Inside Paris's Notre Dame cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a soprano floats plangently upward in Bach's spectacular Magnificat, the sound hovering in the soaring space before the chorus surges in with joy. "Behold from henceforth, I shall be called blessed by all generations," Mary proclaims in her paean to God, accepting that she will be the mother of Christ.
Inspiration for some of history's most sublime musical, architectural, and artistic creations, the peasant girl from Nazareth also embodies Christianity's thorniest paradoxes. She is a virgin, yet also a mother. She is God's obedient handmaid, yet she is also a strong woman in her own right, a woman of valor, the patroness of victory. She rejoices in the birth of her son, but her salvation comes only through his death.
To the Roman Catholic and Orthodox faithful, Mary remained a virgin throughout her life, and she was herself immaculately conceived—that is, untainted by the original sin of sexual conception. She rose "body and soul" to heaven, the church teaches in a highly polarizing dogma that caused an uproar when Pope Pius xii declared it in 1950. As the mother of God, she sits in heaven with the Trinity; she is above all saints, yet she is human.
And that—her humanity—is the key.
Over the centuries, true believers and skeptics alike have spoken to Mary as a protector, a guide, even a friend in a way they cannot with God and Christ. "Closer to the human plane, she is more approachable by those who have reason to fear, or cannot comprehend, the ineffable mystery of God or the stern authority of Christ," writes Cambridge medieval scholar Steven Botterill. Even Protestants, who broke from the Catholic Church in part because of what Martin Luther abhorred as the "abominable idolatry" of Mary, are giving her a more prominent place in their hearts.
In the West, the Virgin Mother is ubiquitous. Mary has been the favorite baptismal name for girls for centuries; the Ave Maria is repeated millions of times daily. Almost certainly, she has been portrayed in art and music more than any other woman in history. Even in Asia, Mary is a growing presence. Churches as far-flung as South Korea and East Timor honor her name with elaborate shrines.
Revered as a symbol that bridges disparate cultures, Mary appears prominently in the Koran, where she is compared to Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, founder of the Islamic nation. In Mexico, where she appeared to an oppressed Aztec Indian in the 16th century, she is Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, focus of a cult of near-fanatic devotion. Ten million pilgrims a year flock to a shrine honoring the dark-skinned Madonna, a political as much as a religious symbol for the poor and downtrodden, "the mother of Mexico," in the words of the Mexican poet Octavio Paz.