The Iconography of the Virgin Mary

Part Eight: Portraits


In the literature as early as the 3rd century Mary was referred to as the "true cherubic throne" of Christ.1 In the art this conceit soon took the form of images of the Christ Child "enthroned" on the lap of his mother. In the 6th-century mosaic pictured above Mary herself sits on a backless "curule" chair like those used by the highest Imperial authorities. In another mosaic of the same century she sits on a true throne with a back and ornate decoration. This will be the rule for all ensuing portraits.

A related type is the Throne of Wisdom image, in which the child holds a book, as in the first picture at right. The idea is that Christ is the Wisdom extolled in the Old Testament. This is clear from the rose symbol and the verse on the scroll in Filippo Lippi's Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels. The Throne of Wisdom begins as a sculptural type, but by the 15th century it was also adapted for paintings. Lippi's work and others of the time "humanize" the genre, sometimes by showing Mary teaching the Child to read the book. One example is the De Werve Virgin and Child, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another is the Austrian Virgin and Child with Writing Case, where the lesson has put the child to sleep! The topic of teaching to read may have been adapted from images of St. Anne doing the same thing for the young Mary.

Yet another type is the "Maria Ecclesia" image, in which Mary, representing the whole church, shares a throne with Christ, as in the apse at Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Similar to the honoring of Mary as Christ's "throne" is the idea stated in the 15th-century Sacerdoce de la Vierge that she is a worthy "vestment" for "the sovereign priest," her son.


Another type common in the West is the Madonna and Child, in which Mary holds the child in her arms. In sculpture, she is usually represented standing (example); in paintings, we are more likely to see just the upper part of her body. Her mantle is usually blue and often has a star on the shoulder (example), especially in earlier examples. Usually the child faces the viewer, as in the first and third pictures at right, but sometimes he looks to the side (second picture) and in one remarkable case he turns from the viewer to snuggle up to his mother. These paintings descend from the much older Byzantine Hodegetria type, in which Mary engages the viewer's eyes while pointing to the child (example).

A close Western approximation of the Hodegetria is the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which arose in the 15th century and is common even today in Catholic churches and homes. In this icon (the second picture at right) the child's future is represented by angels who carry the instruments of his passion and death. A similar device is seen in many Renaissance and late medieval works where the child holds in his hand some object symbolic of that future. It may be a pomegranate whose red juice resembles the blood to be shed on the Cross, or grapes referencing the wine of the Last Supper and the Mass. Or it can be a goldfinch, which nests in the kind of plants from which the soldiers fashioned the Crown of Thorns, or a swallow, which was supposed to "resurrect" itself from the ground in the spring (Sill, 21, 26).

Alternatively, to express the child's lordship over the universe as the second person of the Trinity, he may be given an orb-shaped object or fruit. In the Wakefield Second Shepherds' Play, the third shepherd offers him a ball (line 734, Cawley, 62). In this statue in Spain it is an apple. In some cases he will hold a rose in honor of his mother.

The way the child is represented varies with the tastes and theological emphases of the period. He may be dressed in regal garments, especially in earlier works. In the 14th century he becomes more like a typical human child. The garments are looser and often expose his chest. In the 15th, he is typically naked and the images may portray him with fully developed genitalia (example). He had been shown nursing at his mother's breast in some images as early as the 12th century (example), but in the 15th and 16th this type of Madonna Lactans image became common (example). This kind of image was approved by Molanus (93) in 1570 but went out of fashion in the succeeding centuries.

Similarly Mary may be presented barefoot and in simple clothes (example), or she may be arrayed as a queen, as above.

From the 15th and 16th centuries we also see a hybrid iconography, similar to the Throne images in that Mary sits on a throne with the baby but resembling the Madonnas in striving for a sentimental naturalism. Typically, the baby will be naked and standing on his mother's thigh (example). Starting in the late 16th, the child's genitalia will be hidden by a bit of clothing (example), or Mary's hand (example), or some such device.


Mary is known under countless titles. Some refer to points of doctrine or scripture, such as the Immaculate Conception, the Mater Dolorosa, or the Candelaria. Others are associated with specific countries or locales, such as Mexico's Our Lady of Guadalupe or Panama's Santa María de la Antigua. Still others refer to apparitions or miracles claimed for the Virgin, of which here are just a few:

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-14,17, 2016-11-11, 2017-01-30.

1   2   3   4   5   6   7



Detail from the 6th-century apse mosaic at Poreč Cathedral, Croatia. See the description page for a broader view and further information.


Throne of Wisdom, late 13th century – See description page

Our Lady of Per­pe­tu­al Help. The style and con­tent of this icon pop­ular in the West go back ul­ti­mate­ly to the Ho­de­ge­tria pop­ular in the East­ern churches. See the de­scrip­tion page.

In this detail from Ve­ne­zi­a­no's mid-14th cen­tury Ma­donna, Mary hands the child Jesus a finch, whose red mark­ings were be­lieved to sym­bo­lize the blood of his passion and death. – See the de­scrip­tion page.




1 Gregory Thaumaturgus, Second Homily on the Annunciation: "To thee every creature, of things in Heaven and things on earth and things under the earth, offers the meet offering of honor. For thou hast been indeed set forth as the true cherubic throne." ("Cherubic throne" refers to Psalm 79:2, "Thou that sittest upon the cherubims, shine forth.") Compare John Damascene, First Homily on the Dormition, (¶8, Daley, 192): "You are the royal throne around which angels stand to see their Lord and Creator seated." The "royal throne" and surrounding angels here refer to Isaiah 6:1-3, "I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and elevated: and his train filled the temple. Upon it stood the seraphims.… And they cried one to another, and said: 'Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts, all the earth is full of his glory.'" The Glossa Ordinaria says Solomon's throne in 1 Kings 10:18-20 "signifies the Virgin Mary, on whose lap Christ sat as on the most noble of thrones he received the homage of the three kings" (II, 777-78, my translation).