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.

Portraits of this early type usually put the mother in the red shoes favored by the Emperor and other persons of high status in the Byzantine court. However, the child and any saints or angels in the picture will have sandals or bare feet. This pattern continues in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but in the West one rarely sees Mary in red shoes after the 12th century.

In these early images the child holds a scroll. In a related type, the Throne of Wisdom image, he holds a book, as in the first picture at right. The idea is that he 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. This is a rather loose category, but one distinguishing feature is that Mary holds the child 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. In sculptures, she is usually represented standing (example). Usually the child faces the viewer, as in the first and third pictures at right, but sometimes he looks to his mother (example) or to the side (second picture). 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.

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 fruit 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).

In classical art it was common for images of children to have the child hold a bird or a cluster of grapes (example).2 These may have influenced the Renaissance and late-medieval images in which the Christ Child holds a bird in his hands. The bird may 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.3

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 he squeezes juice from the grapes into a chalice (example).

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 (example). Starting in the late 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 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).


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, 2019=04-18.

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.




  • Circa 2nd-3rd century: Funerary relief of a parent with two children who are holding birds.
  • Circa 1100: Spanish fresco: Enthroned with the Christ Child, with Michael, Gabriel, and the Adoration of the Magi.
  • 1145-70, Sicily: Mary sola in orant posture in an apse mosaic in Cefalù Cathedral.
  • Circa 1180: A Throne of Wisdom fresco in Aquileia's Basilica of the Assumption.
  • 12th/13th century: A Virgin Enthroned beneath the Christ Pantocrator in Monreale Cathedral.
  • 13th century: Statuette in a Swiss convent.
  • Circa 1290, England: An unusual Trinity in which Mary shares a throne with God the Father.
  • Early 16th century: Icon of the Madonna of Consolation, associated with the Christian victory at the Battle of Lepanto.
  • 15th or 16th century (estimate), Dalmatia: Altar Frontal in St. Domnius Cathedral, Split.
  • 1607: Annibale Carracci's Madonna and Child with Saints.
  • 1679: Murillo's Virgin and Child Offering Bread to the Priests.
  • 17th century: Mary enthroned but without the Christ Child, Mosaic in the Palatine Chapel, Palermo.
  • 19th century (estimate): Madonna and Child with crown and sceptre, standing on symbols of the Immaculate Conception (moon, cloud, dragon), Meersburg, Germany.
  • 1919, Glottertal (Germany): fresco of The Virgin Enthroned with Angels and Saints.
  • Undated (Candia School, late medieval through 17th century): Maria Candia, a derivative of the Hodegetria type.
  • Undated, probably 19th century: Statue in Ljubljana's cathedral of Mary standing behind a standing Christ Child with the "sacred heart."
  • Undated: In this statue of the Madonna and Child Mary holds a scepter and stands on the moon, as in Immaculate Conception images.


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).

2 See Garcia's study of Greek child portraits with birds, and for child-grapes images see Dowdle and Richter, 161.

3 Sill, 21, 26.