Framing Mary

The Mother of God in Modern, Revolutionary, and Post-Soviet Russian Culture

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Editor(s): 
Amy Singleton Adams, Vera Shevzov
  • DeKalb, IL: 
    Northern Illinois University Press
    , April
     2018.
     344 pages.
     $39.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780875807768.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Framing Mary examines the processes by which the image of Mary has been distributed, altered, and taken up as a collective symbol by predominantly Eastern Orthodox groups across Russian history due to its “irresistible pull and inexhaustible promise” as a model for orienting oneself (5). Edited by Associate Professor Amy Singleton Adams of the College of the Holy Cross and Professor Vera Shevzov of Smith College, the work originates from a 2011 symposium co-hosted by the S. J. Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture at Holy Cross and features contributors with interdisciplinary training. Their essays explore the diffusive processes that mobilized some Russian representations of Mary while smothering others, an area of research the authors unanimously agree is largely absent from current studies of global Marian devotion. Their collective goal is a robust argument about social cohesion facilitated by Marian devotion during moments of political turbulence following the 17th century through the end of the Cold War in Russia.

Devotees of Mary, through their respective representations as described in these twelve essays, straddle demands of, on the one hand, institutions that legitimate Mary as the mother of Christ and, on the other, their own social needs as occupants of the region sometimes termed the “New East.” Thus, the identification with Mary in Eastern Europe, for these scholars, is a hybrid of different group imaginings of her in local narratives, artwork, and other cultural products. It should be noted, though, that throughout the volume, this model for providing an account of Marian devotion in a specified area (sometimes called the Mariology of a region) fails to reflect critically on the complex and dynamic nature of the group in question, not asking what unifies this group across historical periods and geographic domains as Russian—other than a modern nationalist viewpoint, of course.

Constructing a diffuse history of context-specific uses for the image of Mary (whether it be an artistic interpretation associated with the tsar, a version exported by émigrés following the Bolshevik Revolution, the working mother trope supported in the Soviet era, or any combination of representations) allows these scholars to locate Marian devotion somewhere on a spectrum between so-called Eastern and Western religious tradition. For instance, Wendy Salmond’s chapter argues that by the early 20th century a distinct mixing was observable between Madonna-like interpretations of Mary and iconographic depictions of her as sympathetic to certain political sensibilities (such as those of Lenin and his followers). According to Salmond, this demonstrates how artists attempted to secure their own group as the authentic beneficiaries of Mary’s divine preference despite struggles between the Western Mary sanctioned by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Mary supported in Russian Orthodoxy (172). Alexandra Smith uses a similar argument for syncretism, instead focusing on the transformation of Moscow’s place in Russia’s “visual imagination” in the early 20th century. According to her chapter, Cubism and allusion were used to subtly challenge the perception of Moscow as the heart of Russian patriarchy (148). Like Salmond’s conclusion about Madonna-like paintings of a proletariat protectress, Smith claims that Moscow emerges as a “sacred, aesthetic, and historical place” chosen by Mary’s own divine interest only as a historical product of group interaction.

As this volume makes evident, adaptations of Mary found across what we commonly understand as Russian history essentialize her role as the birth-giver of Christ. The centrality of her maternal attributes, for some groups described in these essays, supports Mary as an attractive prototype through which women reimagined the marginality of their position while simultaneously confirming their membership within a collective (and seemingly self-evident and ahistorical) Russian identity. Elizabeth Skomp examines the motivations of a 20th century self-published women’s activism journal to highlight the utility of Marian narratives and imagery for legitimating social and political causes regardless of how the cause itself aligned with religious tradition (242). In her own chapter, Shevzov correlates localized notions of childbearing as a divine offering from Mary to the widespread rhetoric of political groups with interests in women’s reproductive healthcare (288). Though not detailed here for the sake of brevity, icons and the structures that afford them legitimacy likely can’t be reduced to their utility for any one particular group because another group with different and even disparate interests may just as plausibly use the very same icon but for different ends.

Theologians interested in Marian iconography or undergraduates requiring a comprehensive history of Marian devotion, particularly those focused on Eastern Europe, will surely find Framing Mary: The Mother of God in Modern, Revolutionary and Post-Soviet Russian Culture to be an appropriate read. Yet for those curious about how modern assumptions enable the anachronistic imposition of contemporary notions onto groups in the past (such as reading modern nation-states into the past) the text’s value may lie elsewhere. For despite effectively arguing for a breadth of approaches to studying Marian devotion, the essays themselves do not reflect a variety of interpretive lenses, and thus demonstrate significant slippage between what the authors see their work accomplishing and what more critically-minded readers might see it contributing to current scholarship on Marian devotion. For, if I am correct in my critique, the volume’s claim to represent scholarly diversity could be read as an indictment of how the academy actually limits variety in the study of religion by either emphasizing or deemphasizing the use of certain theoretical models. Without a clear explanation for why one ought to theorize Russian culture as a closed and observable unit that persists over time and without a clear rationale for identifying religion within it, it is difficult to judge how well the book reflects the history of something called “Russian religious culture.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sierra Lynn Lawson is a graduate student in Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amy Singleton Adams is Associate Professor of Russian Literature at the College of the Holy Cross.

Vera Shevzov is Professor of Religion and Director of the Program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Smith College.

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