Skip to main content

Mary, Blessed Virgin, Iconography of

MARY, BLESSED VIRGIN, ICONOGRAPHY OF

Marian iconography is an element of Christian art that has been of great importance, from the 3d century to the present day, in all Orthodox and Catholic countries. It is not, as has often been thought, a special development of the Gothic period of the Middle Ages. Actually, it has deep roots in early Christian thought and art and a continuous history through the centuries. It embraces single representations and liturgical Marian art; narrative cycles of her life, death, and glorification; portrayals of her miracles and apparitions; and symbolic Marian themes. For a guide to pertinent material see mary, blessed virgin, articles on.

Single Images and Liturgical Marian Art

The oldest portrayal is thought to be that of a mother and child from the catacomb of Priscilla (3d century), perhaps connected with the prophecy of Isaiah (Is 7.14). The theme of the mother seated with her child on her lap occurs again in the Cappella della Velata in the same catacomb, of a somewhat later date, and in the 4th century,

in the Cemeterium Majus, full-face, more hieratic and with a chrisom. Mary appeared also as praying on the bottom of gilt glasses. The 5th-century portrayals of Mary become more regal in the wake of the Council of ephesus (431), which initiated the veneration of the theotokos. A mosaic in St. Mary Major in Rome, inspired by Sixtus III and since lost, showed the Virgin enthroned with the Child. The clothing is stereotyped; the Virgin wears an oriental maphorion and red slippers (586, Gospel Book of Rabbula Laurentian Library, Florence). The solemn full-face pose of Mary in the Adoration of the Magi in S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, foreshadows the style of portrayal on the ivory diptychs. The type appears early in apses, surrounded by angels (Parenzo).

Eastern Types. From this point many modes developed, the most ancient in Byzantium being those of the liturgical icons, thought to be connected with relics such as portraits of Mary from life and articles of her clothing.

The Virgin Odigitria. The Odigitria or Our Lady Guide of Wayfarers was reputed to be St. Luke's portrait of the Virgin brought from Jerusalem to the Odigôn monastery in Constantinople. It represents a standing Madonna with the Child in the act of blessing held on her left arm; her right arm is either touching the Christ Child or raised (Gospel Book of Rabbula; early 7th-century icon of the Pantheon, Rome). There is another version of the Madonna seated, in the diptych of Etschmiadzin. The Madonna often has an angel on either side of her. The Odigitria, which is the most frequently encountered type, is enthroned in the apses or votive panels of churches (Hagia Sophia, Constantinople); she is standing in the mosaics of Kiti, Cyprus; later she is depicted without the angels at Torcello. This Madonna is found on icons, ivories, and larger reliefs.

The Virgin Blacherniotissa. The Blacherniotissa, preserved in the Blachernae monastery (founded by Pulcheria in the 5th century in honor of the Blessed Virgin) shows the Virgin in an attitude of prayer, alone or with a medallion of the Child on her breast. The orans or Praying Madonna, an ancient and widespread type, may be found in some apses (St. Sophia, Kiev). The Orans with medallion occurs full-length (12th-century icon from Kiev; Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow) or half-length. Another type is the Nikopeia, Our Lady of Victory. The Kyriotissa is standing and holds in front of her breast the Child, who is sometimes in a medallion.

The Virgin Chalcopratia. The Blachernae monastery was reputed to house the maphorion of Our Lady, while the Chalcopratia monastery was supposed to be in possession of her cincture, whence the type of the Virgin Hagioritissa or Chalcopratia, an intercessory Madonna, portrayed in three-quarter profile and with hands upraised, as in a Deësis, where Mary is at the right and John the Baptist at the left of Christ. The Deësis may be represented in apses and in tombs.

Other Greek and Russian Types. The Nursing Madonna or Galaktotrophousa appears very early in Egypt and is an adaptation of Isis nursing Horus. The Eleousa is a Virgin of Tenderness (9th-century ivory, Syrian or Egyptian; Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore), the Glykophilousa depicts the Child kissing the Mother. The latter types are predominantly folkloric in nature; although they are sometimes discovered in churches, they are found more often in the minor arts.

All the aforementioned types of the Virgin, alone or with the Child, are encountered on Byzantine seals. The Virgin with Child appears in the symbolic theme of the Zôodochos Pigi (Source of Life) in the illustration of the akathistos. The portrayals of Mary that illustrate her principal feasts drawn from the cycle of her life and death can also be classed with liturgical Marian art.

Russian art adopted to a large extent the Byzantine motifs. The Blacherniotissa becomes in Russian the Znamenie, i.e., Sign; the Virgin of Tenderness becomes the Umileniye. A large number of other Russian types were derived from Byzantine originals, especially that of

the Pokrov or Protection of the Mantle of Our Lady, from a Greek type, the Episkepsis, which is closely allied to the Blacherniotissa.

Western Types. Western iconography of the Virgin borrowed heavily from Byzantium. However, the picture of her as crowned like an empress, or Maria Regina (S. Maria Antica), originating in the 6th century, was a Western conception (see mary, blessed virgin, queenship of). The Regina appears in an attitude of prayer in the mosaic of the Oratory of John VII (early 8th century, now in Florence). The motif of the crowned Madonna reappears during the Middle Ages in Romanesque and Gothic art. But the Virgin in Majesty, Majestas Mariae, derived from the Odigitria, occurs enthroned in the apses of Roman churches, in Romanesque statuary, and on the tympanums of cathedrals. The Italians adopted the Byzantine modes of portrayal, initially retaining the Eastern manner of treatment, then picturing the Blessed Virgin according to the Renaissance canons of idealized beauty. Gothic art has given us a multitude of graceful examples of the Madonna standing with the Child. It is typical of the representations of Mary in the West that they have personified the ideal woman down to the present-day ("Mother and Child" by Henry Moore). The Italian Madonnas are so numerous that the name has passed into other languages as well.

Western artists have created a number of types of the Virgin that are often linked with a particular place or group such as a sanctuary, shrine, or association. Mary has been symbolically assimilated to the Church, Ecclesia, and the Woman of the Apocalypse. Some motifs have taken their inspiration from the events of her life. The Immaculate Conception, developed especially in the 17th century by Spanish artists, the Virgin of Expectation or Our Lady of Good Hope, the Virgin of the Ears of Corn, the Vierges ouvrantes, recalling Mary before the Birth of Christ, the Sorrowful Virgin, and especially the Virgin of the Pietà, inspired by the Passion. The Black Madonna is a folk creation. A frequent depiction is that of the Mother and Child shown with donors (see church, sym bols of; immaculate conception; pietÀ).

Sources of the Life of Mary

The sources for the life of Mary are the Gospels and the apocryphal accounts of her life and of the childhood of Christ. The basic text for the childhood of Mary is the Book of the Nativity of Mary or Protoevangelium of James, as it was called by Guillaume Postel who brought back a manuscript of this book from Constantinople to the West in the 16th century and saw in it a prelude to the Gospels. The oldest manuscript (early 4th century) is complete from its title Γέννησις Μαρίας to the colophon naming as author James of Jerusalem (the "brother" of Christ), whence the name Book of James. The manuscripts have various title pages but always include a mention of the nativity of Mary. The account covers the time from the events preceding her birth to the Massacre of the Innocents. The texts present original material up to the Annunciation, then duplicate the narrative of the canonical Gospels. There are numerous versions of early date in the Christian East, in Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Old Slavonic. Divergent amplifications such as are found in the Syriac and Armenian versions may, by their original features, have exerted an influence on iconography.

In the West there are two main Latin revisions, the Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew and the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary. The former, which seems no earlier than the 7th or 8th century, amplifies the Protoevangelium and shows a propensity for the miraculous and the didactic, focusing on the life of Mary in the Temple. It is supplemented in some manuscripts by an account of the Childhood of Christ, inspired chiefly by the Pseudo-Thomas. The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, apparently the work of Paschasius Radbert (9th century), is an adaptation of the Pseudo-Matthew, which eliminates the shocking or obscure passages; it ends with the first Dream of Joseph. Both texts were wrongly held to be translations by St. Jerome from the Hebrew. The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary became widely disseminated, especially from the 13th century on, when it was incorporated into the Golden Legend (see james of voragine, bl.) and other pseudo-historical works. But the Pseudo-Matthew was the principal source for the narrative representations and for literary works such as the medieval French and English mystery plays (see drama, medieval).

The accounts of the Death of Mary, or Transitus Mariae, likewise go back to a very ancient tradition that was diffused throughout the entire Christian world. The Transitus, like the De Nativitate and other accounts of the Childhood of Christ, is mentioned in the Decretum gelasianum (6th century). The source of the Latin Pseudo-Melito goes back at least to the 5th century. The Greek account of Pseudo-John the Theologian is the best known because of its use in the liturgy. The homiletical writers preferred other texts, notably that used by John of Thessalonica (early 7th century), because these are clearer in their description of the Assumption. The most widely disseminated Latin versions are the Pseudo-Melito, which was incorporated into the Golden Legend and some of the mystery plays, and the account of the Pseudo-Joseph of Arimathea. The narrative in the Codex Augiensis 229 (early 9th century) is closest to the original tradition. The different texts contain variants that are of great importance for the iconography of Mary. The story of the Transitus was translated into all the languages listed above. In the West there are, apart from the Latin texts, Irish versions of the Childhood and Death of Mary.

Some texts, especially the Syriac ones, group the accounts of the childhood and of the death into a complete Life of Mary that is partly independent of the Gospel narratives. This procedure engendered whole cycles of the Life of Our Lady. In the West, the apocryphal legends were written off, in principle, by the Council of Trent. But although they have no foundation in historical fact, the apocrypha are orthodox in character, for they aim at mitigating the silence of the Gospels on the Mother of God. The accounts of her childhood were intended to buttress the dogma of her virginity. They exercised a profound influence on religious beliefs and writings, which in turn gave rise to a series of liturgical feasts and to innumerable figural representations throughout the course of Christian art. The liturgy played a considerable role in the development of Marian art through the transmission of its texts, for the majority of the Greek and Latin manuscripts we know are liturgical in origin, and by the introduction of scenes and cycles into the liturgical books and into churches. Many churches are dedicated to the an nunciation, the nativity, the presentation in the Temple, and the dormition or assumption of Mary. For apocrypha of the New Testament, see bible, iii (CANON),5.

Historical Note. The narrative depictions of the Childhood of Mary preceded the institution of exactly defined liturgical feasts, within the general framework of veneration, in the East and in the West. We find them as early as the 6th century (the Annunciation to Anne is displayed by an ivory of Leningrad, and a cycle is depicted in column A on a ciborium at St. Mark's, Venice). Traces of narrative scenes in S. Maria Antiqua and S. Sabbas in Rome (8th century) and archaicized Cappadocian frescoes (9th or 10th century) prove the existence of a preiconoclastic cycle. The frescoes in S. Maria de Gradellis, Rome (late 9th century), belong to well-developed cycles of the Life and Death of Mary according to the Latin versions. In the absence of illustrated manuscripts, these early cycles are attested by the Homilies of James of Kokkinobaphos (early 12th century), based on the Protoevangelium, and by the Wernherlied von der Magd (early 13th century; Staatsbibliotek, Berlin), inspired by Pseudo-Matthew. The icon of Pisa called the Madonna of San Martino exemplifies the medieval Italian tradition. In the West, there is often a quite marked divergence between Italian and Northern iconography. Relatively few themes survived in the West after the condemnation of the apocryphal accounts by the Council of Trent, but they have been represented continuously. In the East, the tradition became impoverished after the Turkish conquest.

Iconography

Some iconographic motifs are common to all of Christian art, whereas others are peculiar either to the Byzantine or to the Western tradition. The principal sources for scenes before the Annunciation are the Protoevangelium, the Pseudo-Matthew, and the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary.

The Life of Anne and Joachim. The Munificence of Joachim, showing the youthful Joachim distributing alms, appears for the first time in the Wernherlied von der Magd. The scene is represented on the icon of Pisa and in 14th-century Lombard works. In the later French and Flemish pictures, Anne is added to broaden the theme to that of the Charity of Anne and Joachim. The Marriage of Anne and Joachim is rare, the earliest example being in the Wernherlied; it appears to have been unknown in Italy. The scene is modeled on the Marriage of Mary and Joseph and shows Anne and Joachim pressing each other's right hand before the priest. Both the charity and the marital themes were introduced into Flemish works of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, devoted to the life of St. Anne. There is no trace of either subject in the Byzantine tradition.

The Rejected Offerings of Joachim usually introduce the cycle. Although the texts rarely mention Anne, she figures in Byzantine images and in many Western pictures outside Italy. In Byzantine pictures closely linked with the texts (Homilies of James; frescoes of Mistra), other bearers of offerings also are shown. But the refined subject was reduced to three protagonists from the 12th century on in churches. The Italians show Joachim's eviction from the Temple rather than his offering (G. D. Tiepolo, 18th century; Morgan Library, New York). There have always been background figures in these pictures and by the end of the Middle Ages they had infiltrated all the Western compositions. Less commonly found themes related to the Rejected Offerings include the Consultation of the Twelve Tribes by Joachim and the Return of Joachim to his home, a subject derived from Eastern accounts and sometimes depicted in the West (Chartres Cathedral).

The Byzantine Annunciation to Anne includes the Threnody in the garden, near the tree where a bird is feeding its young, and the Annunciation of the angel. The Threnody itself is seldom represented. The ancient Annunciation pictures show Anne seated, but beginning with the 1lth century she is shown standing before her house where her servant is sometimes shown waiting; nearby is the tree with the birds above and below is the fountain where the angel appears. Anne's stance is like that of Mary at her Annunciation in post-Byzantine compositions; in later Russian art, as a result of Western influence, she sometimes is shown kneeling. The Western iconography of the Annunciation to Anne is quite varied. Anne is generally kneeling but only rarely under the tree with the birds. Though she may be seated, as in Byzantine art or standing before the angel, the kneeling position is the most customary. The scene is not very personalized because of its assimilation to various types of the Annunciation to Mary. The rare scene of the maid reproaching Anne for her barrenness precedes the Annunciation in some ancient cycles.

The Annunciation to Joachim comprises the Threnody and the Annunciation, combined in the pictures at Daphni but also on occasion figured separately in the same composition. Joachim is shown seated, lamenting among his shepherds, then standing to listen to the words of the angel. Joachim is traditionally seated in a rustic hut, often against a background of mountains. Later he is sometimes shown kneeling like Anne. Other scenes, such as the Departure for the Desert, the Conversation with the Shepherds, and the Return of Joachim to his Home, are encountered in only a few well-developed cycles. The Pseudo-Matthew is the source of the Sacrifice and the Dream of Joachim, which were taken up by Giotto. The Annunciation itself is frequently depicted. The 13th century was to adopt widely the synthesized Byzantine type showing Joachim seated on the mountain with his shepherds and flock. There is considerable variety in landscape and human figures. The Annunciation to Joachim may be combined with that to Anne. These events have been the basis of the most picturesque compositions having to do with the Childhood of the Blessed Virgin.

In Byzantine art, the Meeting of Anne and Joachim, or the Conception, is symbolized by the kiss of the spouses who meet before Anne's house. In the West, the scene occurs before the Golden Gate of Jerusalem and, especially in Italian art, in the presence of Anne's attendants and Joachim's shepherds (Taddeo Gaddi, 14th century; Baroncelli Chapel, S. Croce, Florence). Although the tender kiss of the Byzantine artists is depicted by Giotto and others, the embrace is often portrayed as reserved and even distant.

In the cycles, the Conception is symbolized by the Meeting down to the 16th century. Beginning with the 14th century, in liturgical and devotional books or volumes of piety, certain features allude more overtly to the Immaculate Conception, e.g., Mary crowned by a halo in Anne's womb. The symbolic theme of the Immaculata with her attributes, descending to earth on a cloud and a crescent moon, was created at the end of the 15th century. Two centuries later the painter murillo produced the most famous examples. In the detailed Byzantine cycles, the scene of the Meeting is sometimes preceded by Anne and the Messengers, who announce her husband's return, and followed by the Accepted Offerings or the Conversation of Anne and Joachim in their House. With the exception of the Accepted Offerings, these scenes appear also in the detailed Western cycles.

From the Birth of the Virgin to Her Marriage. The Nativity of Mary is the motif from the Childhood of Mary most frequently encountered in art. Since the texts recite the event without going into detail and since the parents of Mary were held to be rich, the Byzantine artists adopted the birth motif of antiquity, as found on the sarcophagi of children or in the illustrations of the lives of heroes and demigods. The mother is lying or sitting, sometimes assisted by a maidservant; the women bear gifts; and the child is being bathed. The ceremonial surrounding the birth of the porphyrogenite princes is reflected in the luxuriousness of the Daphni composition, the presence of the phylarchs and the child's cradle in the miniature of the Homilies of James, and the depiction of the gift table in the mosaic of Kariye Djami. The bathing motif comes to be rivaled by that of the cradle in the 12th century. In the art of Macedonia, the realistic motif of a young spinner rocking the child's cradle with her foot replaced that of the midwife of the bathing. The presentation of the baby to Anne, which is derived from early Christian art, occurs in the East in a fresco of Kizil Çukur, Cappadocia. The three or four women bearing gifts are shown presenting dishes and a fan; Joachim is often introduced into compositions after the 14th century.

In the West, the ancient depictions have not been preserved, and the miniatures of the 11th and 12th centuries are more symbolic than narrative. From the 12th century on, however, the bathing motif is found and tends more and more to supplant that of the cradle. The presentation of the baby to the mother, which seems to be a primitive illustration of the Pseudo-Matthew, is employed in the Wernherlied. In Italy, where the bathing motif persists, Giotto combined it with the presentation. Owing to the development of picturesque features and of the laws of perspective, it became the chief motif of later compositions. The component elements were borrowed from Byzantine art and were treated in either a symbolic or a realistic manner.

The early childhood of Mary, in Byzantine tradition, comprises three events: the First Steps, the Caresses, and the Blessing by the Priests. The first is an ancient but infrequently encountered theme. Anne, seated, holds the hands of the infant Mary who is walking toward her, followed by a maidservant. The Caresses, a motif showing Eastern influence, is quite widespread in the art of the Paleologi. Anne and Joachim, seated on a bench, are playing with the child; one or two serving maids are often pictured also in this touching scene that is found mostly in Macedonian painting. The Blessing by the Priests takes place on the occasion of the banquet offered by Joachim for the first birthday of Mary. In the detailed cycles, priests and laity are represented; the refined motif is reduced to Anne or Joachim, or both, carrying the child who is being blessed by three priests disposed behind a table spread with a banquet. The table sometimes has the appearance of an altar. In the West, there is an unusual depiction of the First Steps on an embroidered English orphrey (14th century; Victoria and Albert Museum, London) and in a Catalan fresco (15th century; Barcelona Museum). The Blessing by the Priests is introduced into some cycles as a first Presentation in the Temple, closely paralleling that of Christ.

Anne and the Child Mary are represented together in single pictures, modeled on those of the Virgin and Christ Child. In Byzantine art, Anne holds Mary on her arm, caressing her or nursing her. These pictures are not part of the narrative cycles, although they may accompany them. The motif of Anne carrying the Child Mary occurs quite early in Rome (S. Maria Antiqua); in the 13th century it appears on the north portal of Chartres and on Byzantine-influenced icons in Italy. The typically Western theme of Anne teaching Mary to read is widespread from the 14th century in England and France, both in the cycles and in single representations in miniatures and on small statuary. It also served as inspiration for artists, such as Rubens (c. 1625; Antwerp Museum) and Delacroix (The Reading Lesson, 1842). The addition of Jesus to the group produced the St. Anne Trinity, a very widely represented subject at the end of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance (Leonardo da Vinci; Louvre, Paris). From there, artists went on to depict the Progeny of St. Anne in a family portrait, grouping Anne, Joachim, the Virgin, Mary Cleophas, Mary Salome (following the legend of Anne's Trinubium ), and their children.

The Presentation in the Temple is a major theme of the childhood of the Blessed Virgin, especially in Byzantium, because of the importance of the liturgical feast. Numerous episodes are added in the developed cycles: Anne and Joachim Talking of Mary, the Preparations for the Presentation, the Train accompanying Mary, the Presentation and Greeting by the High Priest, the Placing of Mary in the Holy of Holies, Mary Fed by the Angel, the Visions of Zacharias, and the Visit of Anne and Joachim to their Daughter. Some of these scenes were introduced into the church decoration, but the prevailing composition is the synthesized one created for the Eastern menologium. Near the entrance to the building, the group of young girls carry candles; in the center, Anne and Joachim introduce the Virgin Child to the High Priest who receives her eagerly; in the choir, the Virgin is seated on the steps and receives the bread from the angel. The iconography is remarkably homogeneous with the exception of the mode of representation peculiar to Macedonia and Serbia, where the young girls are grouped in the center.

In the West, this scene is encountered only in the cycles but it is always present there, even in the most limited ones. The nourishment by the angel is generally not shown. Except in a few Byzantine-influenced pictures in Italy, the train is not shown; but the future companions of Mary in the Temple are depicted in Italy. Although the High Priest, who is accoutered as a bishop or a Jewish priest, is always shown in Italian art, he is often omitted in Western European pictures. The number of steps Mary is climbing varies from three to 15, and she is shown as a child or a young adolescent with long hair, not as the little adult of Byzantine art. Mary sometimes turns back toward her parents, contrary to the statements of the textual sources; in Flemish works, she is sometimes assisted by a small angel. Italian artists discovered in this motif a pretext for theatrical compositions far removed from the Byzantine spirit (Titian, 1538; Accademia, Venice).

The Life of Mary in the Temple is narrated at length in the Latin accounts with a didactic aim in view. The scenes include her work of weaving in the Temple, her encounters with angels, and her miracles. She is shown with companions and not as the unique child of destiny in Byzantine art. All these events are illustrated in the Wernherlied, and some of them in 14th-century works (ivory casket in the Paul Dupuy Museum, Toulouse). As late as the 17th century, Guido Reni shows Mary sewing in the Temple with her companions (Hermitage, Leningrad), whereas Zurbarán depicts her alone, abandoning her embroidery for prayer.

The Marriage of Mary and Joseph is represented in Byzantine art in an arrangement similar to that of the Presentation. The young Virgin is committed to Joseph, both of them submissive to the will of God, by the High Priest Zacharias. The revealing miracle is indicated by the presence of the dove or of the flowering rod, inspired by Aaron's Rod. The suitors are present at this scene, which is found only in the cycles. It is often preceded by the Prayer of Zacharias, who is generally prostrated before the altar on which have been placed the staffs of the suitors. The episode gave rise to numerous illustrations in the Homilies of James and to the Peribleptos of Mistra: the Meditation of Zacharias and the Council of the Priests, the Oracle, the Choice of Joseph who tries to decline, the Warning of the Priest, and finally the Entrusting of Mary to the Keeping of Joseph. Allied subjects, proper to the Latin textual tradition, are found also in the Wernherlied. They are encountered elsewhere only very rarely; the Prayer of Zacharias by Giotto is an exception.

The Marriage scene, on the contrary, is found very frequently in the West, where artists adopted a secular schema for the Marriage scene: the joining of the right hands (dextrarum junctio ) in the Northern composition; the ring put on the finger in Italy; and the two partners standing on either side of the priest, who is seen full-face. The oldest depictions are linked with the Nativity of Christ (4th-century sarcophagus of Puy), and even the 11th-century miniatures are little influenced by the apocrypha. Soon Anne and Joachim are introduced (14th century, Sano di Pietro; Vatican Museum); so, a little later, are the suitors who in Italian art are shown breaking their staffs in anger. This scene gave rise to very elaborate compositions, especially in Italian art (Raphael, Il Sposalizio ; Brera, Milan).

The episodes following the nuptials are illustrated in Byzantine art by the Farewell of Mary to the Priest, Joseph Leading Mary Away, the Lodging of Mary in Joseph's House, and Joseph's Exhortations before his Departure. Only a few of these exceptional scenes appear in church paintings. In Western illustrations Mary is tended by five of her companions in Joseph's house, where Byzantine art shows the four sons of Joseph. Mary's return to her parents' home after the ceremony, based on the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, where it is a case of betrothal rather than marriage, is represented in several pictures in the Sienese tradition.

The Purple or the Distribution of the Skeins intended for the weaving of the veil of the temple is the final purely apocryphal episode of the life of Our Lady. Eastern examples show Mary, followed by a group of virgins, receiving from the hands of the priests the purple and the scarlet. In the West, the illustration of the event occurs in the Wernherlied. Some temple messengers are entering the house where Mary is waiting in the company of the five virgins. When the purple is alloted to her, the girls ironically call her "Queen of Virgins," but an angel appears and terrifies them so that they beg Mary to pardon them. The subject is rare in both Eastern and Western art. Mary spinning the purple has sometimes been confused with Mary weaving in the Temple, a theme that is encountered frequently in art of the West.

From the Annunciation to the Death and Glorification. The Annunciation is the first event of the life of Mary that is related in the canonical Gospels (Lk1.2638); it opens the cycle of the Childhood of Christ (see annunciation). This subject is extremely widespread, occurring both in cycles and independent representations, since it marks the inception of the processus of the Incarnation and recalls a very important feast. The apocryphal sources admit a dual Annunciation. Mary, who has gone to draw water, turns around surprised at the voice of an angel visibly present; then Mary, terrified, returns to her house and sets to work spinning the purple, at which point the angel appears to her. The two iconographic types, both going back to early Christian art, occur together in the apocryphal cycles (frescoes in St. Sophia, Kiev). The Annunciation in the house, with Mary spinning the purple, figures in the great feasts of the Byzantine Church. Mary is seated in the ancient images; later she is shown seated or standing. In the Homilies of James, the episode is narrated in detail from Gabriel's commission by the Court of Heaven to the recipient's joy in acceptance.

In Western art, the two Annunciations figure in the Wernherlied but this is a rare exception. The motif of the purple is more frequently encountered; that of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove is still more frequent. Mary is often surprised at prayer or pious reading in a great variety of stances and settings. The angel and Mary are both standing in the Pisa icon, both kneeling in the fresco by Giotto; the angel kneels before Mary in the picture by Simone Martini; all the possible combinations are found painted by Fra Angelico. The Flemish painters show the scene in a room, but sometimes also in a garden, a palace, or a church. The Incarnation also may be recalled together with the Annunciation, by a scene of solemn veneration in the Akathist Hymn, or in the West, by the Plunging of Jesus into the womb of Mary. After the Council of Trent the renderings of the Annunciation lost some of their intimacy; the angel appeared above on a cloud.

The Visitation includes Mary Going over the Hills to Visit Elizabeth, the Meeting between them, and the Return to Nazareth and Justification of the Virgin. The two women are shown greeting each other from a distance, or embracing. Elizabeth is sometimes represented kneeling before the Virgin (15th century, D. Ghirlandaio; S. Maria Novella, Florence). The subject was especially popular in the 15th and 16th centuries (see visitation of mary).

The Reproaches of Joseph follow upon his return and discovery of Mary's condition. In Byzantine art, this is represented by a conversation between Joseph, staff in hand, and Mary. In the Wernherlied, Joseph speaks to the companions of Mary who protest that she is innocent. The Dream of Joseph (Mt 1.2024), which occurs as early as the 4th century (sarcophagus of Puy), is surprisingly undifferentiated in Byzantium and the West. Joseph is asleep on his bed when the angel appears to him; Mary is sometimes represented symbolically in the scene. Some Western works show Joseph later kneeling before Mary to beg her pardon for his doubts.

The Ordeal by Water is portrayed at length in the Homilies of James and the Wernherlied. The Ordeal is frequently encountered in early Christian ivories where Mary alone, according to the ordeal reserved for adulteresses, drinks from the goblet of foul water handed to her by the priest; in the Byzantine apocryphal cycles, Mary and Joseph are both subjected to the ordeal. There is scarcely any trace of the theme in the West.

The Journey to Bethlehem (Lk 2.4) is an ancient motif going back to the primitive Church; in time it comes to be used less frequently, being too akin to the Flight into Egypt. On the throne of Maximian in Ravenna, an obviously pregnant Mary is seated on a donkey being led by an angel; Mary is supported by Joseph. In an apocryphal context, one of the sons of Joseph leads the animal. Mary's vision of a people in the depths of despair and of a people whose sorrow has been turned to joy is depicted in the Wernherlied.

The Census (Lk 2.15) provides the reason for the journey to Bethlehem, but in the apocrypha the Nativity occurs before the arrival in Bethlehem. Though the Census motif is represented only in a canonical context, the sons of Joseph may be introduced into the scene, as at Kariye Djami. The governor Cyrinus is present as those arriving are being registered by a scribe.

The Nativity of Christ is one of the most ancient themes from the New Testament (4th-century sarcophagi), and so is the Adoration of the Magi (catacombs; St. Mary Major, Rome), both having been represented in mosaics in the church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (4th century). The Virgin, sitting, or more often reclining, on a mattress, Joseph sitting, and Jesus in the cradle, or, after the 6th century, bathed by midwives, were later joined by shepherds and Magi offering presents in a synthesized composition. The scene was depicted in all the Byzantine churches, since the Nativity of Christ is one of the great feasts in the Eastern Church. In ancient cycles (Coptic frescoes at Bawît), but primarily in mid-Byzantine manuscripts and Paleologan painting, the scene may be shown in a narrative context, which includes various features, both canonical and apocryphal, concerning the Magi and the Massacre of the Innocents, as at Kariye Djami. From the 14th century on, the Adoration of the Child became the most favored representation in the West. The Virgin kneels before the Child, and frequently there are adoring angels present, hovering above the scene or, like the Virgin, also kneeling (c. 1475, Antonio Rossellino, marble relief; Monte Oliveto, Naples). The Adoration of the Shepherds (Lk 2.1521) appeared in European art at the end of the 15th century (Giorgioni; National Gallery of Art, Washington). The Adoration of the Magi was represented in sumptuous proportion during the Renaissance (15th century, Botticelli; National Gallery, Washington). (see jesus christ, iconography of; nativity of christ.)

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Purification of the Virgin (Lk 2.2238), includes Mary presenting the Infant to the priest Symeon, Joseph bearing two doves, and the prophetess Anna. The theme is widespread in Byzantine art. In the West, the artists frequently showed the act of the Circumcision with the Infant struggling in His mother's arms (Mantegna; Uffizi, Florence).

The Blessed Virgin appears again in the Return from Egypt (Mt 2.1923), where the Holy Family is shown approaching the walls of Nazareth, Joseph carrying the Child on his shoulders. She appears also in the Arrival of the Holy Family in Jerusalem (Lk 2.4142) for the celebration of the Passover when Jesus is 12 years old, and in the episodes of Jesus among the Doctors of the Temple (Lk 2.4349). These subjects are well depicted in the mosaics of Kariye Dajmi. The Return from Egypt is sometimes portrayed in the West. The Apprenticeship of Jesus is recalled in a few pictures of a rather late date, where Mary sometimes is shown. She is absent from the episodes of the Sojourn in the Wilderness and the Public Life of Christ, except for the Wedding Feast in Cana. She appears again in the cycle of the Passion (Crucifixion, Deposition, Entombment, and Ascension). In the Pentecost scene, where the New Testament only hints at her presence (Acts 1.1314; 2.139), she occupies a place of honor in the midst of the Apostles. The episodes of the Dormition are again inspired by apocryphal accounts. [see crucifixion (in art); pentecost, iconography of; passion of christ; ascension of jesus christ; dormi tion of the virgin.]

The Annunciation ante mortem, recounted at the beginning of various pericopes dealing with the Dormition, is made by Gabriel, or more often by Michael the Psychopompos, who extends a palm branch to the Virgin while she is at prayer. The earliest monument preserved, a fresco in S. Maria de Gradellis, reveals a rare tradition in which Christ Himself appears to his aged Mother who is stretched out on her bed. In Byzantine art, Mary is standing in prayer at Golgotha. After the announcement of her impending destiny, she sometimes distributes her clothing to the women attending her. In the West, where the subject appears in the 12th century (York Psalter), Mary is usually kneeling in her room.

The Arrival of the Apostles is ordinarily found in the large-scale compositions of the Dormition in Byzantine art (10th century and after; Tokalikilise II, Cappadocia) under the Paleologi. The disciples are positioned on clouds singly, in small groups, or in files of six, and are generally conducted by angels. This scene is rarely encountered in the West. An unusual picture in S. Maria de Gradellis shows three of the disciples being carried off from the site of their missionary activity. The Farewell of the Virgin to the Apostles is the subject of a remarkable composition in the Brontochion of Mistra. Mary is seated fully dressed on her bed and in a solemn posture, holding the palm branch in her right hand and surrounded by the praying Apostles. Mary's conversation with the Apostles may be rendered in a more intimate manner as at Cračanica. In the York Psalter she gives John the palm branch, a special symbol and prerogative of the Blessed Virgin at the hour of her death. The Communion of Mary, which has no textual basis, begins to appear in the 16th and 17th centuries in the West as an image of piety promoted by the Counter Reformation (Alonso Carlo; Palazzo Bianco, Genoa).

The Death of Our Lady or the Dormition constitutes a major theme in Byzantine iconography, figuring in all churches among the cycle of the Great Feasts, and also depicted on various artifacts. On 10th-century ivories, Mary is reclining on her bed, surrounded by the Apostles, with Peter censing her; Christ stands behind her, holding aloft in his arms her soul in the form of a doll swaddled in white. One or two angels are descending from heaven to receive her. On the Brummer Gallery ivory an angel descends at the left and then reascends on the right with the soul, while the three women attending Mary appear among the Apostles. The synthesized compositions of a later date show not only the Apostles arriving on clouds but also the orders of angels. Sometimes there appears the episode of the Jew Jephonias who was desirous of carrying off the body of Mary; his hands, cut off by the angels, are still gripping the bed.

The 12th century saw the addition of the three hierarchs Dionysius the Areopagite, Hierotheus, and Timothy (following a commentary of Andrew of Crete). John Damascene and Cosmas the Poet, who significantly contributed to Marian literature, sometimes flank the composition. The Romanesque (tympanum of Senlis) and 14th-century (Duccio, Maestá ; Siena) compositions owe much to Byzantium. The Byzantine influence continues to prevail in Italy in the 15th century, but the composition becomes more animated. In art of the northern Renaissance, Mary is shown lying or sitting on her bed surrounded by the Apostles and holding a candle. The scene is rendered intimately as the death of a pious bourgeois woman (c. 1480, painting by Hugo van der Goes; Bruges Museum). Christ and the angels, sometimes shown in the upper part of the picture, cease to appear.

The Funeral of the Blessed Virgin shows the Apostles carrying the body on a litter. It is here that the episode of Jephonias is inserted; in a Jean Fouquet miniature (c. 1450; Musée Condé, Chantilly), the Jews have been blinded by the angels. In the Interment the Apostles lower the body into a sarcophagus, with Peter in his traditional place supporting the head.

The Resurrection of the Virgin scarcely occurs in the Byzantine tradition, but the scene of the disciples finding the tomb empty on the third day inspired 12th-and 13th-Century Western artists. The Blessed Virgin rises from the tomb aided by angels, who sometimes carry her in a shroud; occasionally she is assisted by Christ Himself. The Assumption of the Virgin is not often treated in Byzantine art; but the motif of the girdle thrown to Thomas to convince his doubting nature of the authenticity of the event is less rare than has been thought (St. Clement; Ohrid, Yugoslavia). In the West, the Assumptio animae, perhaps depicted on a fabric in Sens (8th century), derives from the Byzantine conception of the taking up of the soul of the Virgin to heaven. The true theme is the Assumptio corporis, showing Mary rising to heaven on a cloud borne by angels. The scene occurs with outstanding frequency in Italian art (15th century, Masolino; Naples Museum). Mary rising by her own power indicates a borrowing from the Ascension (1643, Philippe de Champaigne; Marseilles Museum).

The Coronation, a theme more symbolical than narrative, seems to have evolved in the 12th-century Paris circle of Suger. In the oldest pictures the Blessed Virgin sits crowned at the side of Christ who is blessing her; later representations show her being crowned by Christ and sometimes by God the Father; the 15th century originated the presence of the Trinity at the Coronation. The earlier works show Mary seated, while later ones depict her kneeling. The Assumption and the Coronation may be combined in a single composition showing the Virgin being crowned upon her arrival in heaven (17th-century engraving by J. Callot).

Miracles and Apparitions of the Virgin. The miracles of the Virgin are derived from quite varied and often local sources. They are all posthumous, except for those attributed to Mary by a limited Latin tradition and supposed to have occurred during her stay in the Temple. There are collections in Latin and the vernaculars from the end of the 11th century in the West. In France, for example, there is the 14th-century illuminated manuscript of Gauthier de Coincy's Miracles Notre-Dame (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris); in Ethiopia, the Book of the Miracles of Mary. The most famous miracles are, in France, the Miracle of Theophilus, which appears in the stained-glass windows of the great Gothic cathedrals; and, in Italy, the Madonna with the Club or Madonna del Soccorso (1506, Giovanni da Monte Rubrano; Montpellier Museum).

The miracles are often linked with local apparitions, the most important of which include: Our Lady of the Snows in Rome; the Holy House of Loretto; the Virgin of the Pillar in Saragossa, Spain (c. 1654, Poussin; Louvre); the Lactation of St. Bernard; the Holy Candle of Arras; and apparition as the Immaculate to Bernadette soubirous at Lourdes. The iconography of the miracles has been influenced by the visions of such mystics as St. bridget of sweden.

Symbolic Representations. These are based on prefigurations drawn from the prophetic passages of the Old Testament. Initially they were literary motifs used by the homiletical writers; certain of these motifs became concretized by an image: the Burning Bush, the Rod of Aaron, Gideon's Fleece, the Closed Gate of the vision of Ezekiel. Typological motifs also were furnished in the Stone sealing up the Lions' Den of Daniel, the Revolving Stone in the Dream of Nebuchadrezzar explained by Daniel, and the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace. The Song of Solomon inspired the Enclosed Garden and the Sealed Fountain. The Virgin does not appear in person in these scenes, though she may be suggested in a medallion, as an apparition, notably in the Burning Bush.

The Byzantine art of the Paleologan renewal assigned a very important place to the symbolic cycles in the churches. The tradition of typological representations is perhaps more widespread in the West, particularly in the Speculum historiale, except in Italy where the subjects never really took root. Other symbolic portrayals show Mary assimilated to the Woman of the Apocalypse, in the West, or to the Bed of Solomon, in Byzantium.

Bibliography: Sources. For bibliography on apocrypha of the New Testament, see bible, iii (canon), 5. Liturgical Marian Art. a. muÑoz, Iconografia della Madonna (Florence 1905). n. p. kondakov, Ikonograf[symbol omitted]ia a bogomateri, 2 v. (St. Petersburg 191415). v.n. lazarev, "Studies in the Iconography of the Virgin," Art Bulletin 20 (1938) 2665. m. trens, Maria: Iconografia de la Virgen en el arte español (Madrid 1946). m. vloberg, La Vierge et L'Enfant dans l'art française, 2 v. (2d ed. Grenoble 1934, repr. 1954). l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 6 v. (Paris 195559) 2.2:70128. c. bertelli, Enciclopedia dell'arte antica (1961) 2:83951. v. i. antonova and n. e. mneva, Katalog drevnerusskoj živopisi, I.XI-načalo XVI v (Moscow 1963). Narrative cycles. o. s1nding, Mariä Tod und Himmelfahrt (Christiana 1903). c. stornajolo, Miniature delle Omilie di Giacomo Monaco (Rome 1910). g. millet, Recherches sur l'iconographie de l'Évangile aux XIV e, XV e et XVI e siècles (Paris 1916). h. degering, Des Priesters Wernher drei Lieder von der Magd (Berlin 1925). h. a. omont, Miniatures des Homélies sur la Vierge du moine Jacques (Paris 1927). s. rossi, L'Assunzione di Maria nella storia dell'arte cristiana (Naples 1940). j. duhr, "La Dormition de Marie dans l'art chrétien," Nouvelle revue théologique (February 1950) 13457. v. bennet and r. winch, The Assumption of Our Lady and Catholic Theology (London 1950). Iconographie de l'art chrétien 2.2:15594, 597626. j. lafontaine-dosogne, Peintures médiévales dans le temple dit de la Fortune Virile à Rome (Brussels 1959); Iconographie de l'Enfance de la Vierge dans l'Empire byzantin et en Occident, 2 v. (Brussels 196465). p. underwood, The Art of the Kariye Djami, 3 v. (New York 1966). Miracles and apparitions. g. de coincy, Les Miracles de la Sainte Vierge, ed. m. poquet (Paris 1857). e. a. w. budge, The Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Life of Hannâ (London 1900). e. levi, "I Miracoli della Vergine nell' arte del medio evo," Bollettino d'arte 12 (1918) 125. a. c. fryer, "Theophilus, the Penitent, as Represented in Art," Archaeological Journal (1935). e. cerulli, Il libro etiopico dei Miracoli di Maria (Rome 1943). l. rinieri, La Verità sulla Santa Casa di Loreto (Turin 1950). Iconographie de l'art chrétien 2.2:62635. Symbolic themes. e. mÂle, "L'Art symbolique à la fin du moyen âge," Revue de l'art ancien et modern 28 (1905) 8196, 195209, 43545. j. lutz and p. perdrizet, Speculum humanae salvationis, 2 v. (Leipzig 190709). Iconographie de l'art chrétien 2.2:8587. s. der nersessian, "Le Lit de Salomon," Zbornik Radova Vizantološkog Instituta 8 (1963) 7782.

[j. lafontaine-dosogne]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Mary, Blessed Virgin, Iconography of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Mary, Blessed Virgin, Iconography of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 16, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mary-blessed-virgin-iconography

"Mary, Blessed Virgin, Iconography of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mary-blessed-virgin-iconography

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.