Alma Mater, or Why MILO Sits on a Lion Throne

I never set out to teach like a woman, but somehow it happened anyway.

Back when I was a beginning teacher, my great hero was Erich Auerbach, more particularly, Erich Auerbach as the author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953). His whole method seemed to me to be genius. He would start each chapter with a lengthy block of text, which he would then use as a key to unlock the underlying patterns of Western culture, wondrously made visible through his close reading of the text.

You can see how I use this technique in my blog posts, but it comes from my teaching. In effect, I encourage my students, “Submit yourself to the word, and let it teach you. If you read carefully, thinking about what the text tells you about why the author was writing and paying attention to what it can tell you about the circumstances in which the author found it important to write, that is when it becomes a proper historical source, something in which you are able to ground an argument.”

My goal in training to students to read this way is to give them confidence in their ability to interpret the evidence, while at the same time encouraging them learn to read the texts for their own sake. I see myself in the classroom not so much as an authority in the sense of the one who knows everything—although, by this stage in my career, I know a hell of a lot!—but rather as a guide. What I want is to provide a frame in which texts that the students have previously found boring, irrelevant, or otherwise inaccessible become possible to read.

To paraphrase the Lorax: I speak for the texts. I am, as it were, their advocate.

Through me, I want to help the texts come to life.

Through me, I want to make what they say visible to the world.

Kinda like—dare I say it?—Mary, who gave birth to the Word.


Have you ever wondered why we call colleges our “alma mater”—“nourishing mother”?

The Wikipedia entry notes that the epithet goes back to antiquity as applied to certain mother goddesses, but that in an educational context, it first appears around 1600 when the Cambridge printer John Legate began using it in his emblem for the university press. But before that, in a Christian context, it referred, of course, to the Virgin Mary.

Alma Redemptoris Mater,” sang the eleventh-century monk, mathematician, and astronomer Hermannus Contractus (“Herman the Lame”):
Nourishing mother of the Redeemer, star of the sea who holds open the gate of heaven, help your people who have fallen to rise again: you who to the amazement of nature gave birth to your Creatorvirgin after as before, you who received the Ave from Gabriel’s mouth, have mercy on us sinners. 
I have blogged already about the way in which, in the Middle Ages, Mary was seen as the one who made God visible to the world, the temple in whom the Lord became present in his Creation. And I have blogged about how medieval Christians saw her as Wisdom and the Mother of Wisdom, the most perfect mirror of God. Now I would like to tell you about how she gave birth to the universities.

It had to do with her relationship to texts. Particularly texts talking about her and her Son.

According to the Protestants (long story—it has to do with changes to the Hebrew on which the Protestants based their translations of the Old Testament), the scriptures that they inherited from the medieval tradition spoke very little about Mary; only the Gospels had any real information about her.

But according to the medieval tradition going back to the Orthodox interpretation of the scriptures in Greek, not only the Gospels, but all the texts of the Bible, including the Old Testament, spoke about Mary just as they spoke about her Son: all the time.

This is the way one twelfth-century author put the puzzle in his Speculum virginum or Mirror of Virgins:
If I tried to say anything about the Lord’s Mother it would be an act of reckless presumption rather than learning. For the magnitude of grace divinely granted to Mary exceeds my faculty of speech, since she was chosen before she was born to conceive the eternal Word, and crowned once born with the perfection of all blessings.
Nevertheless, he would try:
She then is the bride of the eternal king; she is daughter, mother, and virgin; dove, sister, and beloved; unique mother of the unique Son of God, foreordained in heaven before she was born to be the Mother of God’s Son.... 
She is the dawn, the sun, the moon, and the star: the dawn preceding the Sun of justice in its rising; the sun in whom the Creator himself set the tabernacle of his body, and came forth like a bridegroom from his chamber; the moon radiant from its Creator’s splendor...; and the star of the sea, because she is the path, the harbor, and the life of sailors in this worldly darkness. In paradise she is the flower and fruit of trees that exude the finest balsam, and the green shoot of all spices.... 
Since she is mother and virgin, she is revealed by a mystic figure in the bush that burned and was not consumed. In the tabernacle of Moses, fashioned with such variety of materials and such marvelous art, she is supremely figured in the branch of Aaron and the golden urn. She is the dry branch that flowered among the other dry branches, bearing flower and fruit before the whole mass of humankind which had withered in sin.... 
The golden urn which preserved the manna symbolizes the purity of her mind and body in its gold, displaying the manna—that is, the Word of God, “the food of angels” [Wisdom 16:20]—to all the faithful. Do you see that all the labor of the wondrous tabernacle and its most precious hangings—“in gold and silver, purple and linen, twice-dyed scarlet” and every precious stone [Exodus 25:3-4]—pertained to those four things [the tabernacle, the ark, the golden urn, and the branch of Aaron] in which the future mysteries of the Mother and Son were chiefly hidden for our future age?.... 
Indeed, you will find many things proclaiming and bearing witness to the Lord’s Mother in the prophets’ writings and miracles, and if we were to scrutinize and discuss every one of them, our dialogue would exceed all bounds. For what speech can contain her whom the Son of God chose from before the commencement of time to be his temple...who alone was preserved to redeem humankind? .... All these things, wrapped and veiled in symbolic foreshadowings, have been revealed to our age more clearly than light by the gracious gifts of heaven.... 
If then you seek Mary with a subtle understanding, you will find her in heaven before all creation; you will see her in paradise and in Noah’s ark in the flood; you will see her among the patriarchs and wandering with the people of God in the desert; you will find her among the judges and kings coming forth from the royal stock and blooming among the Jews like a rose among thorns.
Would you like me to explain what our author—he calls himself Peregrinus or “Pilgrim”—is saying in this text?

Not just the quotations taken verbatim from the scriptures (Wisdom, Exodus), but all of the images that Peregrinus invokes are allusions to titles of Mary that her ancient and medieval devotees found in scripture. She is the bride, daughter, and mother of the king found in Psalm 44 (45). She is the dove, sister, and beloved found in the Song of Songs. She is the dawn, sun, and moon of Song of Songs 6:9,  and the tabernacle of Psalm 18 (19):6. She is the tree of life giving forth flowers and fruits of Revelation 22:2; and she is the tree giving forth balsam of Ecclesiasticus 24:20-21. She is the burning bush from which the Lord spoke to Moses (Exodus 3:2) and the tabernacle fashioned according to the pattern shown to Moses on the mountain (Exodus 25). And she is the ark in which the rod of Aaron and the golden urn of manna were stored (Numbers 17:2-8; Exodus 16:33-34; Hebrews 9:4). The only image that is not strictly speaking taken from scripture is that of Mary as the star of the sea (stella maris), but even this was simply a pun on her name (Maria).

What should we do with such a myriad of names? Erich Neumann—if, that is, he knew anything about the ancient and medieval Christian tradition*—would point to the way in which such titles were applied to the Great Mother. Vessel, tree, oven, ship, city, mountain, gate, temple, house: all were images of Mary that ancient and medieval Christians found in the scriptures, above all in the books of Wisdom and in the psalms. In Neumann’s words:
The abundance of manifestations is a characteristic of the archetype and the plethora of names by which the powers are invoked among all peoples is an expression of their numinous ineffability.
Even the lion was associated with Mary, as her Son, the true Solomon, sat on his lion throne (3 Kings 10:18-20), that is, on her. Again, Neumann:
The enthroned Mother Goddess lives in the sacred symbol of the throne. The king comes to power by “mounting the throne,” and so takes his place on the lap of the Great Goddess, the earth—he becomes her son. In widespread throne cults, the throne, which was originally the godhead itself, was worshiped as the “seat of the godhead.” 
As, for example, in the ivory shown above, in which Christ is enthroned in majesty on the lap of his mother.

Everything in Creation was contained by the Virgin, she—as her medieval devotees sang—who enclosed the Creator of all things in her womb. To know the Virgin was to know everything because it was through her that the Creator of everything became visible to the world. Again, Neumann, speaking of the Great Mother archetype:
In its entire phenomenology, the elementary character of the Feminine appears as the Great Round, which is and contains the universe.... Now that we have gained some idea of the full scope of the Great Mother, who in truth encompasses almost everything—heaven, water, and earth, while even fire is her son—it becomes evident that the Feminine cannot be identified with the telluric-chthonic, the lower, earthly principle, as the later patriarchal world and its religions and philosophies would have it. The totality of the Archetypal Feminine goes far beyond the projection in which she unites the elements of earth, water, air, and fire.
Mary’s medieval devotees would agree! “Not only heaven and earth,” or so one anonymous preacher commenting on the antiphon Salve regina put it,
but also other names (aliis nominibus) and words of things (rerum vocabulis) fittingly designate the Lady. She is the tabernacle of God, the temple, the house, the entry-hall, the bedchamber, the bridal-bed, the bride, the daughter, the ark of the flood, the ark of the covenant, the golden urn, the manna, the rod of Aaron, the fleece of Gideon, the gate of Ezekiel, the city of God, the heaven, the earth, the sun, the moon, the morning star, the dawn, the lamp, the trumpet, the mountain, the fountain of the garden and the lily of the valley, the desert, the land of promise flowing with milk and honey, the star of the sea, the ship, the way in the sea, the fishing net, the vine, the field, the ark, the granary, the stable, the manger of the beast of burden, the store-room, the court, the tower, the castle, the battle-line, the people, the kingdom, the priesthood,
Nor was this all.
She is the sheep, the pasture, the paradise, the palm, the rose, the river, the draught, the dove, the column, the clothing, the pearl, the candelabra, the table, the crown, the scepter, the bread, the oil, the wine, the tree, the rod, the cedar, the cypress, the plane-tree, the cinnamon, the balsam, the myrrh, the frankincense, the olive, the nard, the crocus, the reed, the pipe, the pen, the gum, the sister and mother.
“Indeed,” the preacher apologized, “that I might briefly conclude, all scripture was written concerning her and about her and because of her, and for her the whole world was made, she who is full of the grace of God and through whom man has been redeemed, the Word of God made flesh, God humbled and man sublimed.”

This, according to Neumann, is what the Great Mother does: she gives voice to the poets, words to the flesh, transforming the Son who enters into her that he might go forth into the world as a hero and savior. In Neumann’s words:
We have repeatedly referred to the spiritual aspect of the feminine transformative character, which leads through suffering and death, sacrifice and annihilation, to renewal, rebirth, and immortality. But such transformation is possible only when what is to be transformed enters wholly into the Feminine principle; that is to say, dies in returning to the Mother Vessel, whether this be earth, water, underworld, urn, coffin, cave, mountain, ship, or magic cauldron....
[She, in the guise of the seeress,] is the center of magic, of magical song, and finally of poetry. She is the source from which Odin received the runes of Wisdom; she is the Muse, the source of the words that stream upward from the depths; and she is the inspiring anima of the poets....
This transformation presents a typical opposition to the Masculine, whose transfiguration appears as an illumination of the head—solification, coronation, and halo. True to her feminine nature, Kore [the goddess of the Eleusian mysteries] becomes a “bearer” of light. Her luminous aspect, the fruit of her transformative process, becomes the luminous son, the divine spirit-son, spiritually conceived and spiritually born, whom she holds on her lap, or who is handed up to her by her creative Earth Mother aspect.
Neumann could almost be describing our ivory. Look! It opens to reveal the suffering, sacrifice, and resurrection of the Word made flesh in Mary’s womb, he who filled her mind with wisdom even as he took from her the flesh in which he entered into the world:

Ultimately, Neumann is right about the power of the Great Mother, but for the wrong reasons. He insists that she survived in Christianity only on the margins, in spite of the “patriarchal” masculinity of her wordy Son. But Mary was known in her guise as Great Mother throughout the Middle Ages, not because the medieval Christians were crypto-pagans, but because they knew how to read the scriptures about her according to the tradition going back to the temple as recorded in the psalms. (If you want the full story, it’s in my book! For a shorter version, go here.)

Mary was the alma mater of the medieval theologians, poets, commentators, and artists because in her the Creator of all things took his rest (Ecclesiasticus 24:14-15). She was the throne of Wisdom and the Mother of Wisdom, the one through whom God spoke his Word, and therefore the patroness of the trivium, the arts of language taught in the schools. The masters of the theology faculty at Paris took her as their patroness on their seals, and the students at Eton College said Matins in her honor while making their beds. As even Henry Adams realized, although again for reasons he did not understand, she was the Muse inspiring the construction of the great Gothic cathedrals as well as the Lady to whom the troubadours sang. Without Mary, Western medieval art is inconceivable, not to mention the study of the natural world, all of whose creatures she framed. (Yes, I show this in my book, too!)


“O splendid jewel,” the Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179) sang to Mary,
...serenely infused with the Sun! The Sun is in you as a fount from the heart of the Father; it is His sole Word, by Whom He created the world, the primary matter, which Eve threw into disorder. He formed the Word in you as a human being, and therefore you are the jewel that shines most brightly, through whom the Word breathed out the whole of the virtues, as once from primary matter He made all creatures.
O sweet green branch that flowers from the stem of Jesse! O glorious thing, that God on His fairest daughter looked as the eagle looks on the face of the Sun! The Most High Father sought for a Virgin’s candor, and willed that His Word should take in her His body. For the Virgin’s mind was by His mystery illumined, and from her virginity sprang the glorious Flower.
How the Christian tradition lost sight of the Virgin infused with the Sun is a story I do not entirely understand yet. It begins in the sixteenth century and reaches its apex in the eighteenth century with such Enlightened philosophes as Casanova and his friend Voltaire. But somehow the Mother of Wisdom with the Word enthroned in her lap was forgotten—banished to margins of Christian thinking, exiled from the study of the arts of language to which, as her ancient and medieval devotees believed, she had given birth. She survived in memory in the seals of some universities, and she sits in her guise as Alma Mater on the steps of the campus where I did my doctoral work. But she is otherwise forgotten, diminished to the status of a lowly housewife, a peasant girl chosen for no particular reason to bear a son by God. And yet, without her, Wisdom cannot come into the world.

Have you figured out now why Milo sits on a lion throne?

*Really, he didn’t:
This patriarchal consciousness that says, “The victory of the male lies in the spiritual principle,” devaluates the moon and the feminine element to which it belongs. It is “merely of the soul,” “merely” the highest form of an earthly and material development that stands in opposition to the “pure spirit” that in its Apollonian-Platonic and Jewish-Christian form has led to the abstract conceptuality of modern consciousness. But this modern consciousness is threatening the existence of Western mankind, for the one-sidedness of masculine development has led to a hypertrophy of consciousness at the expense of the whole man. 
Note how Neumann blames the “patriarchal” Judeo-Christian tradition as a whole. My guess: Neumann had been reading too much Nietzsche.



Erich Neumann, The Great Mother, trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963).

Rachel Fulton Brown, Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018). For a sneak peak at chapter 2, where I talk about the significance of Mary’s name, go here.
  • Peregrinus, Speculum virginum, trans. Barbara Newman, cited Fulton Brown, Mary, 113-14.
  • Sermon on the Salve Regina, PL 184, col. 1069, trans. Fulton Brown, Mary, 76.
Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, vision 13.1, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Mawah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990), 525.


Opening Madonna triptych, France, possibly Sens, ca. 1180-1220. Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum. Accession number 71.152.

Lion head from The MILO Show opening credits

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