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The Mother of God, a Mirror of Women in Late Antiquity

Ivan Foletti

Masarykovy university

The goal of the paper is to examine different ways in which, through visual representations and patristic rhetoric, the Mother of God came to be a mirror of women within Late Antique Christianity. The images of Mary from the fourth and fifth centuries indeed display a certain disparity: the Mother of God can be represented as robed in a rich patristic gown, elsewhere as a widow with a heavy maphorion, or as a simple young woman.

My starting hypothesis is that the image – together with the reception of the figure of the Mother of God – are changing in parallel with the establishing of more and more rigid rules defining the place of women within the early Christian church. Therefore, in images as well as in rhetoric, Mary progressively became the model of consecrated virgins. The more the role of women in church was being defined by the “machist elites,” the humbler would the visual characteristics of Mary become. It is most probably for this reason that after the sixth century, the prevalent type of an image of the Virgin becomes the one presenting her in the simplest and most modest role: that of a widow.

In particular, this paper will focus on the monuments connected with the question of the role of female figures in services of the Church and to the monuments linked with the council of Ephesus (431), for example, the arch of the Roman basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Therefore, I will try to focus to the moment around the year 400 when – following the considerations of Peter Brown – the place of women in the Christian institutions and religious experience reached its apex.

Session/Panel Title

Goddess Worship...and the Female Gender

Session/Paper Number


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