The Annunciation, with Saints Ansanus and Margaret and Four Prophets, 1333, The Virgin in Art
Art,  English

The presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Art

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The text below is the excerpt of the book The Virgin in Art (ASIN: ‎1646994310), written by Kyra Belán, published by Parkstone International.

Read Part 1 here

The presence of Mary within Western civilization has a long theological history of transformation. Scholars concur that during early Christianity there were other paramount feminine faces of spirituality, such as Sophia, who was understood to be the feminine aspect of the complex Christian God. Hagia Sophia represented the Divine Wisdom and was celebrated as a co-creator, together with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. At the beginning of Christianity, particularly in Eastern Europe, the Holy Ghost was understood as female. Yet it usually was Sophia who was celebrated as the feminine aspect of the divine. As Sophia’s popularity among the dogma-generating clergy waned, the popularity of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, gradually increased. One of the earliest images of Mary still extant was painted in the second or third century, and is located in the Crypt of the Veiled Lady, the Catacombs of Priscilla, in Rome. This image represents her in the company of a centrally-located female figure, perhaps an early image of Sophia. A figure, possibly of Jesus, with students, is placed on the right of the figure in the centre. The Virgin Mary, holding her infant, is located on the left side of the standing figure.

Virgin and Child, 9th century, The Virgin in Art
Virgin and Child, 9th century. Mosaic. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

During the sixth century, the presence of the Mother of God was reaffirmed within the Christian religious dogma all over Europe, including the Byzantine Empire. This affirmation effectively neutralized the threat of a competitor religion, that of the Great Goddess Isis of Egypt. During early centuries CE, the image of Mary was frequently equated to and even confused with the image of the Egyptian goddess whose religion had been in existence for several thousand years. Like the Madonna, the Goddess Isis also had a divine son, Horus, and the artists often depicted her tenderly holding her precious infant on her lap and suckling him. One of her main characteristics was that of a nurturing mother. She was, like Mary, a compassionate and loving divinity, ultimately dedicated to her people’s wellbeing.

There are many similarities between the myths of Mary and the myths of Isis. Both conceived their sons in unusual ways and were believed to be extremely loving and receptive to their followers’ plights and prayers. Both were understood to be protectors of children and of women in distress or sorrow, and both generated an array of miracles. Many of Mary’s temples were built on the sites of temples formerly dedicated to Isis. Most people did not see many differences between the two female divine figures. Early Christian worshipers perceived their Madonna as the new interpretation of the ancient Great Goddess Isis.

Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple, c. 1500
Nicolas Dipre, Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple, c. 1500. Painting on wood, 317 x 50 cm. The Louvre, Paris.

The religion of the Goddess Isis lasted for a minimum of four thousand years. However, new evidence suggests that the goddess may have endured for more than six millennia. Although originally an Egyptian goddess, Isis was worshiped throughout most of the ancient world, including a substantial part of Europe. She was the daughter of an earlier Egyptian divinity, the sky goddess Nut. Isis was also understood to be a more recent version of two Egyptian goddesses that chronologically preceded her, Hathor and Sekhmet. Like the Great Sekhmet, Isis was a sun goddess, and like Hathor, Isis possessed lunar powers. An abundance of symbols, including different plants and animals, were used by artists to represent her many aspects. Numerous former symbols of Isis were later incorporated into the iconography of the Virgin Mary. By the year 431, the Church Council of Ephesus of the Byzantine Empire declared the Virgin Mary to be the Theotokos, or the Bearer of God. This event was followed by an increase in the artistic production of her images.

Yet many icons of Mary were later destroyed due to the theological struggle within Christianity during the seventh and eight centuries, although some were miraculously spared. Eastern Christian clergy recognized their emperors as leaders of the Church, and in 726, Leo III, a Byzantine emperor, initiated a movement called Iconoclasm. The proponents of the movement feared that the population would worship the icons of Christian religious characters rather than the concepts that they represented. During the eighth century, the Iconoclastic movement banned all sacred images located within the Byzantine empire, believing that the worshipers were venerating the actual images instead of the spiritual beings. However, this decision was permanently reversed by the following century, and the creation of icons dedicated to the Virgin Mary resumed with fervor.

Madonna and Child with Prophets, c. 1500, The Virgin in Art
Luca Signorelli, Madonna and Child with Prophets, c. 1500. Oil on wooden panel, 170 x 117.5 cm. Uffizi, Florence.

All indications are that the role of the Madonna is still evolving. The lore, the origins, the dogma, the myths and the expanding array of symbols and archetypes continue to surround the enigmatic persona of the Virgin Mary. As a prototype of spirituality and perfection in womanhood, the Madonna looms larger than life.

This book offers the reader some of the best art that has been produced through the centuries to celebrate Mary. The works of art were created by many different individuals who tried to convey and explain, from their different points of view and using the visual language available to them, the depth of the feelings and convictions of their cultures in respect of this Great Mother…

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Parkstone International is an international publishing house specializing in art books. Our books are published in 23 languages and distributed worldwide. In addition to printed material, Parkstone has started distributing its titles in digital format through e-book platforms all over the world as well as through applications for iOS and Android. Our titles include a large range of subjects such as: Religion in Art, Architecture, Asian Art, Fine Arts, Erotic Art, Famous Artists, Fashion, Photography, Art Movements, Art for Children.

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