Historian identifies correlation of iconographic seals, growth in Marian devotion


Photo by: Anne Deemer

A visiting professor took students through France’s history of wax seals to reveal the growth of Marian devotion in academics, in the Friday, Nov. 8 lecture in the Gentile Gallery. 

William Courtenay, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained to the students who filled both lower and upper levels of the Gallery that the study of seals from different periods of the Middle Ages gives evidence for growing devotion to Mary in France, particularly northern France. 

“What is noteworthy is, when one moves into the early 13th century, … the rapid increase of the number of seals displaying the Virgin and the Virgin and Child,” said Courtenay.  

Courtenay said that one possible explanation for increased use of the image of Mary on academic seals was due to the growing devotion to Mary in academics, although the true reason for the growth remains unknown. 

“The argument has been put forward … that Mary was not perceived simply as patron and protector of scholars but was acknowledged as their source of learning, their teacher,” Courtenay said.  

Courtenay displayed images of several seals, explaining the different images engraved into the wax. 

Describing the seal of the University of Paris from the early 13th century, Courtenay explained “(Mary) is on (the seal) at the top, … holding the Christ-child in her left arm and a rod and a fleur-de-lis in her right hand, seated on a bench along with the symbolism of the sun and moon.”  

In addition to depictions on the seals of universities, Courtenay said that the image of the Virgin and Child appeared on the seals of the various nations at the French university. He also said that the personal seals of the masters of theology used the image.  

There’s only, I think, one seal out of 14 that has anything other than Mary,” said Courtenay, talking about the surviving seals of the masters of theology from the early 14th century. “That to me represents a very important shift going on here.” 

Arianna Rodriguez, sophomore, shared how Courtenay’s talk gave her a new perspective of Mary 

“Our Blessed Mother is so beautiful and diverse, and this talk really highlighted this,” Rodriguez said. “This has led me to desire to allow the Blessed Mother to play a greater role in my life as a teacher, for I know that all she teaches me will be the greatest lessons I have ever learned.”