The Iconography of the Virgin Mary
Part Eight: Portraits
THE VIRGIN MARY AS THRONE
In its day, the mosaic pictured above was revolutionary. Before the 5th century Christ had normally been pictured as an adult, flanked by saints and holding a book or scroll (example). But in the 5th century and then much more frequently in the 6th, his "throne" became the lap of his mother, who was portrayed sitting on a real throne with a red velvet cushion.
Why did this happen? Visualizing the Virgin Mary on a throne was not unprecedented. That is how she was often portrayed in the earliest images of the Adoration of the Magi (example), and in the literature as early as the 3rd century she was referred to as the "true cherubic throne" of Christ.1 But the major impetus for re-imagining the portrayal of Christ as a child on her lap came after the Council of Ephesus in 431, which settled a bitter dispute over whether it was proper to refer to her as Theotokos – meaning literally, "God-bearer" but effectively Mother of God. Indeed it was proper, the Council decreed: because Christ's divine and human natures are inseparable, the child Mary bore was both God and man.2 As a consequence of this proclamation, the sponsors of orthodox Christian art developed new forms such as the mosaic we see above.
In the earliest examples, according to Shepherd (93), the child continued to be flanked by saints and Mary was dressed as "a woman of the ordinary classes in late antiquity." But by the 6th century she is pictured in a mantle of imperial purple pulled up to form a veil over a white cap, as we see in the mosaic above and in this one. Her shoes in these images are red, a style favored by the Emperor and other persons of high status in the Byzantine court.
In these 6th-century images the saints have been displaced by angels. Like the child, these are dressed in the costume of the day: an inner tunic, an outer tunic, and a pallium draped over the left shoulder. The child usually holds a scroll in his left hand and lifts his right in what Shepherd calls "the gesture of delivering the Law" (ibid.).
DEVELOPMENTS IN THE WEST
In the West this iconographic type morphs into a variety of forms.
The Throne of Wisdom
One type popular in the West in the 12th century was the "Throne of Wisdom" sculpture, as in the first picture at right. Mary sits on a backless throne and holds the Christ Child on her lap, her right hand on his breast or torso. In turn, the child holds a book on his lap. In medieval thought Christ is himself Wisdom, the character who speaks and is praised in the Bible's "wisdom books" (Proverbs, Wisdom, and Sirach). Filippo Lippi makes this point in his Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels, a painting based on the Throne of Wisdom type. In that painting the book is open to a phrase spoken by Wisdom in the Book of Sirach, "Come over to me, all ye that desire me, and be filled with my fruits" (24:26).
The Throne of Wisdom is a sculptural tradition, but one sees its influence on two-dimensional works such as this mosaic.
The Madonna and Child
The 12th-century Throne of Wisdom sculptures are characterized by a serene engagement with the viewer. The faces are as in repose, and the figures face directly forward. As we leave the Romanesque era, the art seeks to "humanize" the mother and child (example). "Madonna Enthroned" paintings keep the elaborate thrones of the old iconography but make the child more childlike. In the Austrian Virgin and Child with Writing Case, the book has put little Jesus to sleep!
Or the throne may be omitted entirely. In the loose and multitudinous category known as "Madonna and Child" Mary holds Jesus with one or both arms rather than seating him on her lap. 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 third picture at right, but sometimes he looks to his mother (example) or to the side (second picture). In one remarkable case in Vienna he turns from the viewer to snuggle up to his mother. Most sculptures are like the Vienna statue in that Mary is represented standing (example).
In many Renaissance and late medieval works the child holds some symbolic object in his hand. It may be an orb referring to his lordship over the earth (example), or it may be an orb-shaped fruit such as a pomegranate, whose red juice symbolizes the blood of the Crucifixion and the wine of the Eucharist (example). In this statue in Spain the fruit is an apple. In this painting it is a pear. In the Wakefield Second Shepherds' Play, the third shepherd offers the child a ball (line 734, Cawley, 62).
Or it may be a bird or a cluster of grapes that has captured the child's interest. These objects had been common in classical images of children (example).3 Rediscovery and reinterpretation of those images may have influenced Renaissance and late-medieval iconography. Sometimes the child will have a goldfinch or swallow in his hands. The goldfinch was said to nest in the kind of plants from which the soldiers fashioned the Crown of Thorns. The swallow (example) was supposed to "resurrect" itself from the ground in the spring.4
The grapes in classical images of children become in Christian iconography a reference to the wine of the Eucharist and thus to the blood shed on the Cross (example). In some images the grapes are offered to the child by Anne or Joseph (example). In others he holds them himself, and in a few remarkable cases even squeezes their juice into a chalice.
The way the child himself 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, representations become more naturalistic. 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, as in this example. (See Steinberg, Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art). Starting in the mid-16th, the genitalia will be hidden by a bit of clothing (example), or Mary's hand (example), or some such device. He had been shown nursing at his mother's breast in some western images as early as the 12th century (example) and in Egypt in the 5th or 6th (Brown, 142-44), 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.
Sometimes Mary may be presented barefoot and in simple clothes (example) or seated on the floor or the bare ground, in a subtype known as the Madonna of Humility (example).
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).
Some paintings in the West derived from the 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.
Another western type adapted the Byzantine " Parthenos Eleousa" (Merciful Virgin), in which Mary hugs the child tightly and he presses his cheek against hers and places his hand on her mantle or chest:
Medieval examples of the influence of the "Parthenos Eleousa" in the West include Lorenzetti's
Madonna and Child with St. Mary Magdalene and St. Dorothy (1325)
and the Salimbenis'
Madonna and Child with Saints Sebastian and John the Baptist (1416),
which is like the stained glass shown above in applying it to a Virgin Enthroned image. The type was also popular in the Renaissance. Thereafter interest declined somewhat in the West, but we do have an example that Sassoferrato painted in the 17th century and another by Pompeo Battoni in 18th.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-14,17, 2016-11-11, 2017-01-30, 2019-04-18, 2019-08-11, 2019-12-22, 2020-01-11.
Detail from the 6th-century apse mosaic at Poreč Cathedral, Croatia. See the description page for a broader view and further information.OTHER IMAGES