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Devotion to the Virgin Mary
Seal from Kirkstall Abbey depicting the Virgin Mary © Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall Abbey
<click to enlarge>
Seal from Kirkstall Abbey depicting the Virgin Mary

Because our predecessors and fathers originally came from the church of Molesme, dedicated in honour of blessed Mary, to the place Citeaux, whence we ourselves originated, we therefore decree that all our churches and those of our successors be founded and dedicated in memory of the same Queen of heaven and earth, Mary.(1)

All Cistercian houses were dedicated to the Virgin, under the title of the Assumption, ‘Queen of Heaven and Earth’, and throughout its history the Order was closely identified with its devotion to her cult. This special relationship with Mary was visually represented in sculptures, paintings and stained glass, and from 1335 the General Chapter prescribed that the official seal of every monastery should bear her image.(2) Mary was sometimes depicted protecting members of the Order beneath her mantle. This was based on the vision of one Cistercian monk who viewed ‘fell into an ecstasy’ and viewed ‘the glories of heaven’. There he saw the angels, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs and confessors, all arranged according to whether they had been canons, Premonstratensians, Cluniacs or whatever order. No Cistercians were represented, and the monk was quite troubled; he voiced his concern to the Virgin, whereupon she replied that those of the Cistercian Order were so dear and beloved to her that she cherished them in her own bosom. "And opening her cloak, with which she seemed to be clothed, and which was of marvellous amplitude, she showed him an innumerable multitude of monks, lay-brothers and nuns."(3)

Rejoice, O most glorious Mother of God, Mary most holy and ever-Virgin, because your birth brought joyful tidings to the whole world. To the souls in purgatory you brought liberation; to men on earth, salvation; to the angels in heaven, glory; and to the heavenly city, restoration.
[Stephen of Sawley, Meditations (Meditation I), p. 30]

Mary was first celebrated in the Cistercian liturgy in 1152, when she was commemorated in the Daily Office, but her feasts and commemorations increased over the centuries, in accordance with the general amplification of the liturgical calendar. The Little Office of Our Lady was sanctioned as a community prayer in 1185, her votive Mass celebrated on Saturdays from 1220, and by the thirteenth century the Salve Regina, in many ways a defining feature of the Order, was sung at the end of Compline to conclude the liturgical day. By 1540 she was celebrated on seven feast days. Bernard of Clairvaux was particularly noted for his devotion to the Virgin and was buried before the her altar at Clairvaux. He did much to propagate the cult, yet vehemently opposed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Bernard’s devotion to Mary is celebrated by the Italian poet, Dante Alghieri, (1265-1321), in his monumental work, The Divine Comedy:

And from Heaven’s Queen, whom fervent I adore,
All gracious aid befriend us;
for that I Am her faithful Bernard.
(Paradise: Canto 31)