgy at every levels. This can be seen in the founding of the many Marian feasts. The practice of devotional hymns and prayers was also established. One of the first texts that invokes Mary as "Theotokos" (Mother of God), known also in the West in a similar form, the invocation "Sub tuum praesidium", quickly spread everywhere, including Europe, almost hand in hand with the evangelizing of the early Church:
"Under your protection we seek refuge, Holy Mother of God: do not despise the supplications of we who are put to the test, but deliver us from all danger, oh glorious and blessed Virgin".
We can therefore say that, after the early spread of Christianity, in the 1st and 2nd century in Palestine, to present day Turkey and Greece and some areas of North Africa, Marian Devotion begins to grow. From the 3rd and especially from the 4th century onwards, devotion to Mary begins not only to appear (especially as "Mother of God") but also to grow and spread in a wider area of the Middle East, in the current Balkans and Italy, France, Spain. From Charlemagne onwards, Marian Devotion begins to extend across most of Europe, current Russia included. In the fourth century, from the emperors Constantine and Theodosius onwards, Christianity found in Rome a driving force of exceptional growth. It is at this time, for example, that the date of Christmas is fixed on December 25th, substituting the more ancient pagan feast of the “Sol invictus” (330). This anniversary, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, undeniably had an important role in highlighting the role and importance of the blessed "woman" from whom the Son of God was born.
From the fifth and sixth centuries, as part of the devotional practice around the birth of Christ, there was a diffusion of the well-known hymns "Akathistos" ("Mother of God", note the maternal meaning of the title here too). These had a purely Byzantine imprint and sensitivity. At the same time, icons with Mary as their subject begin to increasingly appear. The icons are still of Orthodox origin. However, far from remaining only within the Orthodox context, the icons become widespread. In Rome, a first establishing in the Code of Canon Law of the memory of the "Mother of God" appears after the Birth of the Lord, that is on January 1, while in the East the memory of the Annunciation is spreading, linked to the date of March 25 (exactly 9 months before the birth on December 25).
In 553, the Council of Constantinople pronounced the second Marian title and dogma, that of the perpetual Virginity of Mary, by which it is stated that Mary remained a virgin "before", "during" and "after" the birth of Jesus. The iconography immediately assimilated this pronouncement and, in the images of Mary on the icons, two golden stars appear painted on the Madonna's robe (virginity "before" and "after" childbirth, while the third is not seen, a sign of the mystery that surrounds it, that is, that she remained a virgin even "during" the birth).
The other two Marian dogmas, that of the Immaculate Conception and that of the Assumption of Mary Most Holy, are much later (respectively from 1854 and 1950).
From the thirteenth century, however, the monks of the Cistercian order developed the well-known form of Marian prayer that takes the name of the Rosary, a term that derives from the medieval custom of placing a crown of roses on the statues of the Virgin. This practice spreads everywhere and, after a relative short period when it fell into disuse, was relaunched by Pope Sixtus IV in the 15th century. The Rosary was subsequently being explained in detail by St. Pius V, known as the "Pope of the Rosary", in 1569 with the Papal bull "Consueverunt Romani Pontifices"
Marian apparitions date back to the beginning of Christianity. The first apparition is to St. James, one of the 12 apostles. Marian apparitions spread throughout Europe. There are a great many apparitions and these often correspond to the raising of a sanctuary, a destination for pilgrimages.
Thus in Einsiedeln, in the heart of Switzerland, in the place that commemorates the violent death of a hermit in 861, a statue of the Virgin Mary arrived in 1466 which transformed the place into an important Marian shrine, In Mariazell, in Austria, a basilica was erected, the most important in the nation, which houses a wooden sculpture of the Madonna, an object of veneration since the 12th century.
In Altötting, Germany, in the Chapel of Grace there is the so-called "Black Madonna", a wooden statue sculpted around the year 1330. The chapel's origins date back to an earlier period (700-1000), but it is after first healing miracle of 1489 that the Marian pilgrimages to Altötting begin and the Chapel is embellished with a central nave and a walkway, later the larger Collegiate Church was also rebuilt and an additional Basilica erected to accommodate the growing number of arriving pilgrims.
In Loreto, in Italy, after the House of the Madonna was moved from Nazareth, a shrine was erected between 1400 and 1500, which encompasses it entirely, a destination for many faithful towards what is rightly considered the largest Italian Marian place of worship.
In the same period in Częstochowa, Poland, devotion to the ancient icon of the Black Madonna and Child (14th century) grew over the centuries culminating in the current imposing sanctuary. In Lourdes, France, after the Marian apparitions in 1858, the well-known sanctuary at the Grotte de Massabielle is erected. Finally, following the apparition of Mary to three children in Fatima in Santarem, Portugal in 1917, a basilica was built. The Sanctuary of Fatima is the latest great European Marian shrine consecrated within the Catholic Church.
The history of European Christianity has seen the birth of numerous and often ancient Marian brotherhoods, as well as religious orders and institutes of consecrated life which, male or female, cloistered or non-cloistered all inspired by Mary as a point of reference for their spiritual life. Today these institutions dedicated to Mary are particularly active not only in the context of consecrated life, but also in that of the faithful who organize themselves into prayer groups or associations dedicated to the Madonna. Many saints have leant strength to these groups giving vigour to Marian devotion throughout Europe. The saints include St. Augustine of Hippo to St. Maximus the Confessor, from St. Bernard of Clairvaux to St. Francis of Assisi, from St. Dominic of Guzmán to Santa Brigida of Sweden, from San Luigi Grignon de Montfort to Sant'Alfonso Maria de 'Liguori, from San Giovanni Bosco to San Massimiliano Kolbe, ending with San Pio da Pietrelcina and Santa Teresa di Calcutta, to name the best known .
At the theological level, there is a growing, real reflection on Marian devotion which constitutes the foundation and basis for the development of a true Marian theology supported by important centres of study throughout Europe.
DIEGO MECENERO | theologian, author and journalist | Italy