Friday, May 11, 2012

Marian devotion and the Early Irish Church

Mary holding Jesus in the Book of Kells, c. 800
Someone asked me recently if the early Irish church held views on Mary similar to what the Roman Catholic Church teaches today. It's a great question, and I cannot offer anything in the way of a definitive answer, but for what it's worth here are some thoughts on the question.

Before we look at Ireland a quick perusal of the wider continental church may be helpful.

It may be surprising to note but the Apostolic Fathers have very little to say concerning Mary. When writers like Ignatius do mention her their reasons are always Christological, i.e. defending the virgin birth etc. According to Shoemaker, Marian piety and veneration developed relatively late in Christianity. Writers like Tertullian in the second century affirmed the virgin birth of Christ but denied that Mary remained ever-virgin or sinless. The issue of Mary remaining sinless was open for discussion among the early church fathers and several fathers such as Origen, Basil, Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius and John Chrysostom openly write of Mary’s personal sins of doubt and ambition. Yet, it must be said, they had no issue in praying to her. By the fourth century prayer and invocation of the saints and Mary was accepted practice. Jerome and Augustine wrote that Mary indeed lived a sinless life (though she still had original sin). These two writers were hugely influential in early Ireland. The council of Trent dogmatically declared that Mary was free from actual sin. The later dogmatic declaration in 1854 by Pope Pius IX declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, i.e. that Mary had no original sin. This is something that Augustine did not teach and it is not found in Latin writings until the twelfth century and even then it was opposed by Bernard of Clairvaux and others.

Concerning the perpetual virginity of Mary, Tertullian as we have seen regarded the brothers of Jesus in Matthew 13.55 as children Mary had with Joseph. However, by the second century the basis for Mary’s perpetual virginity was already coming into discussion. The Decretum Gelasianum condemned the earliest texts that refer to her perpetual virginity such as the pseudepigraphical Protoevangelium of James. Writers like Jerome stressed heavily her perpetual virginity, because for Jerome asceticism and celibacy were fundamental to spirituality and he held up Mary as the example par excellence for young Christian women. For Jerome the brothers of Jesus were actually his cousins. In the east Basil also taught that Mary was ever-virgin but accepted that others did not hold this view, he accepted this as within the borders of orthodoxy. The RC Church today regards Mary’s perpetual virginity as a dogma.

The bodily assumption of Mary had few advocates in the early church and the earliest sources that mentioned Mary’s bodily ascension were declared heretical by Pope Gelasius. His dectretal in the fifth century declared these works as the works of heretics and schismatics and condemned them forever under anathema. However, this teaching gained currency over time and in 1950 Pope Pius XII had declared Mary’s bodily assumption an infallible dogma.

Detail from Book of Kells
Looking at the early Irish Church we find that the earliest theologians that we have genuine written sources from have practically nothing to say about Mary. St. Patrick’s writings are the earliest Christian documents to have been written in Ireland, but they are not an attempt by Patrick to develop a detailed theology, and tell us practically nothing concerning his views on Mary. However, he does mention new female converts as becoming Virgins of Christ, showing us that for Patrick celibacy was encouraged but not demanded (his own grandfather was a married Priest). The earliest extensive theological writings from an Irish Christian are found in the sixth century in the writings of Columbanus. A collection of his theological writings has survived and is invaluable for listening to an early Irish Christian describe his own faith. Columbanus never mentions Mary in either his epistles or sermons; he does however mention his belief in the intercession of the saints. In the later part of seventh century Adomnán of Iona describes Mary as ‘ever-virgin’, but implicitly denies any ideas of a bodily assumption of Mary. In his popular work De Locis Sanctis he mentions Mary's grave in Jerusalem and that the tomb was empty because her body had been later removed from it. According to Adomnán her body awaits the resurrection, in quo loco resurrectionem exspectat. Another Irish writer Augustinus Hibernicus mentions Mary’s perpetual virginity, though he does not teach that Mary was free from original sin.

The most significant Irish expressions of devotion to Mary come in the eighth century and following. In the eighth century we have Cú Chuimne’s hymn to Mary and in the ninth century Blathmac’s poetry praising Mary. Both of these Irish writers were connected with Iona. This growing Marian devotion can be seen in the Book of Kells, which presents the earliest Madonna and Child image in any western manuscript. Concerning the bodily assumption of Mary there is by the tenth century accounts of her bodily assumption after she dies. Irish accounts of the assumption (see Herbert & McNamara, No. 24) while presenting Mary as the summit of holiness and an intercessor for the faithful also present Mary as doubting Jesus. This is similar to what we saw earlier in writers like John Chrysostom. Invocation of Mary and the saints is evident in the liturgy of the Irish church in the eighth century as the Stowe Missal testifies. A twelfth century litany in Irish is devoted entirely to Mary and invokes her as ‘Queen of the world’.

In conclusion we can see how the various Marian dogmas evolved over time within the western and eastern churches, the Irish church was no exception. While the earliest Irish sources seldom mention Mary there is certainly good evidence for Marian devotion in Ireland by the eighth century and following. So did the Early Irish Church hold to the modern Roman Catholic Church’s Marian dogmas? In all particulars no, but they were certainly in agreement with the wider church of her day concerning these teachings. 


  1. Now that is an answer! Thanks very much for this Anglandicus.

  2. Your welcome! :-)

    I think the early Irish Church's view on Mary would be very similar to Augustine's famous quote,

    "The Virgin Mary is both holy and blessed, and yet the Church is greater than she. Mary is a part of the Church, a member of the Church, a holy, an eminent – the most eminent – member, but still only a member of the entire body. The body undoubtedly is greater than she, one of its members. This body has the Lord for its head, and head and body together make up the whole Christ. In other words, our head is divine – our head is God." Augustine, St. Augustine, Sermo 25, 7-8: PL 46, 937-938.

  3. As a Lutheran I believe in the "Means of Grace" which Jesus has given to his body the Church for the forgiveness of sin. The Means of Grace are Word and Sacrament. Holy Absolution may not quite meet the definition of Sacrament, but it certainly meets the definition of Word as an effective Means of Grace. Was Mary sinless from the moment of her conception? I would say no. She was one of us. BUT was Mary absolved from the moment of her conception? I would say yes, God did that for her because she was so special in His plan. And the angel's greeting at the annunciation bore witness to what God had done for Mary.

  4. Dear friend in Christ,
    Above you stated "The bodily assumption of Mary had few advocates in the early church and the earliest sources that mentioned Mary’s bodily ascension were declared heretical by Pope Gelasius. His dectretal in the fifth century declared these works as the works of heretics and schismatics and condemned them forever under anathema."
    I'm afraid this is completely false. Nothing more than anti catholic rumor that has been repeated to no end by those who haven't looked into the actual circumstance. The truth is, Pope Gelasius declared this work titled 'The Assumption of Mary' as apocryphal along with a whole pile of other writings such as The Acts of Peter, The infancy of Christ, etc... His point being that they were not to be included in scripture.
    Just because one of those books had the title "The Assumption of Mary" doesn't mean the pope denounced that doctrine, but rather that writing in it's entirety as apocryphal. As stated, one of the other books was titled 'The Infancy of Christ', yet we would not say that the Pope denounced the fact that Christ was an infant at one point, would we ?

    1. Keith,

      You probably know more than I do on this issue. What I have offered here are some scattered thoughts on the issue.

      The Decretum Gelasianum declared works like the 'Assumption of Mary' to be the works of heretics and were to be "to be not merely rejected but eliminated from the whole Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church and with their authors and the followers of its authors to be damned in the inextricable shackles of anathema forever." [non solum repudiata verum ab omni Romana catholica et apostolica ecclesia eliminata atque cum suis auctoribus sequacibus sub anathematis insolubili vinculo in aeternum confitemur esse damnata.] The issue was not simply which books were canonical but that certain works, including 'The Assumption of Mary' were the works of heretics and under eternal anathema. The Infancy Gospels were likewise rejected because of gnostic and heretical content, no-one denied that Christ was an infant, but the idea that he inflicted blindness on his neighbors or killed another child out of anger for bumping into him, were rejected as heretical.

    2. I agree with that. But to say that the Pope rejected the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary based on the fact that he condemned a book with such a title is taking a rather large leap.
      As you know there are many books out there with titles that are very christian...until you begin to read them.
      Granted, I have never read the work in question but I assume it contains heretical beliefs, outside of simply the Assumption of Mary. ( I should read this work, otherwise I take a bit of a leap myself here. ).