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Home | Exhibitions | Online | The Sacred Feminine | The Cult of the Virgin

exhibition bannerThe Cult of the Virgin

Introduction

The virgin figure has had a dynamic presence in religious tradition for centuries. In the ancient world, cults of virgin goddesses and their maiden priestesses held great popularity. While the formidable ancient Greek goddesses Athena and Artemis held sway in many cities, Rome’s Vestal Virgins were famed far and wide. Early virgin figures, both divine and human, set the tone for the later virgin figures that surfaced in Christianity, when the Vestals were replaced by nuns styled after them, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, emerged as the quintessential virgin.

Despite the seeming incompatibility of “virgin” and “mother,” the appearance of these dual traits in the females of religious belief suggests otherwise. The virgin-mother identity is typically formed by the union of a god and mortal and is one that often results in the creation of a savior-hero. This motif has a long history that was particularly common in the pre-Christian, pagan world. The union of the mortal woman Rhea Silvia and the Roman god Mars, for example, resulted in the birth of Romulus, the founder of Rome. In antiquity, unmarried women were classified as virgins, whether clinical virginity existed or not. If one were to bear a child, it might well be referred to as parthenogenesis or a “virgin birth.” With the rise of Christianity, these traits coalesced once again in the persona of the Virgin Mary.

The sexual implications of the virgin-mother motif are complicated. The ancient Near Eastern goddess Astarte was a virgin, but also closely associated with sexuality and the nurturing qualities of motherhood. The Greek Artemis also presided over childbirth, though virginity was one of her distinct attributes. Although virginity presupposes a disassociation from sexuality, this was clearly not always the case. With the appearance of the Virgin Mary, however, the virgin mother becomes completely detached from sexuality.

(Use the links on the right to see this online exhibition.)

The Sacred Feminine Links:

The Sacred Mother
- Introduction
- Objects

The Dangerous Feminine
- Introduction
- Objects (opens new window)

Beyond Human: Female Sainthood
- Introduction
- Objects (opens new window)

Models of Knowledge and Power
- Introduction
- Objects (opens new window)

Devotees and Consorts
- Introduction
- Objects (opens new window)

The Divine Queen
- Introduction
- Objects (opens new window)

The Cult of the Virgin
- Introduction
- Objects (opens new window)

Contemporary Interpretations
- Introduction
- Objects (opens new window)

exhibition illustration

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