The term Madonna, which comes from the Italian for "our lady," is a title of respect for the Virgin Mary commonly applied to works of art, especially those images that feature mother and infant, known familiarly as Madonna and Child. The Virgin Mary appears so frequently in Christian art that many are surprised to learn how rarely she is mentioned in the four Gospels. Her artistic identity is a compilation of scripture, tradition, faith, and interpretation. Particularly significant is the Protevangelium (or Infancy Gospel) of James, a mid-second-century apocryphal manuscript that describes Mary's childhood and Jesus' early life, neither of which is narrated in the Bible.
Traditions continued to evolve over the centuries, reflecting liturgical practice, popular belief, and scriptural exegesis. Collections of popular tales can be found in the thirteenth-century Legenda aurea (Golden legend) by Jacobus de Voragine, and in the nineteenth-century Legends of the Madonna by Anna Jameson. Nor were developments confined to the Middle Ages. The decades of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (known as the Counter-Reformation or post-Tridentine period) following the division of the Western Church into Protestant and Catholic denominations, saw the rise or reform of many aspects of Marian devotion, as well as renewed demand in Catholic regions for works of art featuring the Madonna. Two important elements of Marian doctrine, the Immaculate Conception (referring to Mary's birth free of the stain of original sin) and her Assumption into heaven, were only defined as dogma (required truth faith) by the Catholic Church as recently as 1858 and 1950, respectively, although the feast days of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption date respectively from the thirteenth and seventh centuries.
It is not uncommon for the Madonna to be depicted without her child, in scenes that narrate events before Jesus' birth–such as the Immaculate Conception, the Annunciation (when Gabriel brings news that Mary will bear the son of God), and the Visitation (when Mary's miraculous pregnancy is recognized by her cousin Elizabeth)–or events that take place after his death, such as Pentecost (the descent of the Holy Spirit onto Mary and the apostles) or the Assumption of the Virgin. At times, the Madonna may be shown alone, outside of a narrative context, especially in a devotional image (a figure intended to evoke prayers and elicit veneration for the individual represented). For example, cult statues of Mary need not include her child, if honoring her role as intercessor in heaven on behalf of those who address prayers to her. However, because Mary's significance in Christianity is linked directly to her role as Jesus' mother, it is more common to find her represented as the young mother of an extraordinary infant than as a solitary woman.
Origins of Marian Art
Images of the Madonna and Child have not always been characterized by the warm, loving exchanges characteristic of familiar works of art. Initially the two protagonists displayed a regal and formal bearing many today characterize as distant and austere. The earliest known depiction of Mary comes from the Catacomb of Priscilla, a late-second-century or early-third-century underground burial site in Rome. The wall painting depicts a woman nursing a baby, seated beside a bearded man who stands pointing to the sky. Scholars identify this man as either Isaiah or Balaam, two Hebrew prophets whose writings were interpreted to prefigure Jesus' birth.
In early Christian art Mary was portrayed as an orant (figure in prayer), a mother, or enthroned in the manner of an empress, borrowing from Greco-Roman conventions of prestige. As a new religion, it was prudent for Christianity to use an artistic vocabulary already in place and understood by the public to express unfamiliar ideas. Images that conveyed Mary's high status encouraged viewers to hold her in equal or higher regard than secular rulers. Pagan audiences in late antiquity never would have confused the Madonna with their fertility goddesses, who wore elaborate costumes, not the simple veil of an ordinary woman; nor did Mary embody their destructive powers. Pagan goddesses kept apart from humans, but Mary was accessible. Through her, Christians could approach her imposing son and his austere father, much as mothers and wives of the remote and all-powerful Roman emperors served as intercessors for their subjects.
Marian depictions became more frequent in the fifth century, after her status was elevated by the Council of Ephesus in 431 c.e., which honored Mary with the title Theotokos, a Greek term meaning "God-bearer." The first church to be dedicated to her, the Roman basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary the Great), was consecrated in 432 c.e., and not long after copies of the Hodegetria icon (Greek for "she who leads the way") were circulated widely throughout the Roman Empire, showing Mary as a solemn, regal mother holding the infant Jesus in her left arm and pointing to him with her right, while her son held up his hand in blessing. This Byzantine format was repeated for centuries in Western art.
Gradually, a more loving, less formal relationship unfolded between mother and child. Mary's head inclined more toward her son, while the infant began to twist in his mother's arms, their cheeks touching or gazes meeting. The somber child became a squirming baby, and Mary a tender mother. The throne and crown that had initially been incorporated to portray Mary in the guise of an empress became identified in medieval art as aspects of her role as Queen of Heaven and Sede sapientia (seat of wisdom). By the late thirteenth century, greater naturalism began to replace the rigid postures that had been employed earlier to convey prestige and respect, and artists strove to portray the strong maternal bond between mother and child. In Gothic paintings, the isolation of figures against a gold ground retained a sense of formality, but the adaptation of descriptive backgrounds in the Renaissance concluded this transition.
Emergence of the Mothering Madonna
Aesthetic trends toward more representational art in the late-medieval and early-modern period coincided with a corresponding philosophical shift that viewed humanity as a metaphor for the cosmos, and the natural world as a mirror of the divine. Religious thought, influenced by the teachings of the newly founded Franciscan order, likewise began to focus more on Jesus' humanity than his divinity. Christianity holds that, as the son of God, Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, with his mother, the Virgin Mary, contributing his human nature. Whereas divinity had been expressed through images of a regal Queen and an adult Savior, the doctrinal emphasis on humanity was best illustrated through images of a maternal Madonna and Child.
Developments in religious practice also supported this change. Devotio moderna, a late medieval form of worship popular in Northern Europe, emphasized personal identification with Mary's grief and Jesus' suffering. Its practitioners used works of art as tools to inspire meditation and prayer. The presentation of the Christ child as a baby in his mother's
arms not only reminded worshipers of Jesus' human birth, but also helped foster a feeling of connection, through their own experiences of childhood or parental nurturing. At a time of high infant mortality, such scenes evoked both sorrow and sympathy. Thus, theology, philosophy, and popular custom all found confirmation in these images of an infant God in his mother's arms.
Sentiment versus Scripture
The Madonna and Child pairing appealed greatly to Renaissance artists, writers, and preachers. Mary was increasingly portrayed as the compassionate, protective mother of a gifted, precocious child. Though the Madonna retained her customary red dress and blue mantle (red symbolizing passion and true love, blue heaven and spiritual love), her son was now shown naked or scantily clothed, fully revealing his male genitalia. Leo Steinberg, in his influential book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, argues against the tendency to dismiss this as a natural display of maternal pride or casual reflection of contemporary child-care. He links the frequently exposed infant genitalia to the Renaissance emphasis on the doctrine of the incarnation– God's presence on earth in human form–translated artistically
into a young boy who embodied the Gospel phrase, "the Word made Flesh." Mary's role as instrument of the incarnation was celebrated in Nativity scenes and in devotional images of Maria lactans, the nursing Madonna, a form that emerged in the mid-fourteenth century and gained popularity in the fifteenth century.
Clergy praised images of the Virgin breast-feeding her son and urged women to follow her example, rather than send children out to wet nurses. Jean de Gerson (1363–1429) of Paris preached that mother's milk was not only natural infant's food but also the beginning of a Christian education. Nevertheless, during the Reformation, Protestants objected to scenes of Mary nursing her child on religious grounds, claiming these works asserted Mary's power over Jesus because they showed his dependency on her for nourishment. The Puritan minister William Crashaw (1572–1626) called it degrading to depict Jesus as a small baby subservient to a woman. Such imagery, he complained, would not let Christ grow up into a miracle-working male, equal in size and stature to God the Father.
Many Protestants felt that the Roman Church gave Mary too much prominence; the most radical accused the Church of Mariolatry–a form of idolatry based on exaggerated importance of Mary's role in Christianity. Though many believers probably did esteem Mary too highly, this was due more to the popular appeal of the Madonna as an everloving, ever-forgiving mother than to a deliberate effort on the part of the Church to diminish Christ's stature. In Catholic teaching, only God is entitled to worship; the Madonna, as a saint, may be venerated (paid homage) and asked to intercede on behalf of the faithful, but not worshipped. From its inception, the Church had taken pains to distinguish the use of art in worship from the worship of idols, defining religious art as a tool for teaching the illiterate, a means of honoring the saintly, and a way to remember the salvation story. Prayers were to be addressed not to a statue or painting, but to the personage represented by it, with the works of art serving to aid the inner eye to mentally re-create sacred experience.
Missionaries to non-Western lands brought works of art along on their journeys. Jesuits in seventeenth-century Japan set up Namban painting academies to produce European-style paintings in local techniques and with Asian features. The Madonna and Child was by far the image most requested by newly converted clients. To explain the Virgin Mary to native audiences, Europeans compared her to Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess, because of an artistic resemblance to the Madonna. Despite visual similarities, Amaterasu was not an appropriate match, for her powers were natural, not moral. The Japanese Buddhist goddess of compassion, Kannon (known as Kuan Yin in China), would have been a better equivalent had missionaries based their comparison on doctrine rather than visual appearance.
In Africa, mother-child figures were already a familiar part of ritual art, which helped facilitate the transfer of Christian meanings onto traditional forms. Hybrid items such as Kongo crosses attest to the assimilation of native and imposed religious traditions, as well as the acceptance of Christianity by African converts. Nigerian-American poet Ifeanyi Menkiti has written about how Africans venerate the Madonna as an active patron and advocate, rather than a passive vessel for the incarnation, a perspective influenced by the dynamic roles of indigenous female deities.
Conversion was an official goal of European colonizers in the Hispanic new world, where clergy accompanied soldiers on missions of exploration. Unlike Protestant colonists in Anglo-settled North America, Spanish colonizers viewed natives as souls to be saved rather than as savages to be eradicated, resulting in a higher number of coerced conversions but a greater survival rate among the indigenous population. There was also a degree of covert cultural survival as well, as native religious traditions were adapted and subsumed into Christian ones.
The most significant new-world Madonna is Our Lady of Guadalupe, the name given to the 1531 apparition of the Virgin Mary to a Nahuatl Indian convert in Tepeyac, just outside of Mexico City. Many identify Our Lady of Guadalupe as the Christianization of an Aztec goddess whose ancient temple lay on the hill of Tepeyac, citing the similarity between the names Guadalupe and Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of earth and death (though today she is associated with the mother goddess Tonantzin ). Few realize, however, that Our Lady of Guadalupe was also the name of a wonder-working black Madonna from Spain whose cult clergy had tried to promote in Mexico, only to find natives associated the miraculous powers of blackness with male deities rather than female. Hence, to conform to popular belief and win over the indigenous population, a black Madonna was lightened rather than a Caucasian Madonna darkened. Despite this history, Our Lady of Guadalupe, known affectionately as la Morenita (little brown one), has been adopted as an emblem of cultural and religious affiliation and as a symbol of Hispanic pride, for her perceived mixed-race skin tone. Her strong devotion among Americans in the twenty-first century is testimony to the enduring influence of the Madonna as a cultural and religious figure.
See also: Images of Childhood; Madonna, Orthodox; Madonna, Secular.
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Melissa R. Katz