The Mystery of the Rosary

Marian Devotion and the Reinvention of Catholicism

338 pages

April, 2012

ISBN: 9780814763438



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Nathan D. Mitchell is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and author of numerous books on the history and theology of Christian worship, including Meeting Mystery: Liturgy, Worship, Sacraments.

All books by Nathan D. Mitchell

The rosary has been nearly ubiquitous among Roman Catholics since its first appearance in Europe five centuries ago. Why has this particular devotional object been so resilient, especially in the face of Catholicism’s reinvention in the Early Modern, or “Counter-Reformation,” Era? Nathan D. Mitchell argues in lyric prose that to understand the rosary’s adaptability, it is essential to consider the changes Catholicism itself began to experience in the aftermath of the Reformation.
Unlike many other scholars of this period, Mitchell argues that after the Reformation Catholicism actually became less retrenched and more open to change. This innovation was especially evident in the sometimes “subversive” visual representations of sacred subjects and in new ways of perceiving the relation between Catholic devotion and the liturgy’s ritual symbols. The rosary played a crucial role not only in how Catholics gave flesh to their faith, but in new ways of constructing their personal and collective identity. Ultimately, Mitchell employs the history of the rosary as a lens through which to better understand early modern Catholic history.


  • “Mitchell draws upon contemporary historical scholarship, as well as the pioneering work of an older generation of historians like H. Outram-Evennett and John Bossy, to demonstrate the positive and innovative side of the Counter-Reformation, an aspect that he says came to the surface especially in the quarter century between 1585 and 1610.”

    America: The National Catholic Weekly

  • “Mitchell (Univ. of Notre Dame) offers a valuable new addition to his corpus of work on bottom-up Catholic spirituality and its attendant sense of spiritual mystery. Here he provides and insightful reframing of Catholic identity after the Council of Trent, demonstrating how very soon after the Council’s rigorously magisterial Counter-Reformation agenda ended, a new and overlooked sense of Catholic spirituality emerged during the late 16th and 17th centuries.”


  • “In this dazzling venture in ‘reframing,’ what could have been a nostalgic revisiting of a traditional devotion has, instead, been rendered a masterful reflection on Catholic identity and imagination. With all the prowess of an accomplished scholar, the ear of a poet, and the soul of an artist, Nathan Mitchell leads us from Caravaggio to Rahner, Erasmus to Vatican II with singular aplomb and dexterity. This case study in early modern Catholicism will reshape your understanding of post-Tridentine Catholicism, as well as the powerful Marian devotion which helped transform it.”

    —Edward Foley, Catholic Theological Union

  • “Mitchell has demonstrated that religion is sustained and communicated not primarily by creeds and dogmatic statements, but by art and architecture as well as by other symbols, rituals, stories, myths and metaphors. This book sheds much needed light on the contemporary Catholic Church. . . . The brilliant discussion of Caravaggio’s work alone is worth the price of the book!”

    —Kevin Seasoltz, author of A Sense of the Sacred: Theological Foundations of Sacred Architecture

  • “In this truly remarkable work, from both scholarly and practical perspectives, Mitchell clearly articulates the central role of a unique devotion in the life of the Roman Catholic Church. . . . In providing a solid historical foundation, Mitchell also shows how art, liturgy, and ritual have influenced and been influenced by this prayer over the past five centuries.”

    Library Journal

  • "essential English-language studies of the history of the rosary"

    The Way