What can art tell us about the cult of the Virgin Mary in the early Roman Church?
: A re-evaluation of the evidence for Marian images in Late Antiquity

  • Geri Parlby

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The purpose of this thesis is to re-evaluate the evidence of Marian images in Rome in late antiquity. It argues that centuries of misreading the iconography of Paleo-Christian art has produced unreliable evidence of an early Marian cult in the Roman Church.

Surviving examples of images previously identified as Mary are compared with other forms of representation and personification alongside goddess images from around the Roman world. The conflicts present within the emergent Roman Church and the influence they may have had on the developing artistic traditions are re-considered, with particular emphasis on the iconography of the ‘Adoration of the Magi’.

Powerful female figures such as martyr saints and widows are presented as more popular models of early Christian womanhood. In particular virgin martyrs, the eroticisation of whose cult with its sado-masochistic tendencies, catered for a Roman society still deeply influenced by its appetite for violent games and sports.

The thesis also examines images identified as Mary, but much more probably originally intended as ecclesia and explores the role of Christ as the bridegroom to ecclesia, the martyrs and the consecrated virgins. It goes on to argue that the growing issue of anti-Judaism in the emergent Roman Church had a particular effect on how Mary was perceived by church leaders.
Date of Award2010
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Roehampton

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