Madonna del Granduca (Madonna of the Grand Duke, so named because the painting belonged to Ferdinand III, Grand Duke of Tuscany), Raphael, c.1505, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

I promised that I would write about ‘Madonna and Child’ as a biblical art theme as there are so many examples of the subject in European and Orthodox art in centuries gone by. This shall be my last blog post for a while but the subject of Madonna and Child fascinates me mainly because Mary, the mother of Jesus, is virtually worshipped as an equal to her son. Jesus is seen as an incarnation of God on earth but his mother Mary is viewed as a virginal saint who is almost on par with her son. This complex theological concept is portrayed in the art of the subject.

A Madonna is literally a portrayal of Mary with or without her son Jesus. These images are central icons for both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The word comes from the Italian ‘my lady’. The Madonna and Child type is very prevalent in Christian iconography especially in the Orthodox church. Works in the Italian Renaissance forged the term Madonna in the 17th century. However the earliest depictions of Mary date to the 2nd and 3rd centuries and are found in the catacombs of Rome amongst Christian art. The god-like status of Mary did not evolve until the Council of Ephesus in 431 in which her status as mother of God was affirmed. She was the god-bearer. Thus the art portraying her status really began to develop around the 6th to 8th centuries and rose to great importance in the high medieval period of the 12th to 14th centuries. According to tradition Marian iconography dates all the way back to Luke the Evangelist who is said to have drawn a portrait from real life. In western tradition, depictions of the Madonna were created by Renaissance masters such as Duccio, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Bellini, Caravaggio and Reubens. More modern masters have tackled the subject such as Salvadore Dali and Henry Moore. Eastern Orthodox iconography adheres to a more traditional type. Whatever your taste in art the subject of Madonna and Child has produced some beautiful works.

There are several distinct types of the Madonna:

  • A standing Mary alone without the child Jesus
  • A standing Mary with the child Jesus
  • The Madonna enthroned
  • The Madonna of humility
  • Half length Madonnas
  • The seated Madonna and Child
  • The adoring Madonna
  • The nursing Madonna
  • The woman of the Apocalypse
Madonna and Child, early 13th century, Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai, Egypt.

After the Council of Ephesus the cult of the Virgin took off and Byzantine art depicts her in her many forms. The Book of Kells in the 8th century depicts the Madonna in a western style, but there is no doubt that Byzantine art forms had an influence on Western art. Byzantine creations originated in Constantinople, the seat of Christianity after the fall of Rome and some of the icons are truly beautiful. The 12th to 14th centuries saw an even greater rise in art on the subject with a strong influence from the east until the Renaissance in Europe. After the Renaissance the influence of Mary weakened; however, more modern artists have tackled the subject but in my opinion nothing compares to older, more ancient styles. It is fascinating to trace the rise of Christianity in civilisations alongside the art of the Madonna and Child and to see how thoughts on the subject formed and how belief evolved. It would be amiss of me not to mention that Islam – which typically avoids depictions of animal or human figures in art – has artworks from early times depicting Mary and Jesus, perhaps due to the fact that Jesus is considered a prophet in the Islamic religion.

The Virgin Mary and Jesus, in an old Persian miniature. In Islam, they are called Maryam and Isa.

The ‘Madonna and Child’ in art is found in many forms, some of those being: paintings, statues, manuscripts and covers, mosaics, triptychs and more. The cultural influence of the subject cannot be denied. The concept of a virginal woman bearing the son of God seems to resonate as far back as early Christianity. Most civilisations are patriarchial and yet Mary has had great influence, perhaps because female purity ensures the continuation of the human race and strength of the family structure and therefore societies. Whatever its basis, it cannot be denied that down through the centuries beautiful biblical art works have been produced by artists that express humanity at its best.