Mary Worship: Images, Pilgrimages and Importance to Catholics and Muslims

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Dormition of the Virgin Mary
Although she is mentioned only a few times in the Bible Mary is regarded as the mother who gives life and the Pieta who revives the dead. Quotes like "Mary so lived the world...that she gave her only begotten son" appeared in prayers long after the Bible was written.

Maureen Orth wrote in National Geographic:“Mary is everywhere: Marigolds are named for her. Hail Mary passes save football games. The image in Mexico of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most reproduced female likenesses ever. Mary draws millions each year to shrines such as Fátima, in Portugal, and Knock, in Ireland, sustaining religious tourism estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year and providing thousands of jobs. She inspired the creation of many great works of art and architecture (Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” Notre Dame Cathedral), as well as poetry, liturgy, and music (Monteverdi’s Vespers for the Blessed Virgin). And she is the spiritual confidante of billions of people, no matter how isolated or forgotten. [Source: Maureen Orth, National Geographic, December 2015]

The first prayer devoted to her did not appear until the A.D. 3rd century, but since then the Mary movement has intensified. After asceticism became established as a virtue she was described as a virgin for eternity. In A.D. 431, at the Council of Ephesus, she was honored as the Theotokos (the Godbearer of Mother of God).

Websites and Resources: Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar ; Saints' Books Library ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America ; Lives of the Saints: ; Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians ; Elaine Pagels website ; Sacred Texts website ; Gnostic Society Library ; Guide to Early Church Documents; Early Christian Writing ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins ; BBC on Christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Classics Ethereal Library;

Many Forms and Worshipers of Mary

Mary has many forms. In Haiti she’s been merged with Ezili Dantò — the Black Madonna. A fierce mother figure as well as a voodoo goddess of love, a revered in Haiti since the Haitian 1791-1804. Ezili Dantò is said to have appeared on a palm tree at sacred Saut d’Eau falls in 1849.Father Johann Roten, a Marian scholar, told National Geographic thatMary’s presence in the Caribbean can be traced to the merging of two cultures — Spanish Catholics and pre-Christian Africans — that began in the early 1500s. Periodically dancers perform a midnight ceremony in Mary’s honor at the falls. . [Source: National Geographic, December 2015]

Kayla Harris wrote:It is quite common for Christians, and even people of other faiths, to ask Mary to intercede on their behalf during hardship. For the past two years, for example, many across the world have asked Mary to end the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, Pope Francis himself prayed before Salus Populi Romani, a famous Marian icon in Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major long associated with requests for healing. In 2020 the Italian Air Force, whose patron saint is Mary, Our Lady of Loreto, took a statue of her by plane across the country to protect citizens from the coronavirus. [Source: Kayla Harris, Librarian/Archivist at the Marian Library and Associate Professor, University of Dayton, The Conversation, March 9, 2022]

The mother of Jesus represents strength for many oppressed groups, from Mexican revolutionaries to Polish LGBTQ activists. In 2019, three Polish women were arrested for adding a rainbow to an icon of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, but later acquitted. And in recent years, as refugee crises mount around the world, many religious leaders have drawn parallels to the holy family’s flight to Egypt.

Mary and Catholics

The Virgin Mary, Jesus’s mother, is highly esteemed in the Catholic Church. She is regarded as and intermediary between Catholics and God as is often referred to as "Our Lady," "Blessed Mother," or even “Mother of God." Mariology (or "Marion devotion," Marianism has a negative connotation) has grown as a kind grass roots purist movement rather than a declaration by the Pope or the Vatican. One priest told the Washington Post, "We do view her as the first saint, the most important saint. Christ is more important. Christ is divine. Mary isn't. Mary is human."

The belief in the Immaculate Conception — that the Virgin Mary was freed of original sin by virtue of a special grace from God at the moment of conception — is a widely held belief among Catholics. In 1854, Pope Pius IX invoked the doctrine of papal infallibility to make the Immaculate Conception an infallible dogma even though it is not clear whether the conception refers to her conception or Jesus’s.

Mary is not buried anywhere because, according to the Catholic scripture but not the Bible, when she died she rose into the sky “assumed body and soul into Heavenly glory.” This was made official ideology of the church in 1950 by Pope Pius XII. The major pilgrimage sites of Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe were all places where Mary not Jesus was seen.

While reflecting on stained glass images of Mary in a Norfolk church, Sister Wendy Beckett told the BBC she thinks that Mary's popularity in the Middle Ages was due to her depiction as a caring mother. One of the roles that Mary fulfils is the mother that we see in early Christianity; she's the role model for mothers. She also plays an important role throughout Christian history in providing us with a female that's right at the heart of events. Christianity, after all, can be a fairly male-dominated affair. The Holy Trinity always sounds to contemporary feminists rather male dominated; there's a Father, a Son and there's a Holy Spirit, and the characters in the New Testament are all male. But here we actually have somebody who we can interact with as a female in Christian tradition. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC]

Mary in the Orthodox Church

Mary is also very important in the Orthodox Church.Kayla Harris wrote: According to Orthodox tradition, Mary miraculously appeared at a church in Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul, when the city was under attack in the early 10th century. As the story goes, Mary prayed at the church’s altar, then spread her veil over the congregation, and the invading armies withdrew. Around a century later, in 1037, Yaroslav the Wise, the Grand Prince of Kyiv, dedicated Ukraine to Mary. To this day Mary is known as “Queen of Ukraine,” among her many other titles, and October 14 is celebrated as the Pokrova, or Feast of the Protection. [Source: Kayla Harris, Librarian/Archivist at the Marian Library and Associate Professor, University of Dayton, The Conversation, March 9, 2022]

There are other icons of Mary that have special meaning to Ukrainian Christians. One of these is known as the “Oranta” or the Great Panagia. A mosaic of the Oranta is located in St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, built in the 11th century, which is one of the city’s most famous spiritual landmarks. With her arms extended upward, this icon of Mary is also known as the “Immovable Wall” or “Indestructible Wall.”

St. Sophia Cathedral has survived centuries of destruction from war and is now a museum. Many Ukrainians in Kyiv believe that as long as the icon stands, Kyiv and Ukraine will continue to stand as well. Icons created of Mary in recent years show the importance of freedom and independence. In one of the icons in the Marian Library, for example, by Slovenian artist Mikuláš Klimčák, Mary stands above the entire world while angels hold a banner reading “Freedom.” Devotion to Mary is one bridge between the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, as well as other faiths. As someone who has experienced human struggles of her own, and even lost her only son, Mary is a source of comfort for many.

Apparitions of Mary

Tia Ghose of Live Science wrote: “Our Lady of Guadalupe: In 1531 in the fields near Mexico City, a peasant named Juan Diego claimed to see an apparition of the Virgin Mary, who asked that a church be built in her honor. The Virgin also asked the man to gather flowers on a hillside, which he did and placed in his cloak. Afterwards, the cloak appeared to hold the imprint of the Virgin Mary. Though there have been a few scientific analyses of the so-called Our Lady of Guadalupe miracle over the years, no one has come to a definitive conclusion as to whether or how the image was painted, and if so, how it has been preserved so well. [Source: Tia Ghose, Live Science, July 9, 2013 /+/]

“Fatima: In 1917 in the fields near Fatima, Portugal, shepherd children said the Virgin Mary appeared to them in a vision, telling them a miracle would occur on Oct. 13 that year. Thousands came to witness the event. Around Noon on a rainy day, the sun appeared to turn into a spinning disk that spiraled toward the Earth. Newspaper reporters onsite also reported the event. The church added the miracle of the sun to its list of official miracles in 1930. Some skeptics, however, point out that the effect could have been a sundog, a patch of light that appears near the sun, or note that not everyone there that day saw the miracle. /+/

“In 1981 in the small town of Medjugorje in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, six children reported seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary. For years they claimed to receive daily messages and so far have allegedly received thousands of prophecies. "One is a prediction that there are 10 secrets that will reveal the end of the world," said Michael O'Neill, who runs the website Though the Vatican has never officially weighed in, the site has attracted millions of pilgrims over the years. In 2010, the Vatican agreed to investigate this event and should have its findings out in the next few months, O'Neill said. /+/

“In 1968, people in the Zeitoun district of Cairo, Egypt, reported seeing an apparition of an illuminated woman walking on the roof of a Coptic church. Many considered this to be an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The event was reportedly seen by many onlookers and even captured in photographs. So far, no one has found evidence that those photos were manipulated. The head of the Coptic Church in Alexandria declared this a legitimate miracle. /+/

“In 1973, a statue in a little church in Akita, Japan, allegedly began to bleed soon after Sister Agnes Sasagawa at the church had an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The statue continued to cry, sweat and bleed for several years and was even captured on national television. The Sister Agnes, who was deaf prior to the apparition, also regained her hearing about a decade later.” /+/

Images of Mary

“During the first millennium, as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and began spreading into Europe, Mary typically was portrayed as an imperial figure, the equal of emperors, dressed in royal purple and gold. In the second millennium, beginning in the 12th century, says medieval historian Miri Rubin of Queen Mary University of London, “she underwent a dramatic shift,” evolving into a more accessible, kinder, gentler maternal figure. She served as a substitute mother in monasteries and convents, which novices often entered at a tender age. “A mother’s love,” Rubin says, “came to express the core of the religious story.”

“Many art historians see this as a standard European depiction of Mary, typical of the 16th century. But within the past several decades some church scholars have begun to interpret the visual imagery to be a combination of Catholic and local “Because so little is known of Mary from Scripture, “you can project on her whatever cultural values you have,” says Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University. “A cultural confection,” according to Rubin. Levine adds, “She can be the grieving mother, the young virgin, the goddess figure. Just as Jesus is the ideal man, Mary is the ideal woman.”

One of the most famous images of Mary is the Black Madonna — a revered painting of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary and Child Jesus — in Poland, located in Częstochowa (80 kilometers northeast of Kraców), Often refered to as the Queen of Poland, it is Poland's most treasured icon. During the Swedish Wars, according to legend, the painting shed tears, inspiring the people of Poland to sweep the Scandinavian scourge out of their country. The icon is housed in the 14th century Pauline monastery of Jasna Góra, the most sacred place in Poland. August more than a million people come to Czestochowa, many of the them walking 200 kilometers from Warsaw, to pay their respects to the icon

The Black Madonna arrived in Poland in 1384 and is believed have originated in Jerusalem, where is it said to have been painted by St. Luke, the Gospel author. It is now is housed in sanctuary and concealed behind a silver curtain known as a "gown", and displayed only during religious services. Even then it is hard to get a good look at the sad virgin who according to another legend was slashed by a would-be thief, who after committing his terrible act, dropped dead. The saber marks on the Black Madonna’s chin, it is said, came from a Swedish soldier when Swedes attacked in 1519. Most Poles believe the wounds bled.

Stories About Mary

A popular medieval story recounts the purported experience of Theophilus of Cilicia, a 6th century ecclesiastic figure who made a pact with the devil to exchange his soul for a powerful and profitable position in the church. When the devil appeared and demanded payment the Virgin Mary intervened on Theophilus’s behalf and descended into hell and pulled him away from the devil and vouched before God that he had repented. The story helped elevate Mary’s status and was an inspiration for Marlow’s “Doctor Faustus” and Goethe’s “Faust” , whose witty, garrulous devil Mephistopheles also shaped our modern concept of Satan.

There are a number of mean stories about Mary. One says that her mother was married number of times. Then there is the one that she concocted her virgin birth to conceal the fact that she cheated on her husband, possibly with a Roman soldier named Panthera. One argument against the later is that as a resident of Nazareth Mary would have rarely (if ever!) come into contact with Roman soldiers. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 21, 2019]

There are stories about Mary setting people on fire. Candida Moss wrote in Daily Beast: I do not mean this metaphorically in the way that some Christians talk about being “on fire” with the Spirit. I mean this literally. One of the earliest apocryphal stories about Mary portrays her as a studious and pious Jewish girl who practically grew up in the temple, the way that ancient Vestal Virgins in Rome were devoted to the cult of Vesta (there’s no historical evidence for this). Some, however, dared to question her virginity.

Hymn to Virgin, c.1300

Christ and Mary in the Last Judgment by Michelangelo

Of on that is so fayr and bright
Velut maris stella,
Brighter than the day is light,
Parens et puella:
Ic crie to the, thou see to me, 5
Levedy, preye thi Sone for me,
Tam pia,
That ic mote come to thee
Maria. [Source: Anonymous, Bartleby]

Al this world was for-lore 10
Eva peccatrice,
Tyl our Lord was y-bore
De te genetrice.
With ave it went away
Thuster nyth and comz the day 15
The welle springeth ut of the,

Levedy, flour of alle thing,
Rose sine spina, 20
Thu bere Jhesu, hevene king,
Gratia divina:
Of alle thu ber'st the pris,
Levedy, quene of paradys
Electa: 25
Mayde milde, moder es

Mary Pilgrimage Site in England

Andrew Walker,“One of Britain's most popular religious shrines is the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, in a village near the east coast of England. Nearly one thousand years ago, the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to have appeared there and told a pious noblewoman called Richeldis to build a shrine — an exact replica of Mary's own house in Nazareth. [Source:Andrew Walker, Professor of Theology and Culture, King's College, London, August 3, 2011, BBC |::|]

“Walsingham still attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year from countries as far afield as Nigeria and Argentina, Ethiopia and the Philippines. What unites them is their unwavering devotion to Mary: "First and foremost I find it easier to communicate with her as a mother. And for a long time now I have just regarded her as my personal mother, because my own biological mother is gone, is dead." "The Blessed Mother will save the whole world. Mother Mary is Mother of all the people on the Earth." "I've devoted my life to mother Mary, to God and to mother Mary, for all the graces they have given me. From a child she has been with me, I've seen her when I was five years... Whenever I'm in trouble, mother Mary seems to appear to help me out." |::|

“Many of the women who come to Walsingham don't see Mary as a docile young virgin, but a powerful mother figure. "As a woman I see the blessed Mary as leader, because she was a strong woman, she was a faithful believer, and she risked everything, she lost her own son, and for me she was a model of a very strong person, and I admire this, because we have to be strong." "I am a woman and I am a mother. Therefore I can identify with her. For me Mary is the feeling, compassionate Mother, the all-embracing Mother. I say that because being a mother I have experience of having children; in that way I connect with Mary." |::|

“To many lay Catholics Mary is the female gateway through whom they experience the divine. After the pilgrims arrive at Walsingham village, many of them remove their shoes to walk the "holy mile" to the shrine as they pray the rosary and sing to Mary. At the head of the procession, four men carry a beautiful image of Mary in colourful robes, seated on a golden throne, with the baby Jesus in her arms. In the first of many services at the shrine, the image of the Virgin is crowned with flowers, and the pilgrims implore her to return to England. |::|

Mary: An Important Figure in Islam

Annunciation in Islam

Candida Moss wrote in Daily Beast: Mary is the most important woman in Christianity, but in truth there are more references to Mary in the Quran than there are in the Bible. In fact, Mary — or Maryam — is the only woman to be referred to by name in the Quran (the names of other women are inferred from tradition). A hadith (traditional saying) adds that “the Prophet names Mary as one of the four spiritually perfected women of the world,” (763) who will “lead the soul of blessed women to Paradise” (143). [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 21, 2019]

Maureen Orth wrote in National Geographic: ““Muslims as well as Christians consider her to be holy above all women, and her name “Maryam” appears more often in the Koran than “Mary” does in the Bible. In the New Testament Mary speaks only four times. As the only woman to have her own sura, or chapter, in the Koran, Mary was chosen by God “above all other women of the world,” for her chastity and obedience. As in the Bible, an angel announces her pregnancy to her in the Muslim holy book. But unlike in the Bible, Mary — Maryam — gives birth alone. There’s no Joseph. “Mary is the purest and most virtuous of all women in the universe,” says Bakr Zaki Awad, dean of the theology faculty at Al Azhar University, Cairo’s leading theological university. [Source: Maureen Orth, National Geographic, December 2015]

Moss wrote: The Quran supports the idea of a Virgin birth. In the Quran God declares, “[Mary is the one who] preserved her chastity. We breathed Our Spirit into her and made her, and her son, signs to the worlds” (Q 21.91) The description of the birth of Jesus sounds a great deal like the birth of Adam: God breathes life into something. Some people have seen this as anti-Christian polemic, but Gabriel Reynolds, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, notes in his book The Qur’an and Its Biblical Subtext that “when the Qur’an compares the birth of Christ with that of Adam… it is indeed making a polemical point, only not against Christians. On the contrary, it is arguing against the Jews who deny the Virgin Birth and Christ himself.”

Interestingly, the Quran is completely silent about the role of Joseph. In this version of the Virgin Birth, an angel announces that Mary will give birth, Mary consents (as she does in the Gospel of Luke) but, later, feels forgotten and abandoned. As she is overcome by the burden of pregnancy, she cries out “Would that I had died before this and was a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!” (19:23). The angel shows her running water and a date tree to ease her suffering. The reference to eating dates is especially noteworthy as, even today, dates are thought to induce labor. After giving birth, Mary returns with her child to the Temple. There, Jesus miraculous speaks (as an infant) and proclaims his identity as a prophet. To this day March 25, the Day of the Annunciation, is a public holiday in Lebanon.

On the Annunciation, Qur'an 19:19 says: “(The angel) said: "I am only a Messenger from your Lord, (to announce) to you the gift of a righteous son."

How Muslims Honor Mary

Andrew Walker wrote for the BBC: “Mary is an important figure in Islam, where she's honoured as the mother of the Prophet Jesus. But anything like the veneration of Mary at” some some Christian shrines “would be quite unthinkable for Muslims - so where do they look for the feminine aspect of the divine, and where do they find it? When you look at the Qur'an it has one description of the essence of the divine. And language fails to describe the essence of that entity, which is indescribable and cannot be defined. But there is a description in the Qur'an, and the description is androgynous. Androgynous, gender-less, or even better, beyond gender. [Source: Andrew Walker, Professor of Theology and Culture, King's College, London, August 3, 2011, BBC |::|]

Fadia Faqir, Jordanian-British writer and feminist, told the BBC: “My conclusion is that the divine as defined in the Qur'an is gender-less or even beyond gender. However, if the Qur'an is divinely inspired, when it was recorded it was recorded by a patriarchal culture. And the divine was turned into a He. So when you read the Qur'an you will find that "God said", "Allah said", and then "He said". And yet, if the Qur'an is divinely inspired, as Muslims believe, does this text inspired by God reveal a feminine side of God? There are attributes like compassion, kindness, and forgiveness, says Fadia - but to call them feminine may not be useful: “If God is an essence, you can't apply gender norms to an essence. So I wouldn't go there myself. The feminists in the West, they have turned God into feminine; they say she rather than he. And I don't know if it's going to be useful for us to turn God into a she. We cannot define God. So to apply gender is a bit hasty.”

Maureen Orth wrote in National Geographic: ““In Egypt I talked with devout Muslims who, because of their reverence for the Virgin Mary, had no qualms about visiting Christian churches and praying to her in church as well as mosque. One day in Cairo I encountered two young Muslim women in head scarves standing in front of the old Coptic Abu Serga church, built over a cave that is said to have been used by the Holy Family. It was the eve of Coptic Easter, and inside, the congregants chanted and prayed for hours. Outside, the women said they loved Mary from studying her in the Koran. “Her story tells us a lot of things,” Youra, 21, said. “She is able to face lots of hardships in her life because of her faith, her belief in God.” Youra’s friend, Aya, added, “There’s a sura in her name in the Koran, so we were curious what was going on inside the church.” [Source: Maureen Orth, National Geographic, December 2015]

“I met Nabila Badr, 53, at a Coptic church along the Nile in a part of Cairo called Al Adaweya — one of the many places in Egypt where the Holy Family is said to have stopped. Badr is a married mother of three and an events organizer for the governor of a state near Cairo. Along with her Koran, she carries Christian medals of the Virgin Mary in her purse. In a small room in the back of the church Badr mingled with Coptic Christians praying there, lit candle after candle, bo and prayed to an icon of Mary on the wall that was claimed to have once wept tears of oil. Badr said she talks to Mary about her life and that Mary has answered her several times by showing her visions in dreams that later came true.

“Like many Egyptians, Badr also believes in jinn, or spirits, who influence life for good or bad, although she claims only to have her own angel. “He too believes in the Virgin Mary,” she said. Badr often asks Mary to intercede for her, and she composed a poem to Mary. “When I feel down,” Badr said, “I pray to God very much, but I also consult Mary, and after a while things calm down”...Yohanna Yassa, a Coptic priest who has ministered at St. Mary’s since 1964, told me that often Muslim women who want to get pregnant come to his church to pray. “Today we had a lady who came for a blessing,” he said. “Mary is calling us spiritually, and because of that, both Muslims and Christians love her and respect her.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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