The multiple natures of Mary within Western monastic tradition

There is one other aspect of Carthusian life, the monks agree, that cannot be passed without mention. Every monk nourishes a deep practical devotion to the Virgin Mary. Carthusians have clung to the tradition of reciting the “Little Office” of the Virgin before the regular canonical hours. They also feel that Mary guides them through their solitary lives each day. “When I think of what I’d do without the Blessed Mother,” one monk says, and his voice trails off. The three monks sit in silence for a moment, shaking their heads, as if an absurdity has been introduced into the conversation. A Carthusian life unaided by Mary is unthinkable. “

Mary in the Life of the Carthusian Monk

Extracted and translated from: “La Figure de Marie en Chartreuse suivi de Une dormition de la Vierge, manuscrit inédit de la Grande Chartreuse (The figure of Mary in the Charterhouse: A dormition of the Virgin: unpublished manuscript of La Grande Chartreuse” — Nathalie Nabert, Marie-Geneviève Grossel (Eds.) Beauchesne Éditeur, 1 January 2009.

The Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist, St Bruno and Carthusian monks (1515 Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer)

In the Coutumes de Chartreuse, compiled by Guigo I between 1121 and 1128, one reads, in the chapter of the profession of the novice, an oath which mentions the construction of hermitages in honour of “God, the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, and Saint John the Baptist.” These two references are explicit on the double protective invocation by the Carthusians to the Mother of God and to the Precursor John the Baptist. Early in the history of the order, Mary is therefore presented as the exemplar of the contemplative life to which all solitaries must adhere to. From this comes the 12th century custom of giving the name of Mary to the foundations and of doubling the canonical office of that of the virgin, the office of the Beata, which is recited in the cell.

In the 16th century, it was Jean-Juste Lansperge’s turn to mark the Carthusian architecture with the seal of Mary by naming the first room in a hermits cell as ‘Ave Maria’ because of the custom of reciting the Hail Mary prayer before entering the cubiculum. Consequently, Mary, through the many aspects that the history of the Church affects her, within the Charterhouse she becomes the paragon of ardent reflection and devotion, heir, of course, to a tradition born through the preaching of Saint Bernard, but constantly reread and renewed by the Carthusian writings and their custom of prayer and liturgy.

The Virgin of the Carthusians has a monastic mature. Its possible to glimpse it from time to time within the Carthusian visions. The Carthusian tradition draws upon the monastic tradition, in particular the Cistercian one, to portray the Marian face. [1] The Virgin of the Carthusians, like the Virgin of the Cistercian monks, therefore has three main characteristics: she is the model of monastic life, she is the mother of the monks, she is also the bride of the order. Three models that define the three aspects of this presentation. [2]


The Virgin, rule of the monks

Abbot Autpert Ambrose OSB

The monastic tradition has been committed, starting from the end of the eighth century, to defining the Virgin Mary as the norm of monks. The Sermo in laudibus Beatae Mariae by the first Mariologist of the West Abbot Autpert Ambrose OSB († 784) was the first to give the Virgin the title of “monks’ rule”  — regula monachorum. [3] The sermons of the late Middle Ages convey this title which is found in various lectures of the monastic office of the late eleventh century. [4] In the first quarter of the thirteenth century, Cistercian spirituality gave this title a true narrative dimension by exploiting it in the repertoire of uplifting literature. Here is Mary transformed into the normative repertoire of the exemplary monk. The Cistercian exempla thus repeat over and over again how the Virgin transforms novices into accomplished monks, for example by correcting the behaviour of novices or calling them to absolute respect for the monastic rule. [5] It is in epiphanic form that the Virgin intervenes most often, as shown, for example, by the collection of exempla by Caesar of Heisterbach [6] composed between 1219 and 1223, the Dialogus miraculorum. His visions and apparitions of him dictate monastic normality, here scolding a monk who has taken off his tunic, there making a sign of the cross on the forehead of a novice [7]. A flawless exemplar of the Cistercian order is thus projected into this middle way between the earth and the sky which constitutes precisely the visionary world.

Caesarius of Heisterbach

Even Cistercian thought has given a definitive impulse to this journey of holiness by invoking the imitation of the Virgin Mary already outlined in the patristic era in the De Virginitate of Saint Ambrose († 397) or in some sermons of Saint Augustine († 430) [8]. Several homilies of Saint Bernard († 1153) or of Aelred of Rievaulx († 1167) in fact call the monks to live a semblance of “Mariform” life, a life in the form of the Blessed Virgin Mary, by which I mean, a life that resembles her holiness [9]. They therefore, help to proffer the Virgin as a model of the spiritual life of the monks, not only as a rule or example of the monks, but also as the mother of all monks and nuns. To resemble the Virgin means, for example, to ensure a similarity of habit with her, to give birth to the Child Jesus within one’s soul. To achieve this similarity, the Cistercian monk goes through a preliminary stage which consists of becoming a spiritual son of the Virgin Mary.

The Virgin, mother of all monks

The development of the doctrine on the spiritual motherhood of the Mother of God confers on her the specific role of becoming the spiritual mother of the monks. The definition of the spiritual motherhood of the Mother of God finds a first resonance in the homilies of the monks of the Cistercian Order of the twelfth century. The Order therefore sees in the Virgin not only the “rule of the monks” but the “Mother of all monks”. “Isn’t she our Mother? Thanks to her we were born, we are nourished by her, through her we grow by virtue of her” writes,  Aelred of Rievaulx († 1167) in his Discourse on the Nativity of Mary. This new homiletical declaration marks the starting point for the elaboration of the spiritual genealogy of religious orders, starting with the Cistercian order where in the 12th century the Virgin is shown as the Mother Foundress. In this context, Saint Bernard is compared by his hagiographers to a suckling child; Cistercian sermons liken monks to Christ’s milk brothers who are fed to heavenly breasts by the Blessed Virgin Mary. [10] The Mariform life, thus begun by the spiritual infancy of the monks who became children of the Virgin Mary, also nourishes its own specific narrative theme of the monastic tradition.

The Virgin, bride of the monks

Another face of the monastic tradition, the Virgin betrothed to the monks. The Virgin is compared with the bride of the Song of Songs, as part of the first Marian re-readings of the biblical book that are performed during the twelfth century. Following the example of the Virgin compared to the betrothed in the biblical book who strives to reach her beloved, the soul takes the path that leads her step by step to reach her beloved and join him — a path so well described that Saint Bernard in his sermon on the Song of Songs [11]. The Song of Songs therefore establishes the mystical model of monastic life.

Dialogus miraculorum

“Exemplary” literature appropriates the theme of the soul’s engagement with God and declines it in several horseback tales at the turn of 1200. Caesar of Heisterbach († ca. 1240), for example, did not fail to provide a version of the theme in the Dialogus miraculorum composed between 1219 and 1223: “Wouldn’t it be enough for you to have me as your wife without ever abandoning me?”we hear a knight say in an exemplum. The Virgin in the likeness of a matron above all humanity and holding a horse by the bridle, has just asked him by inviting him to the wedding that will take place in the presence of her son.” [12]

It is above all this triple monastic face of Mary as the rule of the monks, as the mother of the monks and as the bride of the monks that takes up the Carthusian tradition. It is modelled just when the Carthusian order knows a greater extent in the mid-thirteenth century. Let us concentrate on analysing more precisely the reason for the engagement of the Virgin in the Carthusian order. The Carthusian Order, claiming both the patronage and the title of the Virgin Mary, also claims to become “the betrothed of the Virgin Mary,” in imitation of Joseph [13]. And with this he creates a completely original enhancement from the mid-thirteenth century.

[1] Translator’s note: The monastic order of the Carthusians, (Ordo Cartusiensis), it was founded in 1084 by Saint Bruno (or Brunone) in the valley of La Chartreuse in France. The center of a Carthusian’s life is the church, around which they built their huts where they lived in isolation. The Carthusians today are still only found together in the choir office, in the chapter, in the common refectory on certain occasions, in recreation, in the previously established conversations, wisely reconciling eremitical  life with the cenobitic. The monastic order of the Cistercians, (Ordo Cistercensis), was founded in 1098 in Cîteaux by about twenty Benedictines who with the abbot Robert had left Molesme Abbey in France to implement more rigidly, in another place, the observance of the Rule of St. Benedict. Like the Carthusians, the Cistercians were the protagonists in the century. XII and XIII of a wonderful revival of monastic life and gave a profound and ineliminable contribution to medieval civilisation in all its aspects: from the spiritual to the economic, from the artistic to the social. Great and illustrious diffuser of the order was San Bernardo.

[2] Regarding the Carthusian order, see the synthesis of A. Girard, D. Blévec, L’ordre des chartreux au XIIIe siècle (The order of the Carthusian monasteries in the XIII century), Analecta cartusiana, №234, Salzburg, 2006. With regard to the Marian cult, we would like to refer you to our summary: S. Barnay, La Vierge, femme au visage divin (The Virgin, Woman with a divine face), Paris, Gallimard, 2000.

[3]J. Winandy (ed.), Ambroise Autpert, monk and theologian, Paris, 1953, p. 94. (Translator’s Note: This text is found in J-P Migne’s Patrologia Latina, Vol. 101, 1306, under the name of Pseudo Alcuin, Homelia III. Sermo Alcuini de Nativitate Perpetuae Virginis Mariae. Ex cod. ms. Regio num. 315.: “… Facta est Maria ianua coelorum, sublimatio apostolorum, laus martyrum, iubilatio confessorum, continentia virginum regula monachorum, norma principum, iustitia regum. Facta est salus morum, mors criminum, vita virtutum, virtus pugnantium, palma victorum. Facta est Maria excelsa super sidera…”). [Alcuin of York, (I.A., 2016. Homelia III. Sermo Alcuini de Nativitate Perpetuae Virginis Mariae [(PL 101 1300C) Ex cod. ms. Regio № 315]. Alcuinus (Incertus) cps 2. Available:¤t_title= [Accessed October 9, 2021]. 

[4] H. Barré, Prières mariales de l’Occident à la Mère du Sauveur (Marian prayers of the West to the Mother of the Saviour), Paris, 1963, p. 109, note 40.

[5] See, for example, S. Barnay, Le ciel sur ta terre. Les apparitions de la Vierge au Moyen Age (Heaven on earth. The apparitions of the Virgin in the Middle Ages) (preface by Prof. Jean Léon Marie Delumeau), Paris, Cerf, 1999, particularly pp. 80-97.

[6] Translator’s note: Cesarius of Heisterbach, also known as Caesarius Heisterbacensis (Cologne, c. 1180 – Heisterbach, c. 1240), was a German abbot and writer, prior of the former Cistercian abbey of Heisterbach, today Siebengebirge (Seven Hills) near the small town of Oberdollendorf. A prolific writer, he devoted himself mainly to hagiographic productions. The most important is the “Dialogus magnus visionum et miraculorum,— The Dialogue on Miracles” a collection of exempla in the form of a dialogue between a monk (the writer?) and a novice. (Source: Wikipedia)

[7] Dialogus miraculorum written between 1219 and 1223, see J. Strange (ed.), Dialogus miraculorum, Coloniae, 2 vol., 1850-1851 (reprint Rigdewood, NJ, 1966). A new edition of the Dialogus miraculorum is announced by Br. Wagner, “Studien zu Caesarius Von Heisterbach,” Analecta cisterciensia, 29, 1973, pp. 79-85. See the recent summary by M. Della Volpe, “Maria in the Exordium Magnum and in the Dialogus Miraculorum”, Respice Stellam, op. cit., pp. 268-282. The Libri VIII miraculorum begun between 1125 and 1234 were probably never completed, see A. Meister (ed.), Die Fragmente Libri VIII miraculorum des Caesarius von Heisterbach, Rome, 1901. For the Exordium magnum, see the edition by B. Griesser (edited by), Exordium magnum cisterciense sive narratio de initio Cisterciensis Ordinis auctore Conrado monacho Claravallensi postea Eberbacensi ibidemque abbate, Turnhout, 1994 (CCCM 138).

[8] De Virginitate, II, 2, 6, PL, 16.

[9] Numerous examples cited by B. Martelet, Saint Bernard e Notre-Dame, Parigi, 1985, pp. 115-117; G. Raciti (Ed.), Aelredi Rievallensis Sermones I-XLVI, Collectio Claraevallensis prima et secunda, Turnhout, 1989, Sermo XXIII, In Nativitate Sanctae Mariae, p. 185, § 6; Sermo XXVI, In Festivitate omnium sanctorum, p. 210, § 1 (Corpus christianorum Continuatio mediaevalis, CCCM, IIA). Two recent conferences take stock of the position of the Marian figure in Cistercian thought: Respice stellam. Maria in san Bernardo e nella tradizione cistercense, Proceedings of the International Conference (Rome, Marianum, 21-24 October 1991) edited by M. Calabuig, Rome, 1993; La Vierge dans la tradition cistercienne (The Virgin in the Cistercian tradition) (directed by J. Longère), Études mariales. Bulletin de la Société française d’études mariales (Marian Studies. Bulletin of the French Society of Marian Studies), 1999.

[10] S. Barnay, “Lactations et apparitions de la Vierge. Une relecture de la règle, une lecture de la vie de saint Bernard (Lactations and apparitions of the Virgin. A rereading of the rule, a reading of the life of Saint Bernard)”, Unanimité et diversité cisterciennes  (Cistercian unanimity and diversity) (IV International Conference of CERCOR, Dijon, 23-25 September 1998), publications of the University of Saint-Étienne, 2000, pp. 161-174. Id., “Entrer en dialogue, entrer en vision. Les visions de la Vierge dans le Dialogus miraculorum of Césaire d’Heisterbach (Entering into dialogue, entering into a vision. The visions of the Virgin in Dialogus miraculorum by Césaire d’Heisterbach)”, Voir les dieux, voir Dieu (See the gods, see God) (colloquium on visions and apparitions, University of Strasbourg, directed by P. Boespflug and P. Dunand, 22 April 1999), Strasbourg, Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2002, pp. 159-175.

[11] Source chrétienne, edited by R. Winlin and A.G. Hamman, Le Cantique des cantiques d’Origène à Saint Bernard (The Song of Songs from Origen to Saint Benard), Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1983.

[12] J. Strange (ed.), Dialogus miraculorum, 2 vols., Cologne, Bonn, Brussels, 1851 (reprint Rigdewood, 1966), chap. xxxii, pp. 40-41. Exemplary literature, but also hagiographic literature … In the Vita he composed around 1222 for the canonisation of Robert of Molesme († 1110), his Cistercian hagiographer was one of the first to take up the motif of the Virgin as the bride of the monks to establish his paternity on the Cistercian order, far from being clearly stated in primitive hagiography. Thus the Virgin appears to her mother Ermengarde, carrying a gold ring in her hand and asking her that her son whom she carries in her womb be promised to her in marriage by this ring.

(Translator’s Note. This is the complete text of chapter XXXII of the Dialogus of Caesarius of Heisterbach translated into English: “Of a knight who was tempted by his master’s wife and was freed with a kiss by the Virgin Mary.” A certain young knight lived with a rich knight, his lord, by whom he was treated very kindly; and though he was in the prime of his youth, he flourished still more in the virtue of his virginity. But the devil’s envy acted within him and he began to be very tempted towards his master’s wife. Now, after struggling incessantly because of this temptation for a year, it eventually became unbearable and, putting aside all modesty, he told his mistress how much he suffered. And he was even more distressed when she rejected him, because she was an honorable matron and faithful to her husband. So he went to a certain hermit on whose advice he depended completely and with tears he confessed his passion for him. The holy man replied loyally: “Oh! Nothing else troubles you? I will give you some advice so that your wish may come true. For the next year, go to church every day whenever possible and greet a hundred times with the angelic greeting and with as many prayers for forgiveness, Our Lady the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, and through her you will get everything you want.” He knew well that the lover of chastity would never abandon a chaste youth, even though she had fallen into error. And when the young man was very simply fulfilling the prescribed veneration of the Madonna, one day while he was sitting at the table of his he lord, he remembered that that very day was the end of the year. He immediately got up, mounted his horse and, entering the nearby church, made his usual prayers. When he came out of the church, he saw a beautiful lady, who surpassed all human beauty, holding her horse by her reins. As he wondered who it could be, she replied: “Do you like my appearance?” And when the knight replied: “I have never seen anyone as beautiful as you”, she added: “Would you be satisfied to have me as your bride?”. And when he replied, “Your beauty could satisfy any king in the world and a blessed man would be judged as your consort,” she continued, “I’ll be your wife. Come and kiss me.” And she forced him and said, “Now our wedding has begun, and on a certain day it will be completed in the presence of my Son.” From these words she realised that she was the Mother of the Lord, whose chastity rejoices in human purity. She, holding the stirrup of her horse, ordered him to mount and the rider, forced by her authority, obeyed. From that moment he was so completely freed from the aforementioned temptation that even his master’s wife was amazed. When she told all these things to the hermit, the latter, marvelling at both the goodness and humility of the Mother of God, replied: “I wish to be present on your wedding day. In the meantime, fix all your business.” He did so and on the appointed day the hermit came and said to the young man: “Do you feel any pain?” He replied, “No,” and again an hour later he asked exactly the same question and the young man replied, “yes, now I am beginning to feel it.” Shortly thereafter he fell into agony, emitted the spirit and entered the heavenly mansions to celebrate his wedding promises.”

[13] Paul Payan, Joseph, une image de la paternité dans l’Occident médiéval (Joseph, an image of paternity in the medieval West), Paris, Aubier, 2006, pp. 50-64.