When it comes to powerful religious figures, the Virgin Mary seems to be alone in a Boys' Club. Many people look at the Christian faith and assume it favors males because all of its spiritual leaders are male (Jesus, the Apostles, and even God is called "He"). However, the Virgin Mary does play an important role in the religion. Her influence can be observed, even as early as the Middle Ages. During this time (from about 500 to 1400 or 1500) the Virgin Mary was a symbol whose role gradually grew in importance.
The Middle Ages were a time of turmoil and war in Europe. Lands constantly changed their rulers, and plagues ravaged the countryside killing hundreds of poverty stricken people. As these sorrows swam around them in the pool of their dismal lives, the people had no scientific explanations to look to, and therefore turned to faith. Churches and monasteries became some of the most important places on the continent. Also, because of the fall of the Roman Empire and the constant war-fare, trade was nearly impossible and great merchant cities became obsolete, with more and more families leaving their urban homes for more rural ones. It was only the Church, with its monasteries, that provided a source of knowledge, becoming the centers of all things intellectual, including art, and as would be expected, the topic was religion. Because literacy was low, the texts of the time give little insight, while the art presents some clues.
In the very early Middle Ages one of the most popular and simple forms of art was the icon. Icons were very small paintings that depicted religious figures such as Mary, Jesus, or various Christian saints. These small pieces ended up causing the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in 1054 due to arguments over whether they were idols or not. However, it was in Europe where icons were accepted, and therefore had a great influence on the art.
The earliest icon …