Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
A stained-glass window at Juan Diego High School the Virgin Mary, a key figure to medieval Christians.

On this, the day after Christmas, the Virgin Mary hovers protectively in countless creches on church lawns and beneath living room evergreens.

But watch out!

The Virgin Mary, according to believers of the Gothic era between about 1200 and 1300, sometimes displayed another side — a vindictive streak.

The sometimes violent actions of her images amounted to "Virgins Behaving Badly," as Utah State University's Alexa Sand titled her paper. The paper was presented earlier this year at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, held in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Sand, an assistant professor of art history at the Logan university, specializes in medieval art. In a research project, she examined the attitudes that writers of the 13th century had about religious images. These representations were not just decorative, she noted.

"They used them in their devotions," she said. People believed representations like statutes and paintings actually "functioned in a religious way."

During the Gothic period, Europeans "made an exceptionally large number of images of the Virgin Mary, and they were very, very devoted to her. They felt almost as if she was their own mother."

She appeared in poetry, and numerous churches were named after her. Mary was known as the Queen of Mercy, an intercessor for humans.

Interested in stories about the images themselves, she and an assistant, undergraduate student Courtney Hill, found and translated writings that helped understand the attitudes of the time. Hill was especially helpful with medieval Spanish documents, she said.

There aren't very many writings about the statues and paintings. Mostly, the Virgin Mary images are sympathetic, even to sinners. "In most of the stories about the images, they weep because somebody's committed a sin or they intervene on somebody's behalf," she said.

In the legend that later became the famous story of Dr. Faustus, a priest named Theophilus sells his soul to the devil in order to become a bishop. But he repents and seeks help before a statue of the Virgin.

"She basically comes alive and wrestles with the devil and gets the contract back," the document that Theophilus signed to sell his soul. She destroys the contract and "saves his soul."

Call that the Good Mary. Now for the other side of Mary.

Sand discovered there were stories in which the images "sort of act on their own behalf. . . . and the images act out sometimes in pretty shocking, violent ways against people who injure them."

Some examples from "Virgins Behaving Badly."

  • In the chapel of the fort of Veldenz, an ancient image of Mary holding her Son attracted the notice of a matron of the castle. She looked at it with scorn because of the way it was carved and asked, "Why does this old rubbish stand here?"
  • Mary was then reported to have spoken to another person, saying that because of the remark, the matron "will be an unhappy woman all her life."

    The writer, Caesarius of Heisterbach, continues that a few days later the matron's own son took all her property and lands, "and even to this day she begs her bread miserably, paying the penalty for her folly."

  • A gambler, part of a rabble that has invaded the monastery of Chateauroux, berates an old woman who is kneeling and praying before a beautifully carved statue of the Virgin and Child. He tells her that is idolatrous and throws a stone at the statute. The stone breaks off the arm of the Christ child.
  • The statue comes alive. The Virgin catches the arm before it falls; blood spurts from the wound. The Virgin's eyes narrow so fiercely that all become frightened.

    A crowd of demons attacks the gambler and kills him. Two other gamblers, possessed by demons, had gone there to carry off their dead comrade. But in their madness, they instead gnaw his flesh in great rage.

  • A nun who was seduced agrees to meet the clerk involved after she has closed up the church's sanctuary. But when she tries to leave, a vision of the crucified Christ confronts her on every door.
  • She throws herself trembling before an image of Mary and seeks pardon for her sin. But the image turns its face away. When she approaches the image, it punches the nun on the jaw, knocking her to the ground. She lies there till morning in a deep swoon.

    The stories show that to medieval believers, the carvings and paintings were not just pretty, decorative objects, Sand said.

    To them, "they actually come to life, and they have this element that were able to . . . channel the energy of the Virgin or the presence of the Virgin."

    If the believer prayed to Mary's statute or painting, the image could help contact her, they thought. It functioned like "a technological device helping you to communicate with her."

    In the thinking of people of that period, Sand said, "you have to be very careful with the images, you can't just treat them as if they were mere statutes."

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