Through multiple examples of medieval writing and art, Dr. Rita George-Tvrtković explained how the Virgin Mary’s portrayals and interpretations have “swung like a pendulum” between being a bridge or barrier between the Muslim and Christian religions.
A majority of Muslims view Mary as a righteous figure and believe in the virgin birth. Apart from differences, such as whether or not Joseph was the one to defend her purity and the divinity of Mary and Jesus, Mary is still seen as an irenic figure, especially among Muslim women.
In the medieval period, Christians generally did not try to understand the Islamic faith. They examined and reached their conclusions from afar and viewed Islam as Christian heresy. Christians had their own ‘Christian theology of Islam’ that was based on outside judgements alone.
George-Tvrtković showed a few medieval period exceptions. In contrast to the mainstream Christian beliefs and teachings, missionaries like William of Tripoli, who actually visited and encountered Muslim culture, praised Muslim practices. They reported Muslim prayer and humility to criticize the state of Christianity.
Over the centuries, different interpretations have sought to bring Christians and Muslims together through their shared praise of the Virgin Mary. Many poems from ‘Cantigas de Santa Maria’ portray Muslims and Christians hailing images of Mary. One of the poems involves a group of Moors who throw a statue of Mary into the sea. When they catch nothing in their next fishing excursion, they retrieve the statue and are rewarded with a bountiful catch. Other poems portray Mary as a powerful symbol of conversion to Christianity.
In contrast, many interpretations seek to use Mary as a symbol of power over the other. The Battle of Lepanto is often cited as a defeat of the Muslim enemies by Christian soldiers through the power of the ‘warrior’ Mary. Many Christians also argue that any denial of Mary as divine is unfit of recognition.
In contemporary times, Mary is increasingly a bridge between the religions. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council stated the church has a “high regard for Muslims…they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his Virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke.”
The Council went on to urge all to forget past disagreements and celebrate common ground in both religions. Mary continues to be an image of praise in Islam, and George-Tvrtković notes that, although the times may continue to change, there is a greater bridge being built between the two religions.
George-Tvrtković is a historical theologian specializing in the medieval period who earned her undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of Tulsa before going on to earn her PhD in theology from Notre Dame. She was excited to be back and see the anthropology department again and how it’s grown.