Luca Giordano, The Marriage of the Virgin, c. 1688
Art,  English

The Virgin Mary from Early Medieval to Early Modern Art

The text below is the excerpt of the book The Virgin and Child (ISBN: 9781683254638), written by Kyra Belán and Ernest Renan, published by Parkstone International.

The earliest images of Mary were probably introduced into early Christian iconography during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This was a time in human history when society was committed to relieving women of their remaining rights and powers; vestiges of the old matriarchal rights were excised from the prevalent patriarchal order. The officially accepted Gospels of the New Testament were written by males for a patristic social system, and very few references about the Madonna were made in these texts. Neither Mary nor her son, Jesus, wrote any material, and the first official Gospel, believed to be written by Mark, was completed in its unedited version in 66.

The Mother of God “Hodegetria” of Volyn, first half of the 14th century, The Virgin
The Mother of God “Hodegetria” of Volyn, first half of the 14th century. National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kiev.

Apparently the second official version of the Gospels was written by Luke in 80, shortly followed by Matthew’s version. It is possible, however, that John’s version was in fact the earliest one, at around 37, since it includes more details, which has led many to believe that perhaps this version may be closer to the real occurrences of the events in the lives of Mary and her son, Jesus. These accounts, primarily of the story of Jesus, mentioned his mother on very rare occasions, and were not nearly enough to satisfy the people, who, in spite of the patriarchal trivialising of women, desperately desired a divine female figure to worship and venerate. The yearning for the powerful but gentle Great Mother could not be silenced, and the worship of the goddesses from the old religions, such as Isis, Cybele, Demeter, Aphrodite and Athena continued. The devotion to Isis was, perhaps, the most widespread, posing a formidable threat to the fledgling Christian cult.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Visitation, 1491, The Virgin
Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Visitation, 1491. Tempera on wood, 172 x 167 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The new Christian religion needed its own Great Mother, and that Mother manifested itself first in the early interpretations of the Holy Ghost as female, and of Sophia as the Wisdom of God.  These powerful female archetypes of the new predominantly patriarchal religion were soon overshadowed by the inclusion of Mary, the mother of Christ. From the beginning, the Madonna was seen as the symbol for the Mother Church herself. Consequently, the cult of Mary sprang into existence, based on the minimal information obtained from the official four Gospels, inferences drawn from the book of Revelation, and information from the Apocrypha. These officially rejected later writings were derivative of the earlier Gospels, and contained more information on the life of Mary, a fact that may indicate the growing need of Christian worshippers to celebrate and venerate her.

By incorporating the information from all the sources together, and by embellishing it with additional popular mythology, often derived from the ancient goddess myths, the complex cult of the Virgin Mary was born. Yet the paramount patriarchal issue of the virginity of Mary and the virgin birth was briefly mentioned only in two of the four accepted Gospels – those by Matthew and Luke.

Sandro Botticelli, Magnificat Madonna (detail), 1481-1485
Sandro Botticelli, Magnificat Madonna (detail), 1481-1485. Tondo: Tempera on wood, diameter: 118 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Even so, the possibility that the word “virgin”, or almah used in these texts, was not a word that defined a virgo intacta but simply a term for a young woman, presented an argument against the issue of the virgin birth for centuries to come.

The presence of the Madonna was critical to the universal acceptance of Christianity in Europe, both eastern and western; her presence created a bridge that allowed the followers of the matriarchal goddess-worshipping religions to join the new patriarchal cult.

A complex Marian dogma was gradually developed by the clergy, always in response to the public’s needs and desires to worship and venerate this divinity. In many cases, the official dogmatic proclamations lagged behind the beliefs of the people and the artistic renderings of Mary by several centuries. The artists always listened carefully to the desires of the masses, and developed a rich pool of symbols, archetypes, and themes that enabled them to successfully interpret the sacred events and visions of Mariology.

Jean Jouvenet, The Education of the Virgin, c. 1700
Jean Jouvenet, The Education of the Virgin, c. 1700. Oil on canvas, 102 x 71 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

However, the Christian dogma of the early centuries included another powerful female figure, the mysterious Sophia, or the Word of God, as the female element within the Creation. Many early images were dedicated to her, and Mary, the Mother of God, was often represented as Mary/Sophia.

In addition, the parallels between the images of Mary and the images of the Goddess Isis contributed to the acceptance of Christianity by a large sector of the medieval population that formerly worshipped Isis and other female gods. This last development unified and cemented Christianity as the dominant religion of both eastern and western Europe. The Marian artists promptly adopted numerous symbols of the goddesses for iconographic purposes, further eliminating any doubts in the mind of the worshippers that their Universal Mother was no less important than the female divinities of previous religions.

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror), c. 1889
Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror), c. 1889. Oil on canvas, 81.6 x 65.7 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Meanwhile, in response to the needs of the Christian population searching for a female divine principle, Marian iconography, cult, and dogma were gradually created and refined…

See some articles on Virgin here:

Virgin Portraits

The presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Art

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