The Iconography of the Virgin Mary

Part Eight: Portraits


In its day, the mosaic pictured above was revolutionary. Before the 5th century portraits of Christ normally pictured him as an adult, flanked by saints and holding a book or scroll (example). But in the 5th century and then much more frequently in the 6th, an image type develops in which he is a child held by his mother on her knee or, much more often, her lap. The mother is herself pictured sitting on a throne with a red velvet cushion, and the child holds a scroll or book.

Why did this happen? Visualizing the Virgin Mary on a throne was not unprecedented. That is how she was often portrayed in the earliest images of the Adoration of the Magi (example), and in the literature as early as the 3rd century she was referred to as the "true cherubic throne" of Christ.1 But the major impetus for re-imagining the portrayal of Christ as a child on her lap came after the Council of Ephesus in 431, which settled a bitter dispute over whether it was proper to refer to her as Theotokos – meaning literally, "God-bearer" but effectively Mother of God. Indeed it was proper, the Council decreed: because Christ's divine and human natures are inseparable, the child Mary bore was both God and man.2 As a consequence of this proclamation, the sponsors of orthodox Christian art developed new forms such as the mosaic we see above.

In the earliest examples, according to Shepherd (93), the child continued to be flanked by saints and Mary was dressed as "a woman of the ordinary classes in late antiquity." But by the 6th century she is pictured in a mantle of imperial purple pulled up to form a veil over a white cap, as we see in the mosaic above and in this one. Her shoes in these images are red, a style favored by the Emperor and other persons of high status in the Byzantine court. In these images both mother and child are pictured frontally, engaging the gaze of the viewer. Grabar (36) suggests that this pose derived from a classical funerary type in which a medallion enclosed a half-height portrait of a mother holding a child on her lap, both of them facing forward. A Christian version of that type, with the child bearing a crossed halo, tops the inner arch at the entrance to the San Zenone chapel in Santa Prassede, Rome.

In these 6th-century images the saints have been displaced by angels. Like the child, these are dressed in the costume of the day: an inner tunic, an outer tunic, and a pallium draped over the left shoulder. The child usually holds a scroll in his left hand and lifts his right in what Shepherd calls "the gesture of delivering the Law" (ibid.).


In the West this iconographic type morphs into a variety of forms.

The Throne of Wisdom

One type popular in the West in the 12th century was the "Throne of Wisdom" sculpture, as in the first picture at right. Mary sits on a throne and holds the Christ Child on her lap, her right hand on his breast or torso. In earlier versions the throne has no back. In turn, the child holds a book on his lap. In medieval thought Christ is himself Wisdom, the character who speaks and is praised in the Bible's "wisdom books" (Proverbs, Wisdom, and Sirach). Filippo Lippi makes this point in his Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels, a painting based on the Throne of Wisdom type. In that painting one angel holds a scroll with a phrase spoken by Wisdom in the Book of Sirach, "Come over to me, all ye that desire me, and be filled with my fruits" (24:26). For the 14th-century Mirror of Human Salvation "the throne of Solomon prefigures the Most Blessed Virgin Mary in whom resides Jesus Christ, true wisdom" (Labriola, 35).

The Throne of Wisdom is a sculptural tradition, but one sees its influence on two-dimensional works such as this mosaic.

The Madonna and Child

A sculpture discovered in the early 20th century in the diocesan archives at Seu d'Urgell, Catalonia, proved to be a mid-12th century Throne of Wisdom and was restored with the child facing forward and centered on Mary's lap. But when discovered the child had been displaced from the lap to his mother's left knee.3 It is not known when this happened, but it does testify to a determined re-imagining of the Throne of Wisdom after the 12th century. Mary ceases to be a throne, the child no longer sits on her lap, and as time goes by he becomes more and more evidently a human boy. An example of this transition is a late Throne of Wisdom in the Cloisters. The many variations on this new iconography can be grouped under the name "Madonna and Child."

In these images the Virgin Mary will usually have either a blue mantle over a red robe or a red mantle over a blue robe. There may be a star on her shoulder (example), especially in images earlier than the 14th century. Sometimes she may be pictured barefoot and in simple clothes (example) or seated on the floor or the bare ground, in a subtype known as the Madonna of Humility (example). This type developed in the mid-14th century, but its popularity grew exponentially after the 1370s with the diffusion of Bridget of Sweden's Nativity vision, in which Mary adored the child lying on the ground and then "sitting on the earth, she put her Son in her lap." One iconographic type popular in Mexico has her wearing jewelry (example). In the case of sculptures she is usually represented standing (example). Another Mexican type, Our Lady of Light, has her holding the child on her left arm as usual while with her right she pulls a young man up out of the mouth of a monster (Zarur and Lowell, figures 40-42).

When the child is not turned toward the viewer, he may look to his mother and touch her chin or cheek (example), a gesture adopted from the Byzantine "Glykophilousa" icon type. Less often, he will be looking off to the side (example). In one remarkable case in Vienna he turns from the viewer to snuggle up to his mother. In many Renaissance and late medieval works he holds some symbolic object in his hand. It may be an orb referring to his lordship over the earth (example), or it may be an orb-shaped fruit such as a pomegranate, whose red juice symbolizes the blood of the Crucifixion and the wine of the Eucharist (example). In this statue in Spain the fruit is an apple. In this painting it is a pear. In the Wakefield Second Shepherds' Play, the third shepherd offers the child a ball (line 734, Cawley, 62). In this less subtly symbolic image an angel hands the child a cross. Guido Reni's St. Joseph with the Christ Child in his Arms applies this kind of symbolism to Joseph: The Christ Child looks up at him and tugs his beard with the right hand while the left holds a European Columbine, whose seven petals correspond to the "seven sorrows" of the Virgin Mary.5 Bronzino's "Virgin and Child with Saint Elizabeth and Saint John the Baptist" includes a great many symbolic references to the Passion within an otherwise tender portrait of the baby kissing his mother.

Or it may be a bird or a cluster of grapes that has captured the child's interest. These objects had been common in classical images of children (example).4 Rediscovery and reinterpretation of those images may have influenced Renaissance and late-medieval iconography. The bird may be a goldfinch or a swallow. The goldfinch (see the third picture at right) was said to nest in the kind of plants from which the soldiers fashioned the Crown of Thorns. The swallow (example) was supposed to "resurrect" itself from the ground in the spring.6

The grapes in classical images of children become in Christian iconography a reference to the wine of the Eucharist and thus to the blood shed on the Cross (example). In some images the grapes are offered to the child by Anne or Joseph (example). In others he holds them himself, and in a few remarkable cases even squeezes their juice into a chalice. In Marten de Vos's St. Luke Painting the Virgin's Portrait, the child has taken a cluster of grapes from his mother and appears to be holding it out to St. Luke, but Luke's canvas has him offering it to the viewer.7 In this case the grapes, linked symbolically with the Eucharist and Christ's giving of his blood, become an invitation to share in his sacrifice.

The way the child himself is pictured changes over time. In Romanesque works he wears formal garments, holds a scroll or book in his left hand, and blesses the viewer with his right (example). In the later 13th century this formalism begins to loosen up. The clothing becomes age-appropriate, and the scroll or book may be omitted (example). Instead of blessing the viewer the child will use his right hand as babies naturally do – reaching out for a pretty object (example) or for his mother's hair or neck (example). In the 15th, he is typically naked (example) and the images may portray him with fully developed genitalia (example). (See Steinberg, Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art). Starting in the mid-16th, the genitalia will be hidden by a bit of clothing (example) or Mary's hand (example) or some such device.

This emphasis on the humanity of the child leads to a vogue in the 15th and 16th centuries for the Madonna Lactans. This type, seen in the west as early as the 12th century (example) and in Egypt in the 5th or 6th (Brown, 142-44), pictures the child suckling at Mary's breast (example). This kind of image was specifically approved by Molanus (93) in 1570, but it became rather rare in the succeeding centuries. Some continuing appeal is evidenced by this contemporary display in a shop window in Bethlehem.

Some paintings in the West derived from the Byzantine Hodegetria type, in which Mary engages the viewer's eyes while pointing to the child (example). A close Western approximation of the Hodegetria is the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which arose in the 15th century and is common even today in Catholic churches and homes. In this icon (the second picture at right) the child's future is represented by angels who carry the instruments of his passion and death.

Another western type adapted the Byzantine Parthenos Eleousa ("Merciful Virgin"), in which Mary hugs the child tightly and he presses his cheek against hers and places his hand on her mantle or chest:

In the ca. 1300 stained glass image on the right (see the description page), the artist has adapted the Byzantine "Parthenos Eleousa" tradition to that of the Madonna Enthroned. The image on the left is a 15th-century copy of the "Virgin of Vladimir" icon, painted in Constantinople and brought to Kyiv in 1130.8

Medieval examples of the influence of the "Parthenos Eleousa" in the West include Lorenzetti's Madonna and Child with St. Mary Magdalene and St. Dorothy (1325) and the Salimbenis' Madonna and Child with Saints Sebastian and John the Baptist (1416), which is like the stained glass shown above in applying it to a Virgin Enthroned image. The type was also popular in the Renaissance. Thereafter interest declined somewhat in the West, but we do have an example that Sassoferrato painted in the 17th century and another by Pompeo Battoni in 18th.

Another Byzantine type influential in the west was the Pelagonitissa or "Virgin with the Playing Child" – "With an abrupt movement, the Child throws his head back, grabbing onto Mary" (Tradigo, 180). In western treatments the child will reach for his mother's face, neck, or veil.

Mary as Priest

I have encountered two images, centuries apart, that dress the Virgin Mary as a priest. The first is an ivory of the Ascension produced some time in the 8th to 10th century in Egypt. In it Mary's garments reference the Church that Christ is leaving for mankind as he returns to the Father. In the other image, The Priesthood of the Virgin, from France in the 15th century, she stands at an altar with Gospel book in hand while the donor says, "Vestment worthy of the sovereign priest." That is, in the Incarnation Mary became the "vestment" of Christ.

With the Apostles

In Acts 1:12-14 the Apostles (called "Men of Jerusalem") return from witnessing the Ascension and join Mary, some other women, and Jesus' brothers in the upper room. Scripture thus excludes Mary from the group that witnessed the Ascension, and it does not say she was present at the Descent of the Holy Ghost. Nevertheless, she is pictured with the Apostles in images of the Ascension as early as the 6th century, in images of the Descent of the Holy Ghost from the 12th century onward, and at least once in a "Doubting Thomas" painting.9 In quite a few 12th-century works she and the Twelve will appear arranged in a band, not necessarily with her in the exact center. This is the case in some Catalan apse frescoes, where like the others she will hold an attribute – in one case a crown, in others a pitcher or bowl probably referencing the belief that the angel of the Annunciation first approached her when she was drawing water at a spring.10 In Torcello, Italy, the band is placed along the top of the rood screen; this time Mary is centered and holds the Christ Child. In the crossing cupola in St. Marks, Venice, the band circles around an image of Christ ascending into Heaven and Mary's figure is flanked by angels. In all these examples she holds one or both hands palm-out to the viewer. The gesture with two palms could be an allusion to Mary's gesture of acceptance in 12th-century and earlier Annunciations (see this note on our Annunciation page).
Mary is known under countless titles. Some refer to points of doctrine or scripture, such as the Immaculate Conception, the Mater Dolorosa, or the Candelaria. Others are associated with specific countries or locales, such as Mexico's Our Lady of Guadalupe or Panama's Santa María de la Antigua, the Salus Populi Romani in Rome or the Madonna of Loreto. Still others refer to apparitions or miracles claimed for the Virgin, of which here are just a few:

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

1   2   3   4   5   6   7



Detail from the 6th-century apse mosaic at Poreč Cathedral, Croatia. See the description page for a broader view and further information.


Throne of Wisdom, mid-12th century – See description page

Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The style and content of this icon popular in the West go back ultimately to the Hodegetria popular in the Eastern churches. See the description page.

Detail from Veneziano's mid-14th century Madonna Enthroned. – See the description page.




1 Gregory Thaumaturgus, Second Homily on the Annunciation: "To thee every creature, of things in Heaven and things on earth and things under the earth, offers the meet offering of honor. For thou hast been indeed set forth as the true cherubic throne." ("Cherubic throne" refers to Psalm 79:2, "Thou that sittest upon the cherubims, shine forth.") Compare John Damascene, First Homily on the Dormition, (¶8, Daley, 192): "You are the royal throne around which angels stand to see their Lord and Creator seated." The "royal throne" and surrounding angels here refer to Isaiah 6:1-3, "I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and elevated: and his train filled the temple. Upon it stood the seraphims.… And they cried one to another, and said: 'Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts, all the earth is full of his glory.'" The Glossa Ordinaria says Solomon's throne in 1 Kings 10:18-20 "signifies the Virgin Mary, on whose lap Christ sat as on the most noble of thrones he received the homage of the three kings" (II, 777-78, my translation).

2 Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Council of Ephesus" and "Council of Epheus (A.D. 431). The latter provides extracts from the Acts of the Council.

3 Camps y Montserrat has photographs of the work as discovered and as restored, page 32. Data on the object is provided on page 28. The sculpture, in wood and polychrome, is known in Spanish as the Virgen de Ger and in Catalan as the Mare de Déu de Ger. Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, #65503.

4 See Garcia's study of Greek child portraits with birds, and for child-grapes images see Dowdle and Richter, 161.

5 Reni's painting is in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg; see One Hundred Saints, 8-9. Othoniel writes that the European Columbine is among the plants of "Mary's Garden," those "whose names and lore pertain to Mary, Jesus, and other Christian figures" (25). He posits that the seven petals correspond to what he calls "the theological virtues," more commonly referred to as the theological and cardinal virtues – respectively faith, hope, and charity and prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance.

6 Sill, 21, 26.

7 In the Koninklijk Museum voor Shone Kunsten, Antwerp. See One Hundred Saints, 51.

8 Tradigo, 177. Source of Virgin Elousa icon: Wikimedia Commons. Window panel photographed by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

9 The "Doubting Thomas" episode is pictured on Marten de Vox's St. Thomas Altar (1574) in the Koninklijk Museum voor Shone Kunsten, Antwerp. See One Hundred Saints, 39.

10 Camps y Montserrat, 18-19 (the apse at San Miguel church, Seu d'Urgell, mid-12th century, Mary with a crown as attribute), 42-43 (the apse at Sant Pere del Burgal, end of the 11th century, vase as attribute), and 54-55 (apse at Sant Climent de Taüll, circa 1123, bowl as attribute). Also see my note on the Annunciation at the Spring.