Jesus as Mother: Part One

DeamBookCoverChris Alford:

AFFN member and author Dr. Lisa Deam is offering an exclusive to Contributing Members of the Network: A book excerpt series from her latest publication, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps (Cascade Books, 2015).

Part one is available here and we’ll post the next in the series shortly. Enjoy!


A New Name: Part 1

What is your favorite name for Jesus? Is it brother? Friend? Savior? Are you ready to learn a new and perhaps startling name for the Son of God? The Middle Ages gives us a name that seems new but is actually quite old. In fact, medieval Christians borrowed it from the Bible itself. I like to introduce this name via one of the artistic treasures of medieval times: the Ebstorf Map (ca. 1300), a very large (over eleven feet in diameter!) map made in Germany around the year 1300.

On the Ebstorf Map, the city of Jerusalem centers the world and features a picture of the resurrection of Jesus. It is clearly the most important site on the map. And in this site is born a name for Jesus that takes many modern Christians by surprise. Read about it below in this excerpt from my new book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps (Cascade 2015).

Ebstorf-stitched full“Look closely at the map, especially the edge, where Jesus’ head, hands, and feet peep out from behind the round image of the world. It is as though Jesus stands behind the earth, grasping it firmly in his hands. What a wonderful statement of God’s compassion for humanity! The world is secure in his grasp. Humans may fail, but Jesus will never drop the ball, so to speak.

But there’s another way to look at this map. Jesus does not just hold the world; he embodies it. Round and full, the earth becomes his torso, from which his extremities (somewhat awkwardly) protrude. The map is actually a full-length portrait of our Lord.

The Ebstorf Map gives us a way to understand divine creativity. Jesus’ body contains the world but also swells with the world. To my mind—and I believe this was the intention of its makers—the Ebstorf Map pictures a pregnant body. It is round and swollen. It completely subsumes the normal proportions of the human form. And at the center of this pregnant body lies Jerusalem, which, in Jewish and Christian traditions, was often called the navel of the world.

Of all the names and concepts for Jerusalem that we’ve examined in this book—geographical center, pilgrimage destination, heavenly city—I find “navel” the most evocative. In many geographical texts, “navel” simply means “center.” But of course, it also carries connotations of gestation and birth. It describes wonderfully the place of Christ’s death and resurrection. In Jerusalem, Jesus gave life to the world, much as the umbilical cord carries sustenance to a new human being through the site of the navel. The city of Jerusalem signifies that our earth is forever linked, as if by an unbroken cord, to the one who carried it and brought it forth.

Together with Jesus’ swollen torso, the navel gives us a new and perhaps a challenging image of our Lord. We think of God as our father and Jesus himself as our friend and brother. By picturing Jesus with a pregnant body, one that delivers nourishment through the earth’s navel, the Ebstorf Map presents Jesus as mother—a mother to the world. The map may have been made by the nuns in the Benedictine convent in which it was displayed. Yet its theology does not spring from a “female mind.” In the Middle Ages, men of the church also thought of Jesus as a mother. This arresting tradition, so foreign to the way we address Jesus today, was quite widespread at the time the Ebstorf Map was made.

Male religious leaders frequently sought to imitate the savior’s feminine side. Authority figures such as abbots and prelates saw in Jesus the nurturing and protective qualities they needed in their role as caretakers. As he lay dying, the twelfth-century Cistercian abbot Aelred of Rievaulx told his monks that, “as earnestly as a mother after her sons, I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.”[1] Yet Jesus’ motherhood consisted of more than a set of admirable qualities; it was also physical. Abbots and monks thought about Jesus’ body and the maternal nourishment it could provide. In his Rule of Life for a Recluse, Aelred of Rievaulx wrote:

On your altar let it be enough for you to have a representation of our Savior hanging on the cross; that will bring before your mind his Passion for you to imitate, his outspread arms will invite you to embrace him, his naked breasts will feed you with the milk of sweetness to console you.[2]

The followers of Christ were to nurse from these breasts and so receive spiritual food.

The Ebstorf Map represents the culmination of the medieval conception of Jesus as mother. In Aelred’s passage above, Jesus lactates. On the map, he does something even more maternal: he gives birth. It is a powerful, if, to modern eyes, sometimes uncomfortable way of thinking about the far-reaching compassion of Jesus. Our savior nurtures us with a body that is neither male nor female; it is both. He gives us every part of himself, including parts we didn’t even know he had!”

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at the biblical basis for the tradition of Jesus as mother.


[1] Walter Daniel, The Life of Ailred of Rievaulx, trans. F. M. Powicke (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1950), 58.

[2] The Works of Aelred of Rievaulx, vol. 1: Treatises, The Pastoral Prayer (Spencer, MA: Cistercian Publications, 1971), 73.


Image above, right: Ebstorf Map. Courtesy of University Library Groningen.

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