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The Madonna in Art

The Madonna has a thousand faces representing religious traditions and experiences from a variety of sources.

Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria
Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria

The Madonna has a thousand faces, even though no one knows what Mary of Nazareth looked like. The obscure peasant woman has inspired more artists than can be named. By some estimates, she is more influential than Jesus in western art.

A long tradition credits Luke with first painting Mary’s likeness—with the assistance of an angel. Luke’s Gospel tells Mary’s story in greatest detail (Luke 1:26-56 and Luke 2:1-52), perhaps the foundation for the legend. The Virgin of Hodegetria (“she who points the way,” possibly as early as the fifth century) is an early Orthodox icon credited to Luke. Mary holds Jesus with her left arm and points to her son with her right, reminding the viewer that her story is his story. Another example is Rogier van der Weyden’s St. Luke Drawing the Virgin (fifteenth century). Mary breast-feeds her child while Luke—probably Rogier’s self-portrait—paints her. Icon and painting both draw the viewer into the artist’s experience of the divine. The legend sanctions the Madonna as an image of devotion and endorses St. Luke as the patron saint of artists.

Many scenes of the Madonna were inspired by specific biblical texts about Mary. Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel announced that God favored her (Luke 1:28-33); some paintings present the artist’s understanding of the conditions necessary for God’s favor. Fra Angelico, a fifteenth-century Dominican, painted the Annunciation several times; one example shows us a receptive, humble Mary receiving the word of the Lord (Museo del Prado, Madrid). On the other hand, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (“behold the handmaiden of the Lord”) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (nineteenth century) shows Mary recently wakened by the angel, perhaps unsettled by the event. The angel in white presenting the lily and Mary’s white nightdress all speak of purity.

The biblical stories of Mary’s life also provide inspiration for artists to explore dimensions of human spiritual experience. Rembrandt’s Visitation shows Mary and Elizabeth bathed in light (Luke 1:39-56). Caravaggio shows a humble Mary receiving the shepherds in his Adoration of the Shepherds (Luke 2:15-20). Mary grieves at the death of her son (John 19:25-27) in Michelangelo’s Pietà (“compassion”). The Madonna invites us to experience our lives in light of what the artist imagined she experienced.

As early as the second century, extrabiblical traditions circulate which imagine Mary’s parents and a childhood that prepares her to be the mother of God (Greek, theotokos); artists use these traditions as well. Dürer painted the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, who comforts her daughter. Mary’s death and immediate welcome (assumption) into heaven, a motif from the eleventh century, present her as queen and heavenly bride. Charonton’s Coronation of the Virgin shows Mary receiving her crown at the heart of God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (as dove) are all present. These paintings imagine the Madonna able to console and intercede with power and wisdom.

Places of pilgrimage are associated with visions of Our Lady from which come new depictions of the Madonna. Examples are found at Le Pu en Velay, France (the black Madonna, as early as the thirteenth century); Guadalupe, Mexico (sixteenth century); and Lourdes, France (nineteenth century). The Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, a pilgrimage destination since about the fourth century, although the present shrine was constructed in the twentieth, honors the Madonna with a variety of mosaics from all over the world. The mosaic from Cameroon inside the church depicts the spirit of the Madonna: she hovers over her child and they open their arms in welcome to the women who are carrying baskets full of the substance of their lives.

The art of the Madonna absorbs and presents feminine ideals and religious traditions from all contexts. The resulting motifs take on a life of their own: each image of Mary—virgin, mother, and queen—representing a particular vision of human life.

  • Jo Ann Badley

    Jo-Ann Badley is dean of Theology and Associate Professor of New Testament at Ambrose University. Her current research is on Protestant understandings of Mary.