The Virgin and Child
209 pages
English

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The Virgin and Child

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209 pages
English

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Description

The Virgin and the Child are amongst the most favourite artistic themes since the Middle Ages. Mary was frequently depicted with the Christ Child.This religious scene showcases a mother and her son, sometimes accompanied by other protagonists. Originally distant and formal, the relationship between the two figures was expressed with tendernessat the end of the Middle Ages and became more human. Amongst the famous artists who have treated the subject of the Virgin and the Child are, most notably, Cimabue, Jean Fouquet, Quentin Metsys, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Rubens, and many others. 300 pictures and more than 500 pages including detailed captions, offer a thorough insider view on the subject.

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Date de parution 11 avril 2018
Nombre de lectures 2
EAN13 9781683254638
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 19 Mo

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Exrait

Kyra Belán – Ernest Renan




The Virgin
and Child
Authors:
Kyra Belán
Ernest Renan
Layout:
Baseline Co. Ltd
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
© Confidential Concepts, worldwide, USA
© Parkstone Press International, New York, USA
© Image Bar www.image-bar.com
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or adapted without the permission of the copyright holder, throughout the world. Unless otherwise specified, copyright on the works reproduced lies with the respective photographers, artists, heirs or estates. Despite intensive research, it has not always been possible to establish copyright ownership. Where this is the case, we would appreciate notification.
ISBN: 978-1-68325-463-8


Our Lady of Vladimir , first third of the 12 th century. Tempera on wood, 104 x 69 cm. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Contents
The Virgin in Art
Introduction
Early Medieval through Late Medieval
The Renaissance
The Baroque
The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
The Twentieth Century
Conclusion
Christ in Art
Origins of the Story of Christ
The Young Christ
Christ the Teacher
Christ the Messiah
The Final Days and Death of Christ
Christ’s Work and Legacy
Bibliography
List of Illustrations
Notes
The Virgin in Art


Mary as Sophia on the Lion Throne , c. 1150. Illuminated manuscript. Bodleian Library, Oxford, England.
Introduction
The image of the Madonna has been embedded in the arts of the Western world for nearly two thousand years. In all these Euro-centric cultures, she embodies the purest form of unconditional love and is perceived as the compassionate and forgiving nurturer of all Christian people. The Madonna is also seen as the loving mother and protector of all humanity. Her followers believe that only she can fully understand human grief, passion and happiness; she forgives, mediates, and consoles, and she is the connection between human beings and their God. She has been venerated as the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of All, and as the embodiment of compassion. She is seen as selfless, humble, and caring, and represents the feminine spirituality within Christianity. She is also known as the Virgin Mary, Our Lady, the Queen of Heaven, and the Blessed Mother of God.
For many centuries the Madonna has inspired thousands of artists who laboured innumerable hours creating her images using different styles, materials, and techniques. This huge body of artwork, a cultural legacy of major proportions, represents a social system that still dominates the world. Art museums, galleries, palaces and private collections are filled with her icons.
Through the centuries, images of the Virgin were created according to the religious interpretations of beliefs, myths, iconography and symbolism prevalent at the time.
Today, Mary represents different things to different people, yet her universal message of unconditional love is accessible to all. The proof for contemporary Marian devotion may lie in the frequent sightings of apparitions of the Madonna all over the globe, and in her prominent presence on the Internet.
The images of Mary are familiar to most people on this planet. As centuries unfolded and as the roles of women within society were modified, diminished, or expanded, the role of the Madonna was understood and interpreted in a new way. The dialogue about Mary’s divine nature, her dogma, her conventional and occult symbols, and her origins continues among the theologians, the philosophers, and the sociologists of the new millennium. Although modern artists are no longer obligated to produce religious images, many – particularly women – are often inspired by her traditional or expanding role. To create their art, they often choose new forms of artistic expression.


Teacher and Pupils, Orant, and Child , 3 rd century. Wall painting in a lunette. Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome.
The presence of Mary within Western civilisation has a long theological history of transformation. Scholars concur that during early Christianity there were other paramount feminine faces of spirituality, such as Sophia, who was understood to be the feminine aspect of the complex Christian God. Hagia Sophia represented the Divine Wisdom and was celebrated as a co-creator, together with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. At the beginning of Christianity, particularly in Eastern Europe, the Holy Ghost was understood as female. Yet it usually was Sophia who was celebrated as the feminine aspect of the divine. [1] As Sophia’s popularity among the dogma-generating clergy waned, the popularity of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, gradually increased. One of the earliest images of Mary still extant was painted in the 2 nd or 3 rd century, and is located in the Crypt of the Veiled Lady, the Catacombs of Priscilla, in Rome. This image represents her in the company of a centrally-located female figure, perhaps an early image of Sophia. A figure, possibly of Jesus, with students, is placed on the right of the figure in the centre. The Virgin Mary, holding her infant, is located on the left side of the standing figure.
During the 6 th century, the presence of the Mother of God was reaffirmed within the Christian religious dogma all over Europe, including the Byzantine Empire. This affirmation effectively neutralised the threat of a competitor religion, that of the Great Goddess Isis of Egypt. During early centuries CE, [2] the image of Mary was frequently equated to and even confused with the image of the Egyptian goddess whose religion had been in existence for several thousand years. Like the Madonna, the Goddess Isis also had a divine son, Horus, and the artists often depicted her tenderly holding her precious infant on her lap and suckling him. One of her main characteristics was that of a nurturing mother. She was, like Mary, a compassionate and loving divinity, ultimately dedicated to her people’s wellbeing. [3]


Figure of Isis and Horus , 200 BCE – 100 BCE. Copper alloy and bronze, height: 27 cm. The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, Cambridge.


Virgin and Child , 9 th century. Mosaic. Apse, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
There are many similarities between the myths of Mary and the myths of Isis. Both conceived their sons in unusual ways and were believed to be extremely loving and receptive to their followers’ plights and prayers. Both were understood to be protectors of children and of women in distress or sorrow, and both generated an array of miracles. Many of Mary’s temples were built on the sites of temples formerly dedicated to Isis. Most people did not see many differences between the two female divine figures. Early Christian worshipers perceived their Madonna as the new interpretation of the ancient Great Goddess Isis.
The religion of the Goddess Isis lasted for a minimum of four thousand years. However, new evidence suggests that the goddess may have endured for more than six millennia. Although originally an Egyptian goddess, Isis was worshiped throughout most of the ancient world, including a substantial part of Europe. She was the daughter of an earlier Egyptian divinity, the sky goddess Nut. Isis was also understood to be a more recent version of two Egyptian goddesses that chronologically preceded her, Hathor and Sekhmet. Like the Great Sekhmet, Isis was a sun goddess, and like Hathor, Isis possessed lunar powers. An abundance of symbols, including different plants and animals, were used by artists to represent her many aspects. Numerous former symbols of Isis were later incorporated into the iconography of the Virgin Mary. By the year 431, the Church Council of Ephesus of the Byzantine Empire declared the Virgin Mary to be the Theotokos, or the Bearer of God. This event was followed by an increase in the artistic production of her images.
Yet many icons of Mary were later destroyed due to the theological struggle within Christianity during the 7 th and 8 th centuries, although some were miraculously spared. Eastern Christian clergy recognised their emperors as leaders of the Church, and in 726, Leo III, a Byzantine emperor, initiated a movement called Iconoclasm. The proponents of the movement feared that the population would worship the icons of Christian religious characters rather than the concepts that they represented. During the 8 th century, the Iconoclastic movement banned all sacred images located within the Byzantine empire, believing that the worshipers were venerating the actual images instead of the spiritual beings. However, this decision was permanently reversed by the following century, and the creation of icons dedicated to the Virgin Mary resumed with fervour. [4]
Besides the Goddess Isis, statues or icons of other pagan goddesses were often reinterpreted as images of Mary during early Christianity. One of them was the ancient Greek earth goddess Demeter, who also had a child, Persephone or Core, the resurrecting goddess of spring. Another such goddess was Artemis/Diana of the Greco-Roman world.
Cybele, originally from the Near East, was also often viewed as an early version of Mary. Each of these goddesses had a long history of veneration. Complex rituals were performed to celebrate them and numerous temples were built in which to worship them.
Perhaps the most interesting of these temples is the one that was dedicated to the Goddess Artemis and was located in Ephesus.
Even today its ruins are deeply admired and reflect the great love and respect that the goddess received from her subjects throughout the millennia.
Her extraordinary statue, representing her as the Great Mother, her body covered by fruit and animals that were believed to be her attributes, attests to her role as the Nurturer of Humanity throughout antiquity all over Europe and the Near East.
Imported from Anatolia into the Roman Empire, the Goddess Cybele – worshipped as the creator goddess – inspired a temple that was located on the site of today’s St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.


Demeter Holding Grain and Poppy Pods Between Serpents , 3 rd -2 nd century BCE. Terracotta. Museo Nazionale delle Terme, Rome.


Cybele with a Dove and Patera , 3 rd -2 nd century BCE. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Reggio Calabria, Italy.
During these times, the newly established patriarchal societies retained strong matriarchal components that were still firmly embedded within their structure. Women often therefore possessed considerable rights and powers.
Consequently, the feminine spiritual powers were celebrated within their religious structures. The divinities of both genders were worshipped within these societies with equal ardor and reverence. A number of these goddesses and gods from the religions of the ancient world later became very popular Christian saints, and many churches were dedicated to them.
Beneath the layers of goddess images and temples created by the artists of the pagan world, there is another earlier layer of art that was produced by prehistoric men and women to celebrate their Mother God.
Early images of the Great Goddess of Neolithic and Paleolithic Europe that survived the test of time were often carved out of stone. Marija Gimbutas, an archeologist and author of several volumes of texts on the history of prehistoric matriarchal cultures of Europe, describes in detail the societies that produced images of the Mother Goddess. These prehistoric social systems were matriarchal.
God the creator was visualised in female form since people’s beliefs reflected a social order that was essentially organised and implemented by the women of these cultures. An abundance of images that represent the oldest religious belief system of humanity has been unearthed and these images can be viewed at major museums around the world.
The earliest of these images in Europe is considered to be the Venus or Goddess of Willendorf , and she dates from around 35,000 BCE. These prehistoric icons of the goddess are the most distant ancestors of Mary.
Under the strictly patriarchal social order of the last two millennia, the role of the female gender was clearly defined as subservient and less valuable than the role of the male gender. It was no longer possible, therefore, to sustain a belief in a female divinity within the Christian dogma.
Yet the Madonna retained her occult divine status, often apparent through the symbolic messages incorporated into her iconography by the artists who created her icons.
For the last five centuries, as the Western world expanded its boundaries into the rest of the globe, many new temples dedicated to the Virgin Mary were built directly upon the sites of the old Mother Goddess temples of indigenous cultures.
After the conquest of the Americas, countries such as Mexico and Peru made a significant artistic contribution of images dedicated to Mary. Like her European counterparts, these images often depicted the Holy Virgin as the Black Madonna, considered to be the most miraculous and powerful.
Within the new continent, the Virgin Mary often assumed the role of the former regional mother goddess, and became the patron of the particular region or an entire new country. Additional symbols, previously representing the native divinities, were then incorporated into the Marian iconography.
Consequently, the new populations perceived the Virgin Mary as the Christian Mother of God, and, at the same time, as the indigenous Mother God of the earlier conquered civilisations.
All indications are that the role of the Madonna is still evolving. The lore, the origins, the dogma, the myths, and the expanding array of symbols and archetypes continue to surround the enigmatic persona of the Virgin Mary. As a prototype of spirituality and perfection in womanhood, the Madonna looms larger than life.
This book offers the reader some of the best art that has been produced through the centuries to celebrate Mary. The works of art were created by many different individuals who tried to convey and explain, from their different points of view and using the visual language available to them, the depth of the feelings and convictions of their cultures in respect of this Great Mother.


Artemis of Ephesus , 150-199. Alabaster, height: 130 cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples.


The Venus (Goddess) of Willendorf , c. 35,000-25,000 BCE. Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna.


Simone Martini , Madonna ( The Annunciation ), 1340-1344. Tempera on wood, 30.5 x 21.5 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
Early Medieval through Late Medieval
The earliest images of Mary were probably introduced into early Christian iconography during the 2 nd and 3 rd centuries. This was a time in human history when society was committed to relieving women of their remaining rights and powers; vestiges of the old matriarchal rights were excised from the prevalent patriarchal order. The officially accepted Gospels of the New Testament were written by males for a patristic social system, and very few references about the Madonna were made in these texts. Neither Mary nor her son, Jesus, wrote any material, and the first official Gospel, believed to be written by Mark, was completed in its unedited version in 66. Apparently the second official version of the Gospels was written by Luke in 80, shortly followed by Matthew’s version. It is possible, however, that John’s version was in fact the earliest one, at around 37, since it includes more details, which has led many to believe that perhaps this version may be closer to the real occurrences of the events in the lives of Mary and her son, Jesus. [5] These accounts, primarily of the story of Jesus, mentioned his mother on very rare occasions, and were not nearly enough to satisfy the people, who, in spite of the patriarchal trivialising of women, desperately desired a divine female figure to worship and venerate. The yearning for the powerful but gentle Great Mother could not be silenced, and the worship of the goddesses from the old religions, such as Isis, Cybele, Demeter, Aphrodite and Athena continued. The devotion to Isis was, perhaps, the most widespread, posing a formidable threat to the fledgling Christian cult.
The new Christian religion needed its own Great Mother, and that Mother manifested itself first in the early interpretations of the Holy Ghost as female, and of Sophia as the Wisdom of God. [6] These powerful female archetypes of the new predominantly patriarchal religion were soon overshadowed by the inclusion of Mary, the mother of Christ. From the beginning, the Madonna was seen as the symbol for the Mother Church herself. Consequently, the cult of Mary sprang into existence, based on the minimal information obtained from the official four Gospels, inferences drawn from the book of Revelation, and information from the Apocrypha. These officially rejected later writings were derivative of the earlier Gospels, and contained more information on the life of Mary, a fact that may indicate the growing need of Christian worshippers to celebrate and venerate her.
By incorporating the information from all the sources together, and by embellishing it with additional popular mythology, often derived from the ancient goddess myths, the complex cult of the Virgin Mary was born. Yet the paramount patriarchal issue of the virginity of Mary and the virgin birth was briefly mentioned only in two of the four accepted Gospels – those by Matthew and Luke.
Even so, the possibility that the word “virgin”, or almah used in these texts, was not a word that defined a virgo intacta but simply a term for a young woman, presented an argument against the issue of the virgin birth for centuries to come. [7]
The presence of the Madonna was critical to the universal acceptance of Christianity in Europe, both eastern and western; her presence created a bridge that allowed the followers of the matriarchal goddess-worshipping religions to join the new patriarchal cult.
A complex Marian dogma was gradually developed by the clergy, always in response to the public’s needs and desires to worship and venerate this divinity. In many cases, the official dogmatic proclamations lagged behind the beliefs of the people and the artistic renderings of Mary by several centuries. The artists always listened carefully to the desires of the masses, and developed a rich pool of symbols, archetypes, and themes that enabled them to successfully interpret the sacred events and visions of Mariology.
However, the Christian dogma of the early centuries included another powerful female figure, the mysterious Sophia, or the Word of God, as the female element within the Creation. Many early images were dedicated to her, and Mary, the Mother of God, was often represented as Mary/Sophia.
In addition, the parallels between the images of Mary and the images of the Goddess Isis contributed to the acceptance of Christianity by a large sector of the medieval population that formerly worshipped Isis and other female gods. This last development unified and cemented Christianity as the dominant religion of both eastern and western Europe. The Marian artists promptly adopted numerous symbols of the goddesses for iconographic purposes, further eliminating any doubts in the mind of the worshippers that their Universal Mother was no less important than the female divinities of previous religions. [8]
Meanwhile, in response to the needs of the Christian population searching for a female divine principle, Marian iconography, cult, and dogma were gradually created and refined.
But the Fathers of the Church were keenly aware that their ascetic religion, which saw sexuality as a form of evil, and women as more sexual and physical than men, needed to fortify and reaffirm the virginity of Mary to further separate her from the rest of womanhood, which most of them believed to be evil and inferior to men.


George of Antioch at the Feet of the Virgin . Mosaic. Martorana, Palermo, Sicily.


The Black Virgin of Rocamadour , c. 1000 CE. Walnut wood. Notre-Dame de Rocamadour, Rocamadour.
Since only a perfect being could engender a divine son, not only the perpetual virginity of the Madonna but also her own immaculate conception, or birth without taint of Original Sin, were discussed and proclaimed by the Church Fathers, who also made sure that women were not accepted into the priesthood. [9]
The myth of the virgin birth is not unique to Christianity. In many ancient and pagan religions a goddess gives birth to a daughter or a son without any help from a god, a phenomenon known as parthenogenesis. While in prehistoric Europe and its vicinity, the creator was worshiped in female form, in late prehistoric times the Great Mother Goddess finally multiplied herself by giving birth to the first male divinity, her son. Later, in ancient Greek and Roman times, many heroes and other important male historical figures claimed to be born of a woman by the power of the Holy Spirit. Several versions of the early Christian birth miracle were formulated by the early theologians. In Eastern Europe, since the gender of the Holy Spirit was yet unclear, it was seen as a Mother God, taking possession of Mary’s body till the day the child was born. The dove – a symbol of the Holy Ghost – was sacred among the Greeks and the Romans as a symbol of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
The gender-specific change from a “she” to a “he” in the Latin language transformed the female holy spirit into the male spiritus sanctus , and the masculine iconography for the images of the Annunciation theme emerged into existence in Western Europe, and soon was established as the correct interpretation of the dogma. Even though the miracle of a virgin birth had a long pre-Christian tradition spanning thousands of years of previous religions, Christianity’s validation of their Son of God, incarnated into human flesh, needed further justification. Mary was declared a perpetual virgin, even while pregnant, and during birth. This miracle was more difficult to explain than the one of the virgin birth alone.
The catechism meetings during the Council of Trent upheld this belief between 1545 and 1563, but centuries later, “the Second Vatican Council of 1964 refrained from proclaiming it an article of faith”. Mary therefore emerged in Christianity as a matriarchal divinity, a mother who bore a child without any assistance from a male, yet her sacred virginity was used by the patristic Church for centuries to devalue and demean women. Their carnal, non-virginal wombs that produced children’s bodies were considered inferior to the father’s “more spiritual” role in reproduction. The Virgin of Christianity was perceived as chaste, while the parthenogenesis and virginity of the pre-Christian goddesses did not imply their abstinence from male company, human or divine. Mary’s virginal state was ultimately paramount to the Church leaders. It not only represented the Church’s aversion to sexuality, particularly in women, but also a new hope for redemption from Original Sin, a redemption from the sins of the sexual Eve who earlier plunged the whole of humanity into its sinful and inferior existence.
In fact, the Virgin was seen as the Second Eve, the perfect redeemer that would slay the serpent of corruption and save humanity from Eve’s evil transgression and disobedience of the patriarchal God. According to the dogma, Mary was the paragon of virtue and obedience to the same God, and the ideal example that would encourage women and men to also remain virginal. Christ, incarnate through the Virgin, was also seen as virginal.
Both Mary and Jesus, therefore, were to save humanity from the corruption of the flesh, sexuality, and eventually, from death. The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin was another prerequisite for the Madonna’s purity and perfection (although it was not officially proclaimed as dogma till 1854). She was believed to be born without the blemish of Original Sin, as the people saw in her the incarnation of the Holy Spirit and Sophia.
As the Mother of the Church she was effective in placing it above the rulers of the lands. Thus, Mary was elevated by the priesthood to the status of the Queen of Heaven, the militant ruler, as the Church itself aspired to be, of the world. [10]
The adoration of Mary inspired specific themes in the visual arts. Various myths that highlighted important Marian events were clearly formulated by the artists. These themes included episodes from her childhood, her engagement to Joseph, the Annunciation by the Archangel Gabriel of the conception of her son, Jesus, the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus, or the Nativity, the flight to Egypt, Mary’s lament over the body of Christ, her death, her assumption to the heavenly realm, her coronation as the Queen of Heaven, and her many appearances to saints and people.
Other images revealed her role as the protector of the people, or as the giver of abundance, Mary as Sophia, Mary as the New Eve, Mary as the Queen of Heaven, and Mary as the Savior and the maker of miracles, particularly in her role as the Black Madonna. These themes originated in medieval times, and remained well-defined formulas in art over many centuries.
During the first thirteen centuries of Christianity, artists employed an abstract style to represent Mary. This approach, used for all Christian iconography, was consistent with the Church’s denial of human sensuality: the Christian doctrine, unlike the old earth-based religions, divided the world into the earthly realm and the heavenly realm, the latter of the two being the more desirable. Spirituality was equated with dematerialisation, disembodiment, the absence of all sexual and sensual feelings, and the elevated value of virginity.
Many early Christian works of art were created in the cloisters and monasteries by the clergy, the monks and the nuns. An abstract, linear style was considered the most appropriate for conveying a spiritual message.
The Black Madonna
The cult of the Black Madonna, a miraculous and compassionate intercessor for her people, was widespread during early centuries of Christianity, and peaked during the 11 th , 12 th and 13 th centuries in Europe, particularly in France and Spain. Many of the original icons ended up disappearing from their sites due to theft, and were replaced by newer replicas, equally venerated nevertheless. Black or dark-skinned representations of Mary, often statues, can be traced back to the worship of the Mother Goddess from whom she inherited many of her attributes and powers. Variants of this goddess included Cybele, Artemis/Diana, and of course, Isis.
All these goddesses possessed sacred sites with shrines, and were sometimes represented as dark-skinned. In that aspect the images themselves and the locations of these temples were considered mysteriously powerful and capable of producing miracles. One such statue, among the oldest, of the Dark Madonna is Our Lady of Guadalupe, and is located in her shrine in Spain. Records indicate that the statue and the shrine have supported an important Marian cult centre since before the 7 th century. Then the statue was buried to save her from a foreign invasion, and rediscovered during the 12 th century, to become again an important centre of pilgrimage. [11] The Christian doctrine at that time placed Mary as the supreme female figure within the official dogma. But the medieval population had a mind of its own and always believed their Virgin to be fully divine. Common sense indicated to the people that she who is the mother of a god must be a goddess herself.


Our Lady of Guadalupe , c. 7 th century. Santa María de Guadalupe, Cáceres, Spain.


Our Lady of Montserrat , early 12 th century. Wood. Santa Maria de Montserrat, Catalonia, Spain.


Black Madonna of Breznichan ( Bohemia ), 1386. Národní Galerie, Prague.
The statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe is covered with beautifully embroidered garments, and still attracts crowds of the faithful who expect her to grant more miracles. During the 16 th century in Mexico, a new version of Our Lady of Guadalupe was established, and to this day the site and the image draw a crowd of followers and tourists. Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe of Mexico City is the officially-declared protector of the people of Mexico.
Another powerful and beloved Black Madonna in Spain is Our Lady of Montserrat. The recorded history of pilgrimages to her site, located in Catalonia, begins in the early 12 th century, as the news of her miraculous cures spread through Europe. It is an official site of the Jesuit order and is still very much celebrated today as a pilgrimage site. The statue of this Black Madonna portrays her seated on her throne, her child on her lap. Her head is crowned, and she also holds an orb in her right hand. She is the Mother of God, the Queen of the World, and her child Jesus is the little king.
Mary the Theotokos
One of the early masterpieces of Marian iconography is a Byzantine mosaic that is located in the famous cathedral in Constantinople (Istanbul) which was built for and dedicated to Hagia Sophia.
It represents Mary, seated on a throne, with the infant Jesus on her lap ( Virgin and Child ). Two emperors are depicted on each side of the mother and child: Constantine, the founder of the city, and Justinian, who built the Cathedral dedicated to Sophia, the Word of God.
At that time, Mary was seen as Sophia the Logos /Creator as well, and her majestic demeanor conveys the message. Mary was also the Theotokos , the Bearer of God, her official title according to the proclamation of the Church Council of Ephesus in 431.
The golden background of the mosaic symbolises the heavens, a custom adopted from the ancient pagan religions.


Mary with the Child Jesus between Constantine and Justinian , 10 th century. Lunette mosaic. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.


Our Lady of the Great Panagiya ( Oranta ), first third of the 13 th century. Tempera on wood, 193.2 x 120.5 cm. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Mary-Sophia
In Russia, images of Mary-Sophia were so abundant during early centuries that the idea that she embodies the feminine divine component of the Christian faith persists even in present times.
A 12 th -century icon, now at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, is one of the very many examples of a representation of Mary as the spiritual ruler of Russia, represented in a standing orant position, a gesture of blessing.
Her face is radiant and calm, and an aureola surrounds her head.
The solar nimbus was inserted into Marian iconography via ancient religions that worshipped sun goddesses such as Sekhmet, Hathor, Isis or Juno.
Three other circular shapes that form a visual triangle include the infant Jesus in the centre of his mother’s body, also with his arms open in a gesture of blessing, and two angels which are in the circles on each side of the Great Mother, each holding a cross.
A mosaic modelled after Byzantine images from the east is located in the apse of the church of Santa Maria Trastevere, in Rome. It represents Mary enthroned together with her adult son Jesus, in a mode usually reserved for an imperial couple. They are represented as the rulers of the Christian world. The surrounding celestial realm is symbolised by the use of gold tesserae embedded into the surface. The 12 th -century church is considered to be the first one dedicated to Mary in the city, and affirms the importance of the Marian doctrine during that century in Italy.
Hildegard of Bingen was a 12 th -century illuminated manuscript artist, musician, poet, and Christian philosopher who stood out among her peers of the time.
As Mother Superior of a Benedictine convent, she was a mystic who created a number of images of Mary-Sophia.
Perhaps her most unusual icon of Mary-Sophia is the image titled Sophia Amon Cosmiarcha, Co-Creator and Mother of the World and Humanity . This image is from a page of her book The Works of God , and is based on one of her many visions experienced as a Christian mystic.
It represents a standing figure of a woman, her arms outstretched and forming a semicircle, which is completed below the arm level as a symbolic circular womb that contains a figure of a man.
Over the top of her head emerges the head of Yahweh, the Creator. In the circular womb, besides the figure of the rather androgynous male there are symbolic plant and animal figures. Sophia-Mary is seen as the Mother of the World, co-Creator. This image sustains many philosophical and anthropological implications.
St Hildegard also created the image, featured in her book Scivias (“Knowing the Ways [of God]”), titled Sophia-Mary, Bride of Christ and Mother of the Church . This illuminated manuscript page contains two separate illustrations featuring Sophia-Mary, and is based on the information from both the Old and the New Testaments. On the right, Sophia-Mary is shown next to Christ Pantocrator (“Ruler of All”). One of his hands is raised in blessing. Sophia-Mary wears a crown, is painted in solid gold colour, and is supporting the throne upon which Christ is sitting. Here Mary represents the Church, as the Mother of the Church. On the left, the gold-painted Sophia-Mary is shown holding a banner that reads “I am to conceive and give birth”. She also holds three figures and is surrounded by angels bearing chairs and a ladder. She is depicted both as the powerful Mother of the Church and as its organising authority. [12]


Hildegard of Bingen , Sophia-Mary, Bride of Christ and Mother of the Church , c. 1150-1200. Otto Müller Verlag, Salzburg.


Hildegard of Bingen , The Cosmiarcha, Co-Creator and Mother of the World and Humanity , c. 1150-1200. Otto Müller Verlag, Salzburg.


Joachim and Ann Caress Their Child , c. 1315-1320. Mosaic. Chora Church (Kariye Camii), Istanbul.


Maria Platyter a, c. 1400. Painting. Museum Dahlem, Berlin.
Mary’s Childhood
A 14 th -century mosaic in the church of St Savior in Chora, Istanbul, represents the theme that continued to be popular in Europe and the Christian world for many centuries: the childhood of Mary. The image shows Mary’s parents, Anne (or Anna) and Joachim, caressing their beloved child. This tender family scene presents a loving family unit, both human and divine. During the 17 th century Church leaders began to discourage these scenes in sudden anxiety that too much attention was being paid to Mary rather than to Jesus.
Joseph’s Doubt
A theme that was developed during the Middle Ages is that of Joseph’s doubts by the revelation of Mary’s virgin birth. The writers and later editors of the scriptures, all presumably male, seem to have had something of an obsession regarding the virginity of Mary, and this issue remained an important factor in Christian dogma – subject to frequent ecclesiastical discussions – making Mary unique and separate from the rest of her sex. This uniqueness of Mary was often used against womanhood in general, making women’s oppression by the patriarchal system easier to explain and rationalise.
The Annunciation
The theme of the Annunciation was emphasised during the Middle Ages to the point of stylising this important event in Mary’s life; the prediction of her miraculous pregnancy.
Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi painted The Annunciation, with Saints Ansanus and Margaret and Four Prophets for the altar of Saint Ansano inside Siena Cathedral in 1333.
The Virgin is seated before a solid gold background that is symbolic of spirituality, while the Archangel Gabriel kneels in front of her. A vase nearby contains lilies: symbols of the Virgin’s purity and her Immaculate Conception.
Above, Gothic arches accommodate several angels and prophets, while the side panels contain standing figures of St Ansanus and St Margaret.


Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi , The Annunciation , 1333. Tempera on wood, 184 x 210 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


The Mother of God “Hodegetria” of Volyn , first half of the 14 th century. National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kiev.
Madonna and Child
The theme of the Virgin and Child was popular in both Eastern and Western Europe during the Middle Ages. The Eastern icon style, including that of Russia’s artists, has changed little throughout the centuries, remaining stylised and abstract.
The Mother of God “Hodegetria”of Volyn was completed during the 14 th century, and is now in the National Art Museum of Ukraine in Kiev. A melancholy Madonna, she represents the compassionate and loving Mother of Russia who protects her people, but also grieves with them.
During the 14 th century, Italy produced a large number of paintings of the Madonna. The work by Lorenzo Veneziano shows the Virgin and Child enthroned, a traditional theme that was to flourish later during the Renaissance and the Baroque periods.
This Madonna has more realistic, softer features, and seems to gaze at the viewer, while the infant’s attention is centred on her. The two share an intimate bond. Both are holding a rose, symbolic of female divinity and spirituality. Mary’s ornate throne is a metaphor for the Church. She is both the Great Mother and the Mother Church of her people.
The sun-shaped halo and the stars around her head attest to her also being the Queen of Heaven.


Lorenzo Veneziano , The Virgin and Child , 1372. Painting on wood, 126 x 56 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
The Holy Family
Nativity scenes became important in Christian iconography during the late Middle Ages. The 14 th -century painting by Simone dei Crocifissi, now in the Uffizi, Florence, depicting the family group of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, was commissioned by a well-to-do merchant.
The family is surrounded by animals and angels, and there is one other human figure. All the members of the holy family have ornate solar aureoles around their heads, reminding us of their more-than-human stature.
The style is softer, more realistic than the approach in earlier centuries.


Simone dei Crocifissi , Nativity , c. 1380. Tempera on wood, 25 x 47 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
The Virgin of the Apocalypse
In 1391, Giovanni del Biondo completed his Virgin of the Apocalypse . The Madonna stands on a platform with the Child in her arms, surrounded by four male and four female saints, including Mary Magdalene. The latter is an important and mystical Christian female character often understood to be either an aspect of Mary herself or the opposite extreme, the whore. Mary Magdalene is also believed by some to have been a female Gospel writer whose work was rejected by the Church Fathers, and by some to have been the bride/wife of Jesus. [13] In the upper right corner of the panel is a figure that represents Mary as at the Annunciation, dressed in red and wearing a blue cape. She has her arms crossed, symbolic of the acceptance of her destiny. In the opposite corner, the archangel of the Annunciation holds a white lily, an allegory for Mary’s purity. The central figure of Mary is attired in the same colours as the small corner figure, but the blue cape has an ermine trim, indicating her status as the Queen of Heaven. The infant in her arms has his hands folded, like the Mary of the Annunciation, implying a strong spiritual connection between the two. This Madonna has a sun-shaped halo adorned with twelve stars around her head, and she is standing over a crescent moon – an allusion to the book of Revelation. For in Revelation, St John describes a woman clothed with the sun, with a moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars. During medieval times, a tradition of identifying this woman with Mary developed. This same tradition probably helped to derive the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception, and of Mary’s Assumption to heaven. Our Lady also appears in the centre, above the principal Mary’s head. She has a pair of eagle’s wings – another reference to the text of Revelation in which the woman clothed in the sun is saved by the eagles after giving birth to a male child. This scene is symbolic of the purification of the soul of the deceased. Again, Mary represents a metaphor for the Church, and is portrayed as the Madonna Enthroned, a theme that is to be very close to the hearts of Christian churchpeople for several centuries to come.


Giovanni del Biondo , The Virgin of the Apocalypse with Saints and Angels , c. 1391. Tempera and gold on wood, 75.4 x 43.4 cm. Musei Vaticani, Vatican City.
The Madonna as Mother Church
Duccio’s Madonna is no less beautiful, seated on an elaborate throne. Although Our Lady and her child appear to be three-dimensional and realistic, the surrounding environment is stylised, disregarding the principles of perspective.
Hierarchic scale, often used in medieval times, is featured, depicting the most important subject – Mary – as the largest. The symmetrical distribution of the six angels, three on each side of the Madonna, may be symbolic of the order that Mary, as Mother Church, imposes on her subjects. Yet above all, she remains the loving mother.


Duccio di Buoninsegna , Madonna Rucellai , c. 1285. Tempera on wood, 450 x 290 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Simone Martini , Madonna of the Misericordia , 13 th century. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, Italy.


The Master of the Misericordia , Madonna of the Misericordia , c. 1373. Tempera on wood, 63 x 34 cm. Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Florence.
The Madonna as Protectress
The compassionate and loving nature of Mary the Mother of God and of Christians worldwide is perhaps most clearly expressed by the artists who formulated the motif of the Madonna of the Misericordia. One such Madonna was created by Simone Martini during the 13 th century.
Martini painted the Virgin as a powerful but compassionate figure, encased in a capacious mantle which is used to accommodate scores of people. The people involved appear to be mostly royalty, nobility and clergy.
This image of Madonna embodies the desire of humanity to be fully protected and loved by the Divine Mother of the World. Mary as protectress is the theme of a tempera painting on a panel by the Master of the Misericordia, appropriately titled Madonna of the Misericordia .
The work was created for the convent of the Augustinian nuns of Santa Maria a Candeli in around 1373 and is now housed at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze in Florence. Mary is the dominant figure, standing with her arms outstretched. Her mantle of protection, held open by two angels, shelters a group of nuns, and four smaller female figures.
The inscription beneath, ADVOCATA UNIVERSITATIS, declares her to be the universal intercessor on behalf of the people. The upper area of the painting, above the mantle, glows with a golden background that merges with the Virgin’s solar nimbus.
The figures of Christ and the angels seem to be floating weightlessly within the golden celestial plane. This image is the direct result of people’s belief in the power of their Madonna.
Jacobello painted a similar image of the Mother, also titled Madonna of the Misericordia, at the end of the 14 th century. Toward the top of the painting we can see the two protagonists of the Annunciation. The figure of Mary is on the right, her arms crossed in a gesture of acceptance of her destiny. On the left, the archangel Gabriel is shown holding the lilies that symbolise the purity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In the centre, a giant figure of the Madonna is represented with a mantle over her dress, a protective enclosure for the many worshippers that stand at her feet.
A mandala-shaped form, superimposed over Mary’s chest, contains an infant Jesus. Mary is the compassionate and loving Great Mother-Protectress of the people, a role that she inherited from the female divinities that were her predecessors from the matristic religions of the past. [14]


Jacobello del Fiore , Madonna of the Misericordia , c. 1401-1439. Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Florence.


Jacobello del Fiore , Madonna of the Misericordia (detail), c. 1401-1439. Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Florence.
The Madonna as Sun Goddess
Works of art that depict Mary as the woman clothed with the sun, as described in the book of Revelation, originally appeared during the late Middle Ages. The illuminated manuscript from the monastery of St Katharinental in Switzerland is one such example. Here Mary is shown with St John, understood to be the writer of the book. A large solar disc covers her chest. Her head is crowned and surrounded by a solar halo with twelve stars. This image of the Madonna is a powerful metaphor for the sun goddess of the ancient world. Many images of the popularly-idolised Mary were created by medieval artists through the centuries, and their ideas and formulas were later adapted to the needs of the social structures that followed. For women, medieval times permitted them more freedom than they were to enjoy during the subsequent centuries when the Church initiated the horrors of the Inquisition, directed significantly, if not primarily, toward further oppression of women. [15] The powerful, heroic and divine images of Mary became less popular during the immediately following century as women lost more of their human rights. Yet Mary was still available to help them survive their difficult and often miserable lives. During the next two hundred years, European artists produced innumerable paintings and sculptures representing the Madonna, but the emphasis shifted toward the glorification of her role as the mother of Jesus, and she was often depicted in more human terms.


Mary as the Woman Clothed with the Sun , early 14 th century. Illuminated manuscript. Monastery of St Katharinental, Diessenhofen.


Quentin Matsys , The Virgin in Sadness , 1514-1517. Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, Coimbra.
The Renaissance
The Renaissance period in the art history of Western culture spans roughly two centuries, the 15 th and 16 th . Named the Renaissance (or the “rebirth”) by French historians, this very significant movement spread all over Europe, and eventually, following the conquest of other continents, all around the world. Initially the movement originated via Italy, as the ancient world of Roman and Greek cultures was rediscovered partly through that country and partly through other Mediterranean-oriented territories with Arab connections. For the visual artists it was a period of major stylistic changes, as they were now given license by the Church to be inspired by the idealised realism and naturalism of the old Roman and Greek artistic productions. [16] Having endured a lengthy period of wanton destruction, old Greek and Roman art was restored, cleaned and displayed for all to see and admire.
Artists’ commissions now included sacred themes from both Christian and pre-Christian eras, and often these artists were allowed to combine the two types of iconography into new, hybrid forms. Themes previously used for Marian art were repeated, redeveloped and redefined, and interpreted through the use of realistic style. The images of the Madonna created during the Renaissance often emphasised her physical beauty and her humanity, along with the spirituality of her persona.
The roles of women within the Renaissance period were bound by more restrictions and fewer political rights, and were normally confined to motherhood and homemaking. Women were controlled by the Church with the help of the Inquisition, during a period in which thousands and even millions of females were executed. The ones who were spared lived in fear under the shadow of this ruthless and vindictive arm of the Church. In the arts, many women worked for the males of their families, often as assistants to their husbands, being creative within their art studios. Yet some became visual artists on their own, and achieved major recognition during their lifetimes. People continued to worship Mary, and in spite of the dogmatic disapproval that now endeavoured to diminish her role within the Church, they often equated her with the many goddesses rediscovered from the Greco-Roman past. The arts reflected the craving for images of the Madonna, and the churches complied by commissioning many of these images. Each legend about Mary’s life was explored by the artists, and new variations of the old motifs proliferated.


Berthold Furtmeyr , Mary-Ecclesia and Eve under the Tree of Life and Death , 1489. Missal illustration, paint and gold leaf on vellum, 38.3 x 28.7 cm. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich.
Every artist was avid for religious commissions, and the opportunities offered by them. The popes, the rulers, the nobility, and the new rich, such as the merchants, all vied for the attention of the artists, offering them commissions for their portraits, their favorite characters from the myths of the past, and above all, for icons of Mary with the infant Jesus. The medieval notion of Mary as the new Eve, the pure and perfect divine creature who would lead the people to their ultimate salvation and happiness within the heavenly realm, gained new attention, and the Marian cult placed considerable importance on her status as the Queen of Heaven. Frequent appearances to the people also added to the popular lore of the Madonna as the bridge to the heavenly realm and as a major intercessor on behalf of humanity.
A 15 th -century book illustration by B. Furtmeyr, dated 1489, titled Mary-Ecclesia and Eve under the Tree of Life and Death , depicts the popular belief in respect of Mary as the “new Eve”. It depicts Mary and Eve standing on each side of an apple tree, the archetypal source of abundance in nature. A large serpent is coiled around the tree’s trunk. The serpent in Judeo-Christianity is symbolic of evil and the devil, but was otherwise and elsewhere a benevolent symbol for the Mother Goddess. The tree and the serpent are symbols for the Goddess within many ancient religions and represent her powers to generate abundance and nature. Since sexuality and sensuality were accepted as beneficial during the old religions that celebrated the Mother Goddess, nudity was also acceptable, but in the case of Eve, nudity is connected with her fall from the divine grace of the patriarchal male, God. That is why Eve is seen nude, whereas Mary is represented fully clothed, with only her face and hands uncovered. During the early Renaissance, as during the Middle Ages before, nudity was strongly associated with the Fall of humanity and the dogma of Original Sin. This approach was about to change in Western art – and it would affect the images of Mary. The Virgin’s form, never ever shown nude, was nevertheless to become more sensual.


Piero di Cosimo , The Incarnation of Jesus or Immaculate Conception with Saints , c. 1505. Oil on wood, 206 x 172 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Giorgio Vasari , The Immaculate Conception, 1543. Oil on wood, 58 x 40 cm. Villa Guinigi, Lucca Musei Nazionali, Lucca.
The Immaculate Conception
The life of the Madonna offered artists many opportunities to paint or sculpt Marian themes. One of the controversies among the powerful male priesthood was the issue of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin: the Church Fathers declared that Mary was born pure, without taint of Original Sin.
This theory was first introduced in eastern Christianity, around or before the 8 th century, when the Iconoclasts decided that someone like Jesus could not possibly have been born of an ordinary woman, a woman that was tainted by the Fall, by Original Sin. The theory spread all over Europe within the next two centuries. [17] The general public, as usual, did not take much part in the philosophical discussions on the dogma but instead continued to worship Mary as their protectress and the Queen of Heaven. The artists were sensitive to the pulse of public opinion, and they painted the theme of the Immaculate Conception with dedication and enthusiasm.
A large oil painting, completed for the church of Santissima Annunziata at the beginning of the 16 th century by Piero di Cosimo, titled The Incarnation of Jesus or The Immaculate Conception with Saints , depicts the Madonna, in the center of the composition, standing on a platform in her glory. Above her the clouds in the sky have parted, letting the light from above descend upon her, with the symbol for the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, hovering over her head. Since the very beginning of Christianity, the Holy Spirit and Mary have been accorded a very close relationship, according to popular lore. Below, on the pedestal, a relief on the theme of the Annunciation is clearly visible. Mary’s gaze is directed toward the holy dove, while the saints – three males and three females – appear in postures of adoration.
Clearly the beauty and youth of Mary and the female saints are represented as the ideal and most desirable for women of that time, whereas the male saints are in no way idealised and display different and not entirely flattering stages of the aging process. This differentiation in the treatment of female and male subjects is frequently to be observed in religious art of the Renaissance.
The Immaculate Conception by Giorgio Vasari, executed in 1543, portrays some unusual and innovative iconography. The figure of the Virgin is located in the higher centre of the painting, floating in space, surrounded by angels and clouds, and enveloped in light. A crescent moon – an allusion to her connection with the many lunar goddesses of the pagan cults – is beneath her feet. She is looking down at the earthly realm below where a fallen angel sports a serpentine tail that reaches into Purgatory. In Purgatory, several figures, mostly male, form a dynamic composition. The two reclining nudes may represent Adam and Eve after the Fall. This painting is an allegory of the divinity of Mary.


Leonardo da Vinci , The Annunciation , c. 1475-1480. Tempera on wood, 98 x 217 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Nicolas Dipre , Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple , c. 1498. Oil on wood, 33 x 51 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
The Annunciation of the Birth of Mary
The popularity of the cult of the Immaculate Conception – long before its official adoption as dogma – prompted many artists to represent St Anne (or Anna), the legendary mother of Mary, who also was an object of popular veneration. Bernardino Luini, c. 1485-1532, painted the Annunciation to St Anne , which shows Anne gladly listening to the words of the angel hovering above her.
Mary’s childhood
The theme of the event of Mary’s childhood life painted by Nicolas Dipre is her visit to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple was executed circa 1498. It depicts Mary as a child, climbing the steps that lead toward the patriarch on the throne, watched by her attentive parents, St Anne and St Joachim. Her mother is gazing at her daughter, while her father is holding a small lamb, a symbol of Jesus.


Bernardino Luini , Annunciation of St Anne , early 16 th century. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.


Lorenzo di Credi , The Annunciation , 1480-1490. Oil on wood, 88 x 71 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Sandro Botticelli , The Annunciation , 1489. Tempera on wood, 150 x 156 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
The Annunciation
Leonardo da Vinci’s The Annunciation , painted around 1475, is one of the most popular versions of this subject. The angel, carrying white lilies, kneels to the Madonna, who is seated next to a building and has raised her left hand in a gesture of surprise. They both represent the ideal beauty and exuberance of youth. The Virgin’s right hand is resting on the page of a book, symbolic of her knowledge as Mary-Sophia, the personification both of Wisdom and of the Logos , the Word of God. Below her hand, the shell that adorns the furniture represents the connection between Mary and the ancient Roman goddess of love, Venus. Lorenzo di Credi depicts Mary standing in front of the kneeling and adoring archangel in his painting appropriately titled The Annunciation and completed between 1480 and 1490. Mary’s face is serene. The garden, seen through the three arches, alludes to the Holy Trinity and complements the physical beauty of the two figures. At the bottom of the painting, a relief shows Adam and Eve and their Fall from the Garden of Eden. The Mary of di Credi’s The Annunciation is thus also the new Eve, the co-redeemer of humanity.
In The Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli, painted in 1489, Mary – a woman of perfect beauty – is shown expressively gesturing at the fervent but submissive archangel Gabriel, who bears white lilies to symbolise the purity and perfection of the Virgin. A distant horizon can be seen through the architectural opening behind the archangel, adding to the illusion of depth behind the figures.
In Giorgio Vasari’s painting The Annunciation , the Holy Spirit is seen as a dove in flight, hovering above the Virgin and the kneeling archangel who bears white lilies. It is surrounded by light, and heads toward the Madonna as if to merge with her. She seems to be reconciled with her destiny, her gaze lowered. The work was painted during the second half of the 16 th century and stresses the humility and the obedience of Mary to the desire of the patriarchal God.
Fra Bartolomeo departed from the usual formula used for the composition of the theme of the Annunciation. In his vision the Madonna is enthroned and surrounded by several saints. This unusual variation is titled The Annunciation, Saints Margaret, Mary Magdalene, Paul, John the Baptist, Jerome, and Francis . It was painted in Florence in the first decades of the 16 th century.
Mary holds a book in her hand, a traditional symbol since medieval times for her knowledge of the Word of God. Directly above her head is the dove, the Holy Spirit, while the archangel of the Annunciation is shown flying toward her.
Two middle-aged male saints stand to one side of Mary, and two elderly male saints – in a stage of advanced decrepitude – stand on the other. Two female saints kneel at the bottom of the steps, forming a triangle with the Madonna at the apex. All three women represent the Renaissance ideal of female beauty and youthful exuberance.
Fra Bartolomeo thus follows the established tradition of depicting the women as youthful, while the male physiognomy is explored much more fully from youth to old age.
This patriarchal custom is still often upheld in the arts, movies and television of our contemporary society: viewers see a higher ratio of males to females and the women are usually youthful and beautiful, while the men are not restricted by any physical standards.


Giorgio Vasari , The Annunciation , 1563-1572. Oil on poplar, 216 x 166 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.


Domenico Ghirlandaio , The Visitation , 1491. Tempera on wood, 172 x 167 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
The Visitation
The next event in Mary’s life often interpreted by artists is usually named The Visitation . Mary, while pregnant with Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth who is more heavily pregnant with the child who is to be John the Baptist.
Elizabeth, realising the importance of Mary’s pregnancy, is portrayed either kneeling in front of Mary or showing her delight by closely embracing her. Domenico Ghirlandaio executed his version of The Visitation in 1491, which is now at the Louvre.
In Ghirlandaio’s painting, Mary and Elizabeth are in front of an arch that opens to a view of a city on a river. Elizabeth kneels before Mary, whose teenage face is beautiful and calm.
Two young and beautiful females are standing immediately behind and on each side of Mary and Elizabeth, and one of them also appears to be pregnant.
It is a scene of tenderness and emotion, of bonding between women.
Mariotto Albertinelli’s The Visitation depicts the figures of both Mary and Elizabeth in front of an open sky-filled arch. Elizabeth leans toward Mary, embracing her with her left arm, while their right hands are held together. It is a tender moment, showing the two women’s appreciation of each other.
Mary and Elizabeth are shown in front of a landscape in Sebastiano del Piombo’s work of the same genre. These lively figures appear to be conversing; the older woman, Elizabeth, gazes with admiration at Mary. The Virgin has extended her arm toward Elizabeth’s shoulder, a gesture of embrace.
The artist focuses on the rapport and the spiritual connection between the two women. The Visitation by del Piombo was completed in 1519.
The Visitation by Jacopo da Pontormo, painted around the mid-16 th century, takes the human qualities of friendship and bonding between the holy subjects to an even more intimate level.
The group of four women occupies most of the space of the painting. Mary and Elizabeth are shown in profile, facing each other. They embrace, and Mary’s mother, Anne, stands between and behind them, facing the spectator.
A young woman, located behind Mary, also faces the viewer. The event appears to be almost ordinary, but the Mannerist pastels and the barely visible haloes remind the viewer of the unusual quality of the theme.
Of all the Marian iconography, the theme of the Visitation probably presents the best opportunity for the Madonna to be perceived as a human female.


Jacopo (Carrucci) da Pontormo , The Visitation , c. 1530. Painting. Church of San Michele, Carmignano.


Sebastiano del Piombo , The Visitation , 1519. Oil on canvas, 168 x 132 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.


Filippo Lippi , Madonna and Child with Stories of the Life of St Anne , 1452. Tondo: tempera on wood, diameter: 135 cm. Palazzo Pitti, Florence.
The Madonna and Child
It is likely that during the Renaissance artists produced more art on the theme of the Madonna and Child than on any other Marian, Christian, or mythical subject. The beauty of a typical Renaissance Madonna and Child painting is familiar to almost everyone on this planet. The style is usually realistic, meticulously replicating the real world or the natural environment. The idealised images of the Virgin and her child were inspired by the natural beauty of the models and reflected the value that society held for the women of the time, which was largely determined by their appearance, age, and the ability to produce male heirs. Often married off at a tender age to much older men whom they did not even know, they were expected to look up to Mary, an impossible ideal because of her virgin birth, yet strangely familiar in that she apparently married not for love but out of obligation. Like Mary, they expected to console themselves in the role of mothers, and to cultivate their maternal love, not their sensual feelings toward the male sex. Yet, the divine element in Mary was tapped into by both women and men who took solace in her maternal persona, capable of boundless love for her son and for her people. Many Italian Renaissance artists preferred the tondo or round panel for their paintings. Fra Filippo Lippi created his Madonna and Child with Stories of the Life of St Anne in 1452. This painting, besides depicting the Virgin and her child, is also a celebration of Mary’s own birth. The background scenes are dedicated to the Virgin’s mother, St Anne (or Anna), and include the first meeting of Anne and her husband-to-be Joachim, and a scene of the subsequent birth of Mary. In the foreground the Madonna is with her child. Like Persephone, the Greek goddess of the natural cycle, she is holding a pomegranate, a symbol of rebirth, fertility, and abundance in nature. The infant Jesus is also holding the fruit, and with his raised right hand, he is bringing its seed toward his mouth.


Mariotto Albertinelli , The Visitation , 1503. Oil on wood, 232 x 146 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Andrea Mantegna , Madonna and Child, known as Madonna of the Caves , c. 1466. Tempera on wood, 29 x 21.5 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Masolino (da Panicale) and Masaccio (Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Mone) , St Anne Metterza , c. 1424. Tempera on wood, 175 x 103 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
Madonna and Child (known as “ Madonna of the Caves ”) was completed by Andrea Mantegna toward the end of the 15 th century. The seated figure of Mary is surrounded by a rocky landscape. Her pensive gaze is fixed on her child, frontally positioned on her knee. Behind them, a view of a harvesting scene can be observed. As in medieval times, during the Renaissance Mary assumed the role of the Madonna of the Grain or the Madonna of the Harvests, or the Mother of Nature. [18] This aspect of the Marian cult connects her to a number of ancient goddesses, such as Demeter or Juno, two of the goddesses connected to agriculture and worshipped as the donors of bountiful crop harvests.
Another version of the Madonna and her infant had been created by Masolino and Masaccio shortly after 1424. This tempera painting, titled St Anne Metterza , features the enthroned Madonna with her son Jesus on her lap. Directly behind her stands the imposing figure of her mother, St Anne.
They are surrounded by adoring angels. This image is reminiscent of the ancient mother and daughter goddesses. The Mother Goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone were worshipped in antiquity by the Greeks as divine creators and nurturers of the natural cycle.
Ancient images of natural deities were often portrayed in groups of three, and in some cases the third divinity – an infant – was a male. [19]
Leonardo da Vinci’s interpretation of the Madonna and child, together with Mary’s mother, hangs in the Louvre and is titled The Virgin and Child with St Anne . Mary is seated on St Anne’s lap and is holding onto her child who is playing with a small lamb, a symbol of Jesus as the redeemer.
Jesus’ gaze is directed at his mother. St Anne, pensive, also looks tenderly at her daughter Mary.


Leonardo da Vinci , The Virgin and Child with St Anne (detail), first quarter of 16 th century. Oil on poplar, 168 x 130 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.


Leonardo da Vinci , The Virgin and Child with St Anne , first quarter of 16 th century. Oil on poplar, 168 x 130 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.


Michelangelo , The Holy Family with the Young St John the Baptist ( the Doni Tondo ), c. 1506-1508. Tondo: Tempera on wood, diameter: 120 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) , The Madonna of the Chair , 1513. Oil on wood, diameter: 71 cm. Palazzo Pitti, Florence.


Sandro Botticelli , Magnificat Madonna (detail), 1481-1485. Tondo: Tempera on wood, diameter: 118 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Sandro Botticelli , Madonna of the Pomegranate , probably 1487. Tondo: Tempera on wood, diameter: 143.5 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
They are surrounded by a landscape, and seem more human than divine. This painting speaks of a bond between mother and daughter, and the profound implications of such a bond.
The Virgin of the Rocks , c. 1483, also by Leonardo da Vinci, is probably the most well-known painting of the Virgin and Child within the Western world. Now located in the Louvre, this work is one of the best examples of the use of atmospheric perspective and the correct foreshortening of the human figure. Leonardo believed that his destiny was to recreate the beauty of nature on his canvas. The figure of the Madonna occupies the apex of the pyramid-based composition of this painting – the most important location – due to her high ranking within contemporary Christian belief. She is accompanied by the infants Jesus and St John, and an angel, perhaps female. All four reflect the Renaissance ideal of the human form. Leonardo altogether eliminated the use of the halo effects to further humanise the group. The Virgin is depicted as the perfect woman, yet she also projects her tender Earth Mother qualities reminiscent of those seen in ancient renderings of the Great Goddess Isis.
The Holy Family with the Young St John the Baptist , also called the Doni Tondo , was painted by Michelangelo, a commission to celebrate the marriage of Agnolo Doni and Maddalena Strozzi. The fact that this work was not created for a church might explain Michelangelo’s apparent freedom to place several young male nudes in the background, behind the little figure of St John. The young, strong and elegantly poised figure of Mary, holding her infant up on her shoulder, is contrasted with the figure of Joseph, who is depicted – as was also customary during medieval times in order to de-emphasise his importance as a father – subject to the ravages of old age. The child, like the mother, is active and full of life. This is another work in which Mary and Jesus appear to be fully human.
The paintings of the Virgin by Botticelli, dated between 1481 and 1485, may embody the purest essence of the physical ideal, in relation to both the Madonna and the baby Jesus, developed during the Renaissance. At the same time, a deep sense of spirituality pervades the scene, Magnificat Madonna , also known as the Madonna and Child with Angels , painted in tempera on a wooden panel. Mary is represented seated, her child on her lap. The angels hold an elaborate crown above her head, reminding the viewer that she is the Queen of Heaven, while mother and child gaze in rapture at each other. The child has his hand on the page of a book, pointing at the word “Magnificat”, a reference to Mary’s consent to bear him, and her declaration to the archangel of the Annunciation that “my soul magnifies the Lord” (in Latin: Magnificat anima mea Dominum ).
In another painting by Botticelli, also titled Madonna and Child with Angels , or the Madonna of the Pomegranate , and completed in 1487, the Virgin is the focal center of the composition, and is seated with the infant stretched out on her lap. She is surrounded by angels who carry flowers, symbols of Mary’s perfection and purity, and books, symbols of her wisdom. The child is holding the pomegranate, an allusion to the fertility and the generative power of the goddess. In ancient Rome, the Goddess Hera was worshipped as Our Lady of the Pomegranate, and old myths suggested that this fruit was consumed by the souls of the departed to facilitate their rebirth. [20] Botticelli draws a parallel between the role of Mary as seen by the people and the roles of the goddesses of the ancient religions.


Leonardo da Vinci , The Virgin of the Rocks , c. 1483. Oil on canvas, 199 x 122 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.


Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) , Madonna of the Goldfinch , 1505-1506. Tempera on wood, 107 x 77 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) , The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist , known as La Belle Jardinière , 1507 or 1508. Oil on wood, 122 x 80 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.


Lucas Cranach the Elder , The Virgin and Child under an Apple Tree , 1520-1530. Oil on canvas, 87 x 59 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
The patron who commissioned the Madonna of the Goldfinch – a man called Lorenzo Nasi – was a wealthy merchant, and the painting commemorated his wedding to Sandra Canigiani. Raphael painted the figure of the Madonna in the centre, using the standard pyramidal design for the composition. In her left hand Mary holds a book, while her right arm encloses the child Jesus, whose small hands enfold the goldfinch. The infant St John endeavours to caress the bird. The figures are idealised, and both Mary and Jesus have barely visible haloes over their heads, rendered in perspective, in order not to disturb the realism of the style employed. A panoramic landscape opens up the background to a considerable depth. The painting was executed in 1505-1506.
La Belle Jardinière , or The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist , completed in 1507 or 1508, is another painting by Raphael. It shows the trio surrounded by a pleasant rural environment. The similarity between the Madonna of the Goldfinch and this depiction of the Madonna is more than coincidental: it represents the ideal of female beauty according to Raphael. Perhaps the same model was used in both paintings.
Raphael also painted a tondo known as The Madonna of the Chair in around 1513. In this work, the seated Mary holds her infant on her lap while St John, an older child, gazes at them both in adoration, his little hands cupped together in a gesture of reverence. The emotional connection between the Virgin and her child is obvious, her head leaning against his head. But her beautiful eyes look back at the viewers of the picture, for she is their mother as well.
Another tondo, painted by Francesco Botticini in about 1482, shows a great deal of concern for details – a Flemish influence. Botticini depicts Mary as seated in the centre of the composition, the infant Jesus lying at her feet. She represents the Renaissance ideal of physical perfection, and is shown adoring her own son. The mother and child are surrounded by six angels. One of them is shown placing a garland of flowers over Christ’s pudenda, while another, on the opposite side of this pyramidal composition, gestures toward the infant’s genital area. This emphasis on Christ’s genitalia in Renaissance art affirmed the idea of the incarnation of the Son of God as a physical male, and subtly suggested the sensuality of Jesus. [21]
Luca Signorelli’s tondo, painted perhaps a couple of decades later, depicts the Madonna and her nude child in the foreground, her head turned toward him.
A halo barely visible over her head reminds the viewer of her holiness, while the physical beauty of the infant emphasises the subject of incarnation.
In the background an outdoor scene contains several nude or seminude young males. They suggest the exuberance of young male flesh, and predict the future of Christ as an incarnate godlike male.
By contrast, in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting of The Virgin and Child under an Apple Tree , executed around 1520-1530, mother and child are beautiful, physically corporeal and human. The Virgin holds her nude infant, her right hand strategically covering his pudenda – a more conservative, northern approach toward the maleness of Jesus. Ripe apples dangle from the apple tree behind them, and the child clutches one in his left hand. The symbolism of the tree connects the viewer with the story of Paradise Lost, and affirms Mary as the new Eve, the New Mother and Co-Redeemer of Humanity. Before Christianity, the apple tree was a symbol of the prehistoric Goddess, the fertile Mother Creator, and of many goddesses of ancient religions.


Francesco Botticini , The Adoration of the Child , 1482. Tempera on wooden panel, diameter: 123 cm. Palazzo Pitti, Florence.


Luca Signorelli , Madonna and Child with Allegorical Figures , c. 1490-1495. Tempera on wood, 170 x 117.5 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Rogier van der Weyden , St Luke Painting the Virgin , c. 1450. Oil on wood, 138 x 110 cm. Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich.
Painting the Virgin
St Luke the Apostle, who is the accredited author of one of the four accepted versions of the New Testament Gospel, is also by tradition the first painter of the Virgin’s portrait.
Rogier van der Weyden kept up this tradition in his own picture of St Luke Painting the Virgin in 1450. This meticulously detailed work, typical of the Flemish tradition, shows Mary seated under a canopy as she attempts to nurse her infant, and Luke in front of her, sketching her face. A panoramic view can be seen between the columns in the background. Nursing Madonna images had been part of the Marian tradition and lore since the Middle Ages. “Mary’s milk” had, indeed, been a source of veneration in the form of a miracle-working substance regarded as one among many holy relics during medieval times, and reverence for it lasted well into Renaissance times. [22] The origins of such a tradition and symbolism go back several thousands of years into antiquity, when Creator Goddesses like Isis were celebrated as symbolic milk-givers in their roles as compassionate and nurturing Universal Mothers. The milky ribbon of stars called the Milky Way was believed to symbolise the Goddess, and Marian lore inherited that popular tradition.
Sofonisba Anguissola, inspired by the legend of St Luke as an artist, depicted herself standing in front of her easel and painting the Madonna and Child. Her round face is turned toward the invisible Mary and the viewer.
The painting on her easel (some art historians assume that the painting within the painting actually existed) shows a seated Madonna leaning toward her child, who is standing next to her.
The Virgin is tenderly kissing her beloved Son. Anguissola was using the popular theme of the kissing Madonna to convey her message of the supreme and profound love that the Mother of the Church has for her child and, by inference, for all her human children. Titled Self-Portrait at the Easel , the work was executed in 1556.


Sofonisba Anguissola , Self-Portrait at the Easel , 1556. Oil on canvas, 66 x 57 cm. Muzeum Zamek, Lancut.


Veronese (Paolo Caliari) , The Holy Family with St Barbara and the young St John the Baptist , 1528-1588. Oil on canvas, 86 x 122 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
The Holy Family
While her previous painting showed an innovative approach, Sofonisba Anguissola followed a more traditional formula for her version of The Holy Family by placing the protagonists in a natural environment. Mary’s gaze is directed at her first-born, who is in the arms of Joseph. The surrogate father is depicted as an aging man, leaning proudly toward his infant son. The child’s gaze, however, is solely for his young mother. The Virgin is offering some flowers to her son, her hand extended toward his. Flowers are symbolic of the beauty and purity of Mary, and may also represent the divinity within. They were usually associated with the female deities of the pagan and prehistoric religions and were symbolic of the creative forces of the goddesses.
The Holy Family with St Barbara and the Young St John the Baptist was completed by Paolo Caliari between 1528-1588. The Madonna and her Child are accompanied by the beautiful St Barbara, while St John and the bald head of the aging St Joseph feature on the opposite lower corner of the painting. The baby Jesus is shown nude, reclining on his mother’s lap while holding his genital area with his left hand. The gazes of St Barbara, the child St John, and the aged St Joseph converge on the genitals of the infant. This composition reflects the tradition, current during both the Renaissance and the Baroque periods, of putting emphasis on the maleness and sexuality of Jesus. Being a male was a privilege and an advantage in Christian patriarchal terms, and it was extremely important to the Church Fathers that the incarnate Divinity, Jesus, was perceived as a male infant.


Sofonisba Anguissola , The Holy Family , 1559. Oil on canvas, 36.8 x 31 cm. Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.


Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo) , The Holy Family with the Young St John , c. 1540. Tempera on wood, 117 x 93 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
As a rule, the declining physical condition of the aging Joseph was something of an artistic tradition of the Renaissance, showing him as a man who was the guardian of his wife rather than as a sexually active partner.
However, Bronzino painted his Joseph as a rather attractive and vigorous man, following a counter-trend which placed more importance on Joseph as an active participant in Christ’s upbringing, due to the fact that the authoritarian clergy were once again attempting to diminish the role of Mary within Christianity, even as they were busy paring away the remaining hereditary rights from women with help from the Inquisition.
Yet the idealised and sensuous body of the Virgin dominates the scene of The Holy Family , painted during the first half of the sixteenth century.
Both Mary and Joseph look down at their sleeping infant. St John is about to place a kiss on his cheek. The heads of all four are crowned by barely visible nimbuses, reminding the viewer that these individuals are more than human.
Some artists did not feel that it was necessary to include Joseph at all in their Holy Family scenes, and Titian follows this variation on the tradition by replacing him with the mother of the Virgin, St Anne, in his picture titled The Virgin with the Rabbit , completed in 1530. The central position of the boy Jesus between the women makes him the focal point of their devotion and attention. The Madonna holds a docile white rabbit with her left hand.
A landscape with sheep and a shepherd is seen in the background and to the right of the figures. The presence of the rabbit indicates a connection with pagan mythologies surrounding the fertility and the abundance in nature associated with goddesses such as Isis, Juno, and Demeter. In medieval times the miracle of producing abundance in nature was attributed to Mary, and the tradition survived into subsequent centuries. [23] The theme of the two mothers and their infants was interpreted by Andrea del Sarto in his Madonna and Child with St Elizabeth and St John , executed in around 1528. The upper corner of the painting features the older St Elizabeth with her child St John, gazing at Mary and the infant Jesus on her lap. Both Mary and Jesus appear to be more perfect than “ordinary human beings”.


Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) , The Virgin and Child with St Catherine , known as The Virgin with the Rabbit , 1520-1530. Oil on canvas, 71 x 87 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.


Hans Memling , The Madonna and Child with Two Angels , c. 1480. Oil on wood, 57 x 42 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
The Enthroned Madonna
Many variations of Mary as the Queen of Heaven, as embodying the Church, and as the benevolent Mother of Humanity were created by Renaissance artists in Europe.
One such example is the painting by Hans Holbein the Elder, executed on a wooden panel in 1499 and titled The Virgin and Child . This early version of the enthroned Madonna depicts the Virgin seated on a throne, a flat solar halo surrounding her head. The infant Jesus, standing on her lap, embraces his mother. Two male angels are shown adoring the Virgin and her child. Above, a complex Gothic arch reminds the viewer that Mary is the symbol for the Mother Church.
Hans Memli

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