Mary Through The Centuries, by Jaroslav Pelikan.
I am a little late in writing this, as I usually try to read a book like this (about Jesus or Mary, or the Christmas story) around Christmas, but to be fair, this book is not a quick read. This is not to say that this is a book written solely for scholars, but it is clearly a book written by a scholar.
Jaroslav Pelikan is a retired historian from Yale, and he brings his scholarly mind to the topic of the Virgin Mary. This book traces the extent of her importance in theology, in history, and in the arts. He makes a strong case that Mary is the most influential and inspiration woman who ever lived. He contends that despite a general lessening of religious influence in the modern world in the last century, Mary's influence remains as strong as ever, and may even be growing. As Pelikan says in the last chapter, "It is impossible to understand the history of Western spirituality and devotion without paying attention to the place of the Virgin Mary."
He contends that considerations of Mary has continually driven theological development. Basic Christian doctrines (to Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox) such as original sin, grace, and the dual natures of Christ all had to deal with Mary's position, either as example or exception. She has continued to have a role in post-Reformation Catholicism, as doctrines such as Mary's Immaculate Conception have been made dogma by Rome. Mary even had a role in affirming the doctrine of Papal infallibility.
The chapter on Mary's portrayal in the Quran is especially interesting, as the chapters covering the Virgin's appearances in literary works of Dante, Spenser, and Goethe. I struggled with parts of these chapters, as they revolve around some literary works that I am less familiar with (in the case of Spenser, not familiar with at all). But Pelikan never lets himself get lost in the academic nature of these discussions. He is able to bring the discussion back to his main point of demonstrating the Virgin's continual relevance to these works of art, and how these works of art reflected theological views, and perhaps even fostered theological views.
Each chapter begins with a full-page piece of black-and-white art, that Pelikan later references in the chapter. In addition, there are 16 color pages of beautiful Marian art, including works by Fra Angelico, El Greco and Salvador Dali. These also help the book seem less academic, giving the reader a visual cue as to the content of the chapter.
I enjoyed this book very much, and expect to look into Pelikan's earlier, similar work on the life of Jesus. Perhaps next Christmas.