Devotional images of the Virgin Mary have pervaded art history since the advent of Christianity. Mary has been portrayed as a saintly figure and a humble mother. These images of Mary and the Christ child have had both idealizing and humanizing effects, evoking a subtle interplay between the mundane and the sublime. The canonization of scenes from Mary’s life has influenced religious and secular art alike throughout the ages. As society’s views of women have evolved, so have depictions of the Madonna and Child. Still, the archetypal pattern of Mary and Christ is always recognizable.
Mary as Virgin
Mary has come to embody various attributes over the centuries, particularly as an example of the Christian ideal of womanhood and a paragon of virtue. Though also considered humble, maternal, and compassionate, Mary was initially most valorized for her purity.
Naturally, portrayals of Mary that highlighted her status as a virgin became quite popular early in the history of Christian art. The visual depiction of Mary’s beauty became emblematic of her chastity. As described in the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel appeared at Mary’s side, proclaiming that she would bear the Son of God, conceived via the Holy Spirit. Thus was the origin of the Marian doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, which is taught by the Catholic Church.
Indeed, it was the portrayals of her as the virginal mother that were perhaps the greatest expressions of the theological ideals of the Church. The Church saw itself as a faithful, merciful and nurturing entity, and Mary personified all of these ideals that they wished to convey to their followers. Not only did she serve as a role model for all women, but perhaps most significantly for nuns, women who dedicated their lives to the Church, taking vows of chastity and living in seclusion.
Since the idea of Mary as a virgin was so central to Church teaching, the Annunciation naturally became a frequent subject in Marian art, finding particular popularity during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The popularity of these images also reflected Church followers’ desire to know Mary more intimately.
Mary’s innocence is often represented by emphasizing her beauty. For instance, this 19th-century plaque is a poignant example of the artistic expression of Mary’s virginity. Modeled after Raphael, the piece exudes purity; the image’s soft lines and pastel tones visually symbolize Mary’s virtue. Further, her adornment with a halo alludes once again to her perpetual blamelessness.
Overall, images of her as a lovely young woman served as representations of the beauty and purity of her soul. These attributes undoubtedly made her such a pervasive icon within the Church.
Madonna as Icon
The term Madonna has become synonymous with images of Mary, particularly when depicted with her child. The designation is based on the Italian ma donna, meaning “my lady,” which was historically used as a title of respect. The term did not enter into common English usage until the 17th century when it was most often used in reference to depictions of the mother and child from the Renaissance period. Today, it is generally used to describe any work in which Mary is the central figure, usually including the infant Jesus.
While Mary came to represent the role of the church as a nurturer, she also served as an emblem of perfect faith, as well as a fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. These perceptions of the Holy Mother naturally made her wildly popular among believers, who filled their churches and homes with her likeness.
The earliest images of the Madonna and Child tended to be iconic, formal and non-narrative. Often, Mary is depicted as a queen upon her throne, a golden halo around both her head and her infant son’s. Highly decorative, color and form were considered more important in these early works than the humanization of the figures. During the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance, the value lay instead in the materials used. Gold and ultramarine blue, which almost always colored Mary’s robes, were the most costly of these materials. The use of these precious media to render images of Mary highlights her position as a religious icon. By placing such valuable materials in conjunction with the image, Mary’s status was elevated to an image of worship.
Madonna as Mother
The most pervasive and beloved images of Mary are those that capture her in the role of mother to the Christ child, a role that is central to her identity. Images of the Holy Mother dating as far back as the 6th century depict her in this role, cradling a haloed infant on her lap. Madonna and Child images reached their peak during the Gothic and Renaissance periods, from the 14th century through the 16th century, when Mary’s duality as both a human mother and a divine being was fully explored.
With the onset of the Renaissance and the concurrent Humanist movement, images of the Madonna gradually become less stiff and more tender. Artists explored Mary’s humanity in poignant representations of her with Jesus, focusing on the intimate moments between a mother and her baby. Rather than focusing on Mary’s attributes of purity and humility, these paintings came to reflect everyday mother-baby interactions. Depictions of Mary playing with Jesus, or even nursing him, became quite popular. This iconography made Mary all the more endearing and relatable to members of the Church, particularly to women.
It was not unusual for Mary to also be depicted nursing her child. Not only did these paintings emphasize Mary’s role as a nurturer, but they also played an essential social role in the Church at a time when most believers were illiterate. Beginning in the 14th century, the Church began a campaign to encourage all women to breastfeed their children due to high mortality rates. Depictions such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Nursing Madonna (Hermitage Museum) helped to reinforce this stance by providing a visible role model for new mothers. However, with the onset of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, images of the nursing Madonna fell from favor; following the Council of Trent in 1563, which forbade nudity in art, the theme was rarely explored again.
Images of Mary that highlight her motherhood tend to focus on tender moments with her child. Very similar to Da Vinci’s rendition, Domenico Puglio chooses to emphasize Mary’s maternity in this 16th-century painting. There is an unmistakable motherly tenderness as Mary observes her infant son playing with his cousin, St. John the Baptist. The scene’s focus is not Mary’s chastity nor her divine status; rather, Puglio underscores the bond between mother and child. This humanity ascribed to both Mary and the Christ child is a theme seen throughout the Renaissance, which evolves in later religious works.
The image of the Madonna and Child reached the height of its popularity during the Renaissance, and perhaps the most pervasive images of the Virgin Mary still come from this period. However, the subject was never fully abandoned by artists, and a number of modern painters have taken up the brush to create their own iterations of the Madonna and Child trope.
The great French Academic artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir explored the subject extensively throughout his career. Although most famous for his impressionist paintings, Renoir also experimented in sculptural works, such as this. The bronze depicts Renoir’s wife breastfeeding his firstborn son, Pierre. While not an explicit image of Mary and Christ, the piece appropriates conventions of the Madonna and Child to further glorify maternity, and Renoir himself was quoted as saying, “Every woman nursing a child is a Virgin by Raphael.” This adoption of Christian iconographies into secular art truly conveys just how significant the depictions of Mary are. Similar compositions of mothers with their children are numerous and widespread.
As Neoclassical painting fell out of favor during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, overt references to the Madonna similarly faded, though artists still explored the subject through a modern lens. The French Academic art master William-Adolphe Bouguereau is one such painter, and his Femme d’Alvito and Femme de Tivoli offer a fresh take on this classic trope. Here, he echoes Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Child while rejecting others. It is believed that these particular paintings were inspired by Bouguereau’s Prix de Rome trip in the 1850s to the Villa Medici. He created hundreds of sketches of the local people, customs and dress, along with the Italian paintings he encountered, including those by the master Raphael.
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