Images of the Madonna and Madonna and Child are one of the central icons of Christianity, representing the Madonna or Mary, mother of Jesus, by herself or, rather more often, with her son Jesus. After some initial resistance and controversy, the formula Theotokos ("Mother of God") was adopted officially by the Christian Church at the Council of Ephesus in 431, beginning the period of over a thousand years when images of Mary were central to Western art.
"Madonna", if used to describe a work of art, rather than a single figure in one, means a portrait-style image of Mary, but is often loosely used for those of the "Madonna and Child" as well, and the presence of angels will not affect the use of the term, as opposed to an altarpiece of the "Madonna and Saints", or a narrative painting of a scene from the Life of the Virgin, which will have a specific title for that scene, such as the Annunciation to Mary. Most often, and nearly always if holding Jesus, Mary is seated, and shown at half-length or full-length, but in various types of image she is shown alone, at full-length and standing.
In the West, hieratic Byzantine models were closely followed in the Early Middle Ages, but with the increased importance of the cult of the Virgin in the 12th and 13th centuries a wide variety of types developed to satisfy a flood of more intensely personal forms of piety. In the usual Gothic and Renaissance formulas the Virgin Mary sits with the Infant Jesus on her lap, or enfolded in her arms. In earlier representations the Virgin is enthroned, and the Child may be fully aware, raising his hand to offer blessing. In a 15th century Italian variation, a baby John the Baptist looks on.
Late Gothic sculptures of the Virgin and Child may show a standing virgin with the child in her arms. Iconography varies between public images and private images supplied on a smaller scale and meant for personal devotion in the chamber: the Virgin suckling the Child (such as the Madonna Litta) is an image largely confined to private devotional icons.
That Mary was the Mother of God is clear from the Gospels, and the theological implications of this were defined and confirmed by the Council of Ephesus (431). Different aspects of Mary's position as mother have been the subject of a large number of works of Catholic art.
There was a great expansion of the cult of Mary after the Council of Ephesus in 431, when her status as Theotokos was confirmed; this had been a subject of some controversy until then, though mainly for reasons to do with arguments over the nature of Christ. In mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, dating from 432-40, just after the council, she is not yet shown with a halo, and she is also not shown in Nativity scenes at this date, though she is included in the Adoration of the Magi.
By the next century the iconic depiction of the Virgin enthroned carrying the infant Christ was established, as in the example from the only group of icons surviving from this period, at Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai. This type of depiction, with subtly changing differences of emphasis, has remained the mainstay of depictions of Mary to the present day. The image at Mount Sinai succeeds in combining two aspects of Mary described in the Magnificat, her humility and her exaltation above other humans.
At this period the iconography of the Nativity was taking the form, centred on Mary, that it has retained up to the present day in Eastern Orthodoxy, and on which Western depictions remained based until the High Middle Ages. Other narrative scenes for Byzantine cycles on the Life of the Virgin were being evolved, relying on apocyphal sources to fill in her life before the Annunciation to Mary. By this time the political and economic collapse of the Western Roman Empire meant that the Western, Latin, church was unable to compete in the development of such sophisticated iconography, and relied heavily on Byzantine developments.
The earliest surviving image in a Western illuminated manuscript of the Madonna and Child comes from the Book of Kells of about 800 and, though magnificently decorated in the style of Insular art, the drawing of the figures can only be described as rather crude compared to Byzantine work of the period. This was in fact an unusual inclusion in a Gospel book, and images of the Virgin were slow to appear in large numbers in manuscript art until the book of hours was devised in the 13th century.
While theft is one way that Byzantine images made their way West to Italy, the relationship between Byzantine icons and Italian images of the Madonna is far more rich and complicated. Byzantine art played a long, critical role in Western Europe, especially when Byzantine territories included parts of Eastern Europe, Greece and much of Italy itself. Byzantine manuscripts, ivories, gold, silver and luxurious textiles were distributed throughout the West. In Byzantium, Mary's usual title was the Theotokos or Mother of God, rather than the Virgin Mary and it was believed that salvation was delivered to the faithful at the moment of God's incarnation. That theological concept takes pictorial form in the image of Mary holding her infant son.
However, what is most relevant to the Byzantine heritage of the Madonna is twofold. First, the earliest surviving independent images of the Virgin Mary are found in Rome, the center of Christianity in the medieval West. One is a valued possession of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the many Roman churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Another, a splintered, repainted ghost of its former self, is venerated at the Pantheon, that great architectural wonder of the Ancient Roman Empire, that was rededicated to Mary as an expression of the Church's triumph. Both evoke Byzantine tradition in terms of their medium, that is, the technique and materials of the paintings, in that they were originally painted in tempera (egg yolk and ground pigments) on wooden panels. In this respect, they share the Ancient Roman heritage of Byzantine icons. Second, they share iconography, or subject matter. Each image stresses the maternal role that Mary plays, representing her in relationship to her infant son. It is difficult to gauge the dates of the cluster of these earlier images, however, they seem to be primarily works of the seventh and eighth centuries.
It was not until the revival of monumental panel painting in Italy during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, that the image of the Madonna gains prominence outside of Rome, especially throughout Tuscany. While members of the mendicant orders of the Franciscan and Dominican Orders are some of the first to commission panels representing this subject matter, such works quickly became popular in monasteries, parish churches, and homes. Some images of the Madonna were paid for by lay organizations called confraternities, who met to sing praises of the Virgin in chapels found within the newly reconstructed, spacious churches that were sometimes dedicated to her. Paying for such a work might also be seen as a form of devotion. Its expense registers in the use of thin sheets of real gold leaf in all parts of the panel that are not covered with paint, a visual analogue not only to the costly sheaths that medieval goldsmiths used to decorate altars, but also a means of surrounding the image of the Madonna with illumination from oil lamps and candles. Even more precious is the bright blue mantle colored with lapis lazuli, a stone imported from Afghanistan.
This is the case of one of the most famous, innovative and monumental works that Duccio executed for the Laudesi at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Often the scale of the work indicates a great deal about its original function. Often referred to as the Rucellia Madonna (c. 1285), the panel painting towers over the spectator, offering a visual focus for members of the Laudesi confraternity to gather before it as they sang praises to the image. Duccio made an even grander image of the Madonna enthroned for the high altar of the cathedral of Siena, his home town. Known as the Maesta(1308-11), the image represents the pair as the center of a densely populated court in the central part of a complexly carpentered work that lifts the court upon a predella (pedestal of altarpiece) of narrative scenes and standing figures of prophets and saints. In turn, a modestly scaled image of the Madonna as a half-length figure holding her son in a memorably intimate depiction, is to be found in the National Gallery of London. This is cleary made for the private devotion of a Christian wealthy enough to hire one of the most important Italian artists of his day. The privileged owner need not go to Church to say his prayers or plead for salvation; all he or she had to do was open the shutters of the tabernacle in an act of private revelation.
Duccio and his contemporaries inherited early pictorial conventions that were maintained, in part, to tie their own works to the authority of tradition. Despite all of the innovations of painters of the Madonna during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Mary can usually be recognized by virtue of her attire. Customarily when she is represented as a youthful mother of her newborn child, she wears a deeply saturated blue mantle over a red garment. This mantle typically covers her head, where sometimes, one might see a linen, or later, transparent silk veil. She holds the Christ Child, or Baby Jesus, who shares her halo as well as her regal bearing. Often her gaze is directed out at the viewer, serving as an intercessor, or conduit for prayers that flow from the Christian, to Her, and only then, to Her Son. However, late medieval Italian artists also followed the trends of Byzantine icon painting, developing their own methods of depicting the Madonna. Sometimes, the Madonna's complex bond with her tiny child takes the form of a close, intimate moment of tenderness steeped in sorrow where she only has eyes for Him.
While the focus of this entry currently stresses the depiction of the Madonna in panel painting, it should be noted that her image also appears in mural decoration, whether mosaics or fresco painting on the exteriors and interior of sacred buildings. She is found high above the apse, or east end of the church where the liturgy is celebrated in the West. She is also found in sculpted form, whether small ivories for private devotion, or large sculptural reliefs and free-standing sculpture. As a participant in sacred drama, her image inspires one of the most important fresco cycles in all of Italian painting: Giotto's narrative cycle in the Arena Chapel, next to the Scrovegni family's palace in Padua. This program dates to the first decade of the fourteenth century.
Italian artists of the fifteenth century onward are endebted to traditions established in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in their representation of the Madonna.
While the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a time when Italian painters expanded their repertoire to include historical events, independent portraits and mythological subject matter, Christianity retained a strong hold on their careers. Most works of art from this era are sacred. While the range of religious subject matter included subjects from the Old Testament and images of saints whose cults date after the codification of the Bible, the Madonna remained a dominant subject in the iconography of the Renaissance.
Some the most famous Italian painters to turn to this subject are Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael, Giorgione, Giovanni Bellini and Titian, in the 16th century. They developed on the foundations of fifteenth century Marian images by Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, Mantegna and Piero della Francesca in particular, among countless others. The subject was equally popular in Early Netherlandish painting and that of the rest of Northern Europe.
The subject retaining the greatest power on all of these men remained the maternal bond, even though other subjects, especially the Annunciation, and later the Immaculate Conception, led to a greater number of paintings that represented Mary alone, without her son. As a commemorative image, the Pietà became an important subject, newly freed from its former role in narrative cycles, in part, an outgrowth of popular devotional statues in Northern Europe. Traditionally, Mary is depicted expressing compassion, grief and love, usually in highly charged, emotional works of art even though the most famous, early work by Michelangelo stifles signs of mourning. The tenderness an ordinary mother might feel towards her beloved child is captured, evoking the moment when she first held her infant son Christ. The spectator, after all, is meant to sympathize, to share in the despair of the mother who holds the body of her crucified son.