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By far the most popular images of Christian art are pictures of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Madonna. The cult of the Madonna is particularly interesting and strange. The cult of a female is rare in religions that developed after or together with Christianity. But of course, the female element is strong in many cultures. The Virgin Mary added the female element to Christianity. The Madonna shown together with her son represented the importance of maternity in society, and the need to care for children. Maternity and fertility were some of the strongest representations in the art of archaeological times. Many early cults were based on the mother image, notably the ancient Egyptian worship of Isis and her son Horus. The Madonna can be considered to have been necessary for Christian religion to underscore the message of love, kindness and of course the continuance of the race. The cult of Mary had a soothing influence on civilisation, and started because there was a need for a more kind and tender element in Europe than in the original spirit of the Hebrew Testaments.

The history of the Nativity is told only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew even tells the birth of Jesus more from the standpoint of Joseph, Mary’s husband, and his story is very short. The Gospels do not relate the early history of Mary: her own birth and childhood. Painters however were interested not just in the connection of Mary with her child, but in her own particular history as well. So they used scenes from apocryphal writings and from legends, such as the story of the meeting of her parents. Most of these legends were compiled in Jacobus de Voragine’s ‘Legenda Aurea’ of the thirteenth century. The life and death of the Virgin, even her Assumption to the heavens and her Coronation are main spiritual themes in Italian and Flemish church panels of the Gothic Middle Ages and of the Renaissance.

The Gospels do not mention Mary much after Jesus’s birth either. She is present in Matthew and Luke’s texts of the Nativity. Mary finds Jesus in the temple. She is with Joseph and Jesus on the flight to Egypt. She is at the wedding of Cana where the first miracle is performed. And she is at Christ’s death on Golgotha. For the rest of the stories she remains in the background. The Gospels of course concentrate on the message of Jesus, not on Mary.

Jacobus de Voragine wrote on Mary’s genealogy in the thirteenth century. The ‘Golden Legend’ adored mysterious and royal lineages and the Virgin is told to be of royal blood. She took her origin from the tribe of Judah and the royal descent of David. David had many sons among whom Nathan and Solomon. In the line of Nathan, Levi begot Melchi and Panthar. Panthar begot Barpanthar. Barpanthar begot Joachim and Joachim was the father of the Virgin Mary. Nathan married a woman of the line of Solomon and of her begot Jacob. When Nathan died, Melchi married the deceased Nathan’s wife and of her begot Heli. When Heli died, Jacob took Heli’s wife and begot Joseph. Joseph married Mary. Joachim took a wife named Anna, who had a sister called Hismeria. This Hismeria had a daughter called Elisabeth and this Elisabeth was the mother of John the Baptist. Luke testifies that Elisabeth was of the daughters of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi. Mary thus had a bond with the kingly tribe of Judah of Israel, the line of David, and also with the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe of Israel. Mary was of both tribes. The ‘Golden Legend’ told that Mary was of royal descent and from that assertion stem many legends and pictures.

The cult of the Virgin became popular between the sixth and twelfth centuries. The Roman Catholic Church, that is all the Christians who adhered before the Reformation to faith in the message of Christ, needed a representation and a representative for a certain aspect of Jesus’s Good News. Jesus had told that only enter the Kingdom of Heavens, close to God the Father, those men who could be like children. This did not mean being innocent or naïve. It meant those who could give without thinking, those who could forgive without afterthought. It meant the utterly pure of heart and the truly altruistic. Apparently this was not much of a male message. Even though the male saints testified to this kind of messages, their lives and martyrdom were still impregnated with violence, heroism, epics and hard courage.

The purest example of altruism and the finest example of love and kindness in humans were of course maternity. The best example was the altruism of mothers who gave birth in pain and continued to raise children. Mothers suffered bearing children, mothers forgot themselves for their children. We have here a clear message of the transcendence that Europeans sought after. Mothers give their lives; the gift of oneself being the highest altruistic offer a human can give. The gift was for an aim greater than oneself, hence a goal of transcendence. Rapidly, Mary, the Mother of the Church, personified the softer, sweeter, altruistic message of love of Christ. Mary represented the most beautiful and pure love that was asked in the message of Christ.

The Virgin Mary is represented in many themes of the pictorial arts. There are too many themes to all be commented in this text. We will start with the conception and birth of Mary. The major further themes are the Annunciation and the Visitation. Mary is represented with or without the child Jesus in various themes, of which we will only describe some like the crowning of the Madonna and the scenes called ‘Humble Madonnas’, Umiltà’s or Mater Amabilis. A popular early theme was the ‘Seven Joys and Seven Sorrows’ of the Virgin. Mary was shown frequently inspiring the arts or being painted herself by Luke. Finally, we will talk of the death of the Virgin, then of her assumption and present images of her as the Immaculate Conception.

The paintings that we will show are examples of the main themes of the devotion to Mary. As no other themes these representations of Mary and her Child have their roots in Byzantine art, almost the beginning of the pictorial arts, as we know them currently in Europe. We will see pictures of almost every style of the art of painting because the devotion to Mary spanned the centuries. Indeed, the adoration of Mary continues till our days as testify the numerous pilgrimage sites and churches dedicated to her cult in Europe.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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