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.

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. The child will usually hold a scroll. The Eastern Orthodox tradition continues to use this pattern. In the West it morphs into a variety of iconographic types.


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).2 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.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 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 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.

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.


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 or the Salus Populi Romani in Rome. 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, 2019-08-11.

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, mid-12th 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.

Detail from Veneziano's mid-14th century Madonna Enthroned. – 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.
  • 1674: Cerrini's The Virgin Mary Triumphs over Heresy.
  • 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.
  • Undated: Dressed santo of the Virgin Mary, said to have accompanied Spanish troops into battle.



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.