Mary in the Early Church

Updated: May 29, 2020

As in Scripture, so too in the infant Church we see the attention of the faithful rightfully focused first and foremost on Jesus Christ. The divine primacy of Jesus Christ (with its appropriate worship of adoration) had to be clearly established before any subordinate corresponding devotion to his Mother could be properly exercised. Nonetheless, the beginnings of acknowledgement and devotion to the Mother of Jesus is present from apostolic times in the living Tradition of the early Church.

The first historic indications of the existing veneration of Mary carried on from the Apostolic Church is manifested in the Roman catacombs. As early as the end of the first century to the first half of the second century, Mary is depicted in frescos in the Roman catacombs both with and without her divine Son. Mary is depicted as a model of virginity with her Son; at the Annunciation; at the adoration of the Magi; and as the orans, the “praying one,” the woman of prayer. (1)

A very significant fresco found in the catacombs of St. Agnes depicts Mary situated between St. Peter and St. Paul with her arms outstretched to both. This fresco reflects, in the language of Christian frescoes, the earliest symbol of Mary as “Mother of the Church.” Whenever St. Peter and St. Paul are shown together, it is symbolic of the one Church of Christ, a Church of authority and evangelization, a Church for both Jew and Gentile. Mary’s prominent position between Sts. Peter and Paul illustrates the recognition by the Apostolic Church of the maternal centrality of the Savior’s Mother in his young Church.

It is also clear from the number of representations of the Blessed Virgin and their locations in the catacombs that the Mother of Jesus was also recognized for her maternal intercession of protection and defense. Her image was present on tombs, as well as on the large central vaults of the catacombs. Clearly, the early Christians dwelling in the catacombs prayed to Mary as intercessor to her Son for special protection and for motherly assistance. As early as the first century to the first half of the second century, Mary’s role as Spiritual Mother was recognized and her protective intercession was invoked. (2)

The early Church Fathers, (also by the middle of the second century), articulated the primary theological role of the Blessed Virgin as the “New Eve.” What was the basic understanding of Mary as the “New Eve” in the early Church? Eve, the original “mother of the living,” had played an instrumental, though secondary role, in the sin of Adam which resulted in the tragic fall of humanity from God’s grace. However, Mary, as the new Mother of the living, played an instrumental, though secondary, role to Jesus, the New Adam, in redeeming and restoring the life of grace to the human family.

Let us examine a few citations from the early Church Fathers that manifest this growing understanding of Mary’s spiritual and maternal role as the “New Eve,” who as the “new Mother of the living,” participates with Christ in restoring grace to the human family.

St. Justin Martyr (d.165), the early Church’s first great apologist, describes Mary as the “obedient virgin” through whom humanity receives its Savior, in contrast to Eve, the “disobedient virgin,” who brings death and disobedience to the human race:

(The Son of God) became man through the Virgin that the disobedience caused by the serpent might be destroyed in the same way in which it had originated. For Eve, while a virgin incorrupt, conceived the word which proceeded from the serpent, and brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary was filled with faith and joy when the Angel Gabriel told her the glad tidings…. And through her was he born…. (3)

St. Irenaeus of Lyon (d.202), great defender of Christian orthodoxy and arguably the first true Mariologist, establishes Mary as the New Eve who participates with Jesus Christ in the work of salvation, becoming through her obedience the “cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race”: