Chastity is one of the seven virtues in Christian tradition, listed by Pope Gregory I at the end of the 6th century. In 1 Corinthians, Saint Paul suggests a special role for virgins or unmarried women (ἡ γυνὴ καὶ ἡ παρθένος ἡ ἄγαμος) as more suitable for "the things of the Lord" (μεριμνᾷ τὰ τοῦ κυρίου). In 2 Corinthians 11:2, Paul alludes to the metaphor of the Church as Bride of Christ by addressing the congregation "I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ".
In the theology of the Church Fathers, the prototype of the sacred virgin is Mary, the mother of Jesus, consecrated by the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation. Although not stated in the gospels, the perpetual virginity of Mary was widely upheld as a dogma by the Church Fathers from the 4th century.
In the hagiography of Christian martyrs of the late 1st to early 4th centuries, virgin martyrs (Latin virgo et martyr, Greek παρθένος-μάρτυρας, Russian дева-мученица) are Christian virgins, often persecuted for their refusal to enter a worldly marriage after having vowed to keep their virginity. The historicity of these early saints cannot be established, the dates given are from hagiographical tradition.
Post-Nicean Virgin martyrs:
The first known formal consecration is that of Saint Marcellina, dated AD 353, mentioned in De Virginibus by her brother, Saint Ambrose. Another early consecrated virgin is Saint Genevieve (c. 422 – c. 512).
Saint Margaret of Hungary (1242–1270) is noted as a nun and virgin, as she received a separate consecration as a virgin in spite of already having taken monastic vows; this was done in order to dissuade her father, king Béla IV of Hungary, from trying to have her vows rescinded by the pope for the purposes of a political marriage.
According to Raymond of Capua, Catherine of Siena (c. 1347–1380) at the age of twenty-one (c. 1368) experienced what she described in her letters as a "Mystical Marriage" with Jesus, later a popular subject in art as the Mystic marriage of Saint Catherine.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897), canonized in 1925.
The tradition of the rite of consecration dates back to the 4th century. The rite for virgins living in the world has been reintroduced under Pope Paul VI in 1970. The reintroduction of the rite of consecration of virgins for women living in the world was notably campaigned for by Anne Leflaive (1899–1987), who had been consecrated as a virgin in 1924, and who campaigned for the formal recognition of the rite of consecration during the 1920s to 1960s.
The number of consecrated virgins ranges in the thousands. While the Holy See does not keep official statistics, estimates derived from diocesan records range at around 5,000 consecrated virgins worldwide as of 2018.