Virginity matters : power and ambiguity in the attraction of the Virgin Mary
This thesis seeks to account for virginity as the source of Mary's power to attract. The point of departure is the syncretistic culture of the classical world. Here, patristic use of Old Testament typology recognises the distinctive work of grace in Mary's virginity, thus allowing it to become the determining quality by which her experience is subsequently perceived and universalised. The thesis divides its exploration into the three categories by which Mary is portrayed in the gospels - woman, spouse, mother - concluding its investigation with the end of the nineteenth century and its new understanding of human identity in gender and sexuality. In each category the thesis attempts to identify ways in which the attraction of virginity has functioned through ambiguity (Mary as virgin and mother, mother and spouse of her son) as a positive quality of potency and freedom, rather than as a strictly biological human condition with negative association in contemporary culture. In order to assess the extent of Mary's attraction in periods that lacked the modern forms of articulating self-awareness, the thesis has considered the fabric of devotional practice in religious texts, art, drama and ritual, seeking to allow the perceptions of earlier periods of history (a medium in itself) to challenge our own. As expressions of attraction to Mary, these media have yielded an insight into the power of virginity as a statement of paradisal, heavenly life accessed by grace through male and female human experience. They have also shown virginity to be a source of power that can be exploited for political ends. Finally, the thesis suggests that the power of Mary's virginity has been subversive and liberating in Church and society, thus indicating its neglected significance as a statement about the ambiguity of our nature as human, gendered, and sexual beings.