Mater Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows)
The Iconography
The Sorrowful Mother is an image of Mary as she was when she stood by the side of Jesus' cross. This iconographic type developed in the last quarter of the 15th century, when devotion to Mary as sorrowful mother was preached by the Dutch priest Jean de Coudenberghe, who had three such images installed in the churches for which he was responsible and who organized a number of "Brotherhoods of the Sorrowful Mother." The devotion was promoted by Philip the Fair and soon became widespread, especially in his domains.1 Often the breast is pierced by a sword, as a reminder of Simeon's remark in Luke 2:22-38 that "thy own soul a sword shall pierce." (The first picture at right is an example.) Or it may be pierced by seven swords (as in the second picture) to represent the "Seven Sorrows" that Mary is said to have suffered:
  1. The prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:34-35)
  2. The flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13)
  3. The loss of the Child Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:43-45)
  4. Meeting Jesus on the way to Calvary
  5. The Crucifixion
  6. The Deposition of Jesus' body from the Cross
  7. The burial of Jesus
Dolorosa statues in Latin countries often lack the sword, possibly because they were intended for Crucifixion groups during Holy Week processions. In statues of this type that we observed in Oaxaca, Mexico, there is often a heart pinned to the breast and a crown, as in the third picture at right.

Usually, though not always, the mother's sorrow is expressed in an anguished or weeping face, sometimes streaked with realistic tears. Because of the narrative situation she always stands erect and never has a child in arms. Only a few examples put a white cloth in her left hand, as in the second picture at right. In one case that I know of, the cloth is red.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University


A Sorrowful Mother in the Hermitage, Melide, Spain, with a sword in the heart. (See the description page)

An outdoor shrine in Taufers im Münstertal, Italy, with seven swords in the heart. Other images sometimes separate the swords into two groups, as here. (See the description page

A Sorrowful Mother in Ejutla, Mexico, with a pinned heart. (See the description page)


  • 1674-85: Pedro de Mena's intensely naturalistic Mater Dolorosa bust has no sword, no heart, no crown.
  • 1760: Morlete Ruiz's painting adds the instruments of Christ's passion.
  • 19th-century: A cuadro from New Mexico.
  • Undated: A wall painting of Our Lady of Sorrows with Jesus and St. John the Evangelist.
  • Undated: A statue in the Museo d'Arte Sacra, San Leo, Italy.
  • Undated: A statue placed before a painting of the Crucifixion in Munich.
  • Undated: A Spanish painting with Mary in contemporary dress.



Carolus de Smedt et al., 1 "La Vierge aux Sept Glaives," Analecta Bollandiana, XII, 333-52.