Nicolas Poussin, The Holy Family in a Landscape, c. mid-17th century
Art,  English

The Virgin: Masterpieces of Spiritual Beauty, Devotion and Grace

Introduction video credit: A Person Reading a Book video by Roman Odintsov from Pexels

The text below is the excerpt of the book The Virgin in Art (ISBN: 9781683255925), written by Kyra Belán, published by Parkstone International.

Read more on Virgin Mary here.

The earliest images of Mary were probably introduced into early Christian iconography during the second and third 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.

Lorenzo Veneziano, The Virgin and Child, 1356-1372
Lorenzo Veneziano, The Virgin and Child, 1356-1372. Painting on wood, 126 x 56 cm. The Louvre, Paris.

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.

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.

Lorenzo di Credi, The Annunciation, 1480-1485, The Virgin in Art
Lorenzo di Credi, The Annunciation, 1480-1485. Oil on wooden panel, 88 x 71 cm. Uffizi, Florence.

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. 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 goddessworshipping 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.

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.

Raphael, The Madonna of the Goldfinch, 1506, The Virgin in Art
Raphael, The Madonna of the Goldfinch, 1506. Oil on wooden panel, 107 x 77.2 cm. Uffizi, Florence.

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. But the Fathers of the Church were keenly aware that their ascetic religion, which saw sexuality as a form of evil and women as more sexual and physical than men, needed to fortify and reaffirm the virginity of Mary to further separate her from the rest of womanhood, which most of them believed to be evil and inferior to men.

Since only a perfect being could engender a divine son, not only the perpetual virginity of the Madonna but also her own immaculate conception, or birth without taint of Original Sin, were discussed and proclaimed by the Church Fathers, who also made sure that women were not accepted into the priesthood.

The myth of the virgin birth is not unique to Christianity. In many ancient and pagan religions a goddess gives birth to a daughter or a son without any help from a god, a phenomenon known as parthenogenesis. While in prehistoric Europe and its vicinity the creator was worshiped in female form, in late prehistoric times the Great Mother Goddess finally multiplied herself by giving birth to the first male divinity, her son. Later, in ancient Greek and Roman times, many heroes and other important male historical figures claimed to be born of a woman by the power of the Holy Spirit. Several versions of the early Christian birth miracle were formulated by the early theologians. In eastern Europe, since the gender of the Holy Spirit was yet unclear, it was seen as a Mother God, taking possession of Mary’s body till the day the child was born. The dove – a symbol of the Holy Ghost – was sacred among the Greeks and the Romans as a symbol of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo), The Holy Family, c. 1550-1599, The Virgin in Art
Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo), The Holy Family, c. 1550-1599. Oil on wooden panel, 117 x 89.5 cm. Uffizi, Florence.

The gender-specific change from a “she” to a “he” in the Latin language transformed the female holy spirit into the male spiritus sanctus, and the masculine iconography for the images of the Annunciation theme emerged into existence in Western Europe, and soon was established as the correct interpretation of the dogma. Even though the miracle of a virgin birth had a long pre-Christian tradition spanning thousands of years of previous religions, Christianity’s validation of their Son of God, incarnated into human flesh, needed further justification. Mary was declared a perpetual virgin, even while pregnant, and during birth. This miracle was more difficult to explain than the one of the virgin birth alone.

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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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