Throughout Christian history, the Virgin Mary has been idealized as a self-sacrificing mother and a model for all Christian women to emulate. However, she is one of many ancient maternal figures whose narratives pivot on violent loss. In her 2018 monograph Mary, Mother of Martyrs: How Motherhood Became Self-Sacrifice in Early Christianity
(Feminist Studies in Religion, 2018), Dr. Kathleen Gallagher Elkins
(Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI) examines ancient representations of mothers and children in the context of sociopolitical violence. She demonstrates that, as today, early Christian notions of motherhood are contextual and produced for specific political and social reasons. She also interrogates the tendency of both theologians and cultural commentators to read tales of early Christian mothers in an anachronistic manner informed by modern conceptions of the “natural” and “normal” family. Adding contemporary intertexts to the ancient texts at hand, each chapter juxtaposes an ancient maternal figure (including the Mother of Maccabees, Perpetua, and Felicitas in addition to Mary) with examples of contemporary maternal activism, such as Madre and Pussy Riot. Gallagher Elkins thereby shows the strategic, political charged, and rhetorically flexible conceptions of maternal self-sacrifice.
Diana Dukhanova is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at Brown University in Providence, RI.