Contrary Mary: Four Medieval Manuscripts that Reveal the Complexities of the Virgin Mary


The Virgin Mary was a vital figure in late medieval society. Hope Doherty, whose PhD research focuses on depictions of Mary in late medieval English literature, has been finding visual evidence of how she was understood and represented. Here are four of her favourite images that offer an insight into the world of medieval theology.

I’m especially interested in those moments where Mary is portrayed either possessing equal powers to Christ her son, experiencing theologically problematic emotions such as anger, or administering spiritual and physical medicine (which were often, in the Middle Ages, one and the same). These four images, in different ways, reflect these complexities.

Master of the Straus Madonna, Virgin and Child with Angels and Saints, c.1390-1395

A painting of the Virgin Mary holding Christ, with Eve lying at her feet
Virgin and Child with Angels and Saints
Master of the Straus Madonna
Tameside Museums and Galleries Service: The Astley Cheetham Art Collection. Reproduced under CC BY-NC licence.

This image shows Mary holding Christ, surrounded by angels and saints, but with Eve lying beneath her feet in a shroud, holding a branch from the Tree of Knowledge. She wears the shroud because it was Eve’s decision to eat the apple that brought death into the world: before the Fall, man was created by God to be immortal.

Mary, as Christ’s mother, was understood to reverse Eve’s curse, hence the two figures are placed together.

Medieval theologians often debated what the conditions of immortality before the Fall were, and how different the human body would have been: they questioned whether Adam and Eve defecated, whether Eve menstruated, or whether they had sexual intercourse free from the sin of lust.

Similar debates surrounded Mary in the post-Lapsarian world, too. Mary’s body was purified, to make it a fitting vessel for Christ’s gestation in the womb, but was Mary purified at birth, in her own mother’s womb, or at the moment of the Annunciation, when she agreed to carry Christ in her body and be his mother?

The affinity between Eve and Mary consists of their opposition, but they are also close in conceptual difficulty and theological significance.

Adam beneath Christ at the Crucifixion, Holkham Bible

An illustrated manuscript image of Christ on the cross being speared
Adam beneath Christ at the Crucifixion, Holkham Bible. British Library MS Add. 47682, f.32v, c.1327-1335. Reproduced under CC0 Public Domain licence.

This image parallels the first image’s arrangement of Eve beneath Mary in her burial shroud: here, Christ is being crucified while Adam is shown in the earth beneath him. Adam is visible directly underneath the Cross amongst the bones and skulls, holding up a chalice, collecting Christ’s blood to make the first Eucharist.

A close-up of an illuminated manuscript image of Adam holding the Holy GrailIt was believed in the Middle Ages that the wood of the Cross was made out of a tree grown from the seeds of the Tree of Knowledge, and that Adam’s bones were buried exactly where Christ was crucified; these overlapping circumstances allow Adam’s bones to be baptised in Christ’s blood, and show Christ’s reversal of the Fall in Eden.

The theology is not so concretely outlined between Mary and Eve: instead of a baptismal situation, their connection seems to rely on a less obvious affinity. While Mary as pure was understood to conceptually replace Eve as fallen, we don’t tend to see the two interact as Christ does in this image with Adam’s bones. This made a space for new interpretations and stories between the two in the Middle Ages. In the first image, Eve has clearly been placed beneath Mary as an analogue to this well-known representation of the Crucifixion, showing that their connection was elevated to a theological level parallel to that of Adam and Christ.

The Harrowing of Hell, Holkham Bible

An illustrated manuscript depicting various people in heaven and hell, represented by towers
The Harrowing of Hell, Holkham Bible, British Library MS Add. 47682, f.34r, c.1327-1335. Reproduced under CC0 1.0 Public Domain licence.

The Harrowing of Hell was a story which flourished in the Middle Ages, originally taken from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. Christ’s soul descends into Hell after his death on the Cross, and he reclaims all of the souls in Hell who died after the Fall. It was believed that Satan was given the rights over humankind as a whole when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and as such, Christ as a human was automatically claimed as a new inhabitant of Hell. But the condition of Satan’s ownership was that he must never take an innocent human into Hell; as all humans were believed to be marked with Original Sin, this was supposedly impossible— except Christ was pure. Therefore, Satan was forced to give up all rights to humankind, and the souls are shown here, being helped out of Hell by Christ. From this point onwards it was believed that human beings would at death go through Purgatory, where they may undergo hellish torments, but only temporarily, until their souls were purified enough for Heaven. Traditionally, as Adam and Eve were the first who entered Hell, they are the first ones out, as is clear in this representation where they appear on Christ’s left.

In Marian devotional poetry, Mary is often shown to participate in the Harrowing of Hell, but more significantly, medieval theology constructed a role for her as the supreme intercessor: penitents could pray to her, and she would beg for forgiveness on their behalf to Christ.

Judgement Day, Queen Mary Psalter

An illustrated manuscript image of the Virgin Mary baring her breasts to Christ
Judgement Day, Queen Mary Psalter, British Library Royal 2 B VII, f. 302v., c.1310-1320. Reproduced under CC0 1.0 Public Domain licence.

In this image, Mary bares her breasts to Christ to remind him that he was once human and vulnerable, depending on her for nourishment, as are the penitents who now pray to Mary, depending on her spiritual nourishment of grace and forgiveness.

Although this image is at Judgement Day, the end of the world where all souls would be judged directly by Christ, Mary was understood to act in a similar manner for souls undergoing torments in Purgatory, and those who were still alive who wished to be forgiven for their sins. It was believed that Purgatorial souls would have to endure more torments if they had not prayed for forgiveness shortly before their death, and prayer by the living was thought to accelerate a soul’s path through Purgatory and towards Heaven.

This belief provided a huge incentive for people to pray for their dead, and churches were often offered money by the wealthy to incorporate prayers for Purgatorial souls in their regular services. As people suffering from physical disease or disability were believed to have undergone some of their allotted Purgatorial suffering while alive on earth, they were thought to go to Heaven very rapidly after death. Mary was also understood to protect these people: she was thus associated with both spiritual and physical sicknesses, and their cures.

Praying to Mary was thought to be the most effective way to secure an intercessory action on behalf of a Purgatorial soul, which would temporally limit their suffering. As Purgatory became official church doctrine in 1215, decreed by the Fourth Lateran Council, the flourishing of the cult of Mary in the late Middle Ages may be partly due to the introduction of this temporary world of suffering, and her agency within it.

If you enjoyed this post, follow Hope on Twitter (@EHopeDoherty) where she regularly posts images from medieval manuscripts like these – as well as bizarre medieval medical remedies and general #phdchat

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