Marian Art

The Blessed Virgin Mary has been one of the major subjects of art for centuries. In this exclusive series for the Diocese of Charlotte’s 50th anniversary, Charlotte parishioner Tricia Kent explores a different depiction of Mary each month and how it relates to her role in salvation history:

The Annunciation

Rome (c. 2nd century)

The protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 makes clear from the dawn of salvation history the role that the Woman, the mother of the Redeemer, would have in God’s eternal plan for our salvation. Of course, we know that Woman to be Mary.

From its institution, the Church has understood and honored Christ’s Mother for her importance on Earth and in heaven. In seeking Truth through beauty, the Church has always incorporated her image in its teaching, devotional life, and in the liturgy itself. Few images of Mary or even Christ remain extant from those earliest centuries of persecution, but one striking image comes down to us from the Roman catacombs as a reminder of her pivotal place in the eyes of God and His people: this image of The Annunciation.

It is significant to note that perhaps the oldest surviving image of the Blessed Virgin does not depict the Nativity or her place at the foot of Christ’s cross, but the very moment of the Incarnation.

Before the Church Fathers had settled on the canon of Scripture, Mary’s greeting by the Archangel Gabriel as “blessed among women” was painted on the arched ceiling of the Catacomb of Priscilla. Once a rock quarry, this catacomb was used as a place of Christian burial for seven early popes and many martyrs beginning as early as the 2nd century. This decorative ceiling seems to date from the beginning of Christian usage – so early in fact, that some art historians doubt it shows Mary at all, though this same catacomb gives us some of the earliest paintings of the Madonna and Child and Christ the Good Shepherd.

The image is certainly Roman in style, but decay has stolen many of the details. What can we glean from what remains? Look carefully: A woman enthroned and crowned with a regal diadem, being addressed by an honored figure with a rudimentary halo standing bold upright before her and addressing her directly.

In the context of early Christian art, this makes perfect sense. In this image you can hear “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women” and young Mary the teenaged virgin betrothed to Joseph is seen by all who witness the sacrifice as the very Queen of Heaven whose fiat was uttered as the Word became flesh in her womb.

Adoration of the Magi

Vatican Museums (c. early 4th century)

The Gospel narrative surrounding the Magi is not at all the fixation of medieval art that many modern scholars imply. In addition to the historical accounts of their journey found in Sacred Scripture, the Magi story is recounted in some of the earliest art and literature of the Christian Tradition and its oldest depictions further solidify the Church’s consistent witness to Mary’s honored role in the redemptive life of Christ.

Among the treasures of the Vatican Museums is this small slab (late third to early fourth century) from the cemetery of Priscilla. It is likely from the tomb of a child and bears an inscription wishing for the deceased to “Live in God!” Three figures in Eastern apparel, traveling in haste with their capes flying, are led by the star to Mary, who is seated on an elaborate high wicker chair, with the baby Jesus in her arms. Behind her seat is not St. Joseph, but the prophet Bàlaam, indicating the star, and thus the Messianic prophecy: “A star shall rise out of Jacob, a scepter shall spring up out of Israel” (Num 24:17). Kings from afar themselves are paying homage to the newborn King in the arms of His Queen Mother. Mary is not merely the mother of the human child Jesus, but part of a divine plan for salvation prophesied from the earliest of Scripture.

The Theotokos and Child between Sts. Theodore and George

(late 6th century)

The Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt, is the oldest active Christian monastery in the world. It houses an extraordinary collection of Byzantine manuscripts and art including a piece known as The Theotokos and Child between Sts. Theodore and George, dating from the late sixth or early seventh century.

As with many of the oldest icons, it is painted in encaustic, also known as hot wax painting. This wax technique produces a beautiful effect, enabling the use of gold and giving the painting a warm glow, but it also adds to the fragility of the work. Encaustic icons have suffered frequent damage from smoke and flame in a faith where devotion is marked by incense and candles. These factors make the survival of this striking ancient painting even more remarkable.

The icon shows Mary and the Christ child flanked by two soldier saints, St. Theodore to the left and St. George to the right. Above these are two angels who gaze upward to the hand of God, from which light emanates. This icon, a meeting of styles and peoples, depicts a pivotal moment in the history of the Church, capturing her incredible growth and spread into a truly universal body. Clearly influenced by classical Roman art, the figures bear an unmistakably Egyptian quality hearkening to mummy mask portraiture of a slightly earlier era. The lack of dept depiction found in most traditional icons gives way at the top, where the angels pull back and away – in awe at the hand of God. The saints are steadfast and ready to intercede on behalf of the viewer/supplicant, while Mary and Christ are enthroned and elevated, inhabiting a space visually closer to the Father. They draw our eye toward His hand, which in turn shines divine light back on Our Lady. Our gaze goes from earth to heaven and God directs it back to Mary, the officially declared God-bearer, mother to all the faithful as she is mother to His divine Son.

Salus Populi Romani

(c. 8th century)

Heavily painted over, often crowned and frequently jeweled, the image of Our Lady known as “Salus Populi Romani” (“Protectress of the Roman People”) conveys even more an image of faith than it does of art.

After the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., in which Mary was acclaimed as the “Theotokos” (“God-bearer”), Pope Sixtus III erected at Rome a basilica dedicated to her honor. Now known as St. Mary Major, it is the oldest church in the West dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Tradition asserts that this image was made by St. Luke and brought from Crete at that time, but studies and style point to its likely oldest date as the post-iconoclastic period of the 700s and it has no tracible provenance before the 13th century. It is one of many, many images attributed to St. Luke in this period.

Why is St. Luke’s name attached to so many Marian icons painted so long after he lived? If Luke did paint these portraits of the Virgin, this meant that these images had an apostolic origin and could be seen as a visual representation of Luke’s own Gospel message – thus explaining and protecting these beloved paintings during times of iconoclasm. Our Lady, the greatest of saints, was assumed into heaven and thus had no bodily relic left behind for veneration – making her portraits even more important to the faithful.

“Salus Populi Romani” has grown even more beloved over the centuries. Clement VIII (1592-1605), Gregory XVI (1838) and Pius XII (1954, during the Marian Year for the centenary of the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception) all crowned the image. These papal coronations recognize prayers answered in association with the icon and honor Mary for her share in Christ’s Incarnation and saving work.

St. Stanislaus Kostka, St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis of Borgia all had a particular devotion to the “Salus Populi Romani.” The icon has long been called upon in times of plague and illness and associated with several miraculous cures.  After extensive restoration in 2018, it was most recently displayed and publicly venerated during prayers associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Koimesis

(late 10th century)

In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption of Mary – body and soul – into heaven although it has been long held as a central Catholic belief. Mary’s assumption is often challenged by Protestant traditions for the seeming absence of scriptural evidence. Catholics point to the “woman” of the Protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15, Mary addressed as “woman” by Christ at Cana, and again from the cross when He entrusts her to the care of St. John, who in turn gives us the vision of “the woman clothed with the sun” in chapter 12 of his Book of Revelation.

Scripture also consistently presents Mary as intimately united with her Incarnate Son. From the earliest centuries, the Church recognized the importance of Mary’s role and asserted that her Divine Son honored her body, which had conceived and bore Him in full humanity and full divinity. Thus, it is consistent to assert that her body was preserved from decay and taken to heaven, anticipating the stated promised to all who believe.

Non-Scriptural accounts of Mary’s life and the writings of saints such as John Damascene (d. 749) make it clear that this was the understood end of the earthly life for the woman who was the very ark of the New Covenant.

Eastern tradition speaks of the Virgin’s entry into heaven as her “Koimesis,” and in the West it became known as her “Dormition” with the imagery emphasizing sleep rather than death.

The feast honoring this event was first recorded in the late seventh century when Pope Sergius (687-701) decreed it be celebrated in Rome.

We have grown so accustomed to Baroque depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary floating upward on clouds that this little Byzantine ivory seems to almost tell a different tale. Still, this visual account is in keeping with the earliest iconographic traditions of the Christian faith. Non-canonical authors tell of Mary having been visited by an angel three days before she was to die. This time of preparation or “Transitus Mariae” allowed the apostles to attend her on her death bed, with both Peter and Paul standing witness among the angels. Christ Himself descends from heaven to carry his mother’s soul aloft – depicted as a newborn babe.

This ivory is so small it was likely produced in the late 10th century Constantinople as a hand-held devotional image intended for personal prayer and contemplation. This is not the two-dimensional art customary for so many icons of the time. It is carved with incredible emotion with the angels and Christ in deep relief.

The provenance does not extend back far enough to tell us who carved this work or who commissioned it, but its skill as well as its survival point to the significance of its use.

In the tradition accounted in “Transitus Mariae,” the apostles would subsequently bear Mary’s body in solemn procession to her grave where on the third day, angels would carry her body to heaven. The very message of this work is that even in death, the Blessed Mother always mirrors and reflects the glory of her Divine Son.

The black Madonna

(13th century)

The title “Black Madonna” or “Black Virgin” has been used in the West to denote many depictions of Mary with the Christ Child, both painted and sculpted, where the principal figures appear dark-skinned. Sometimes this is due to circumstances of the history of the image whereby the paint or varnish darkened over time, but often it was the intended depiction of the original artist who portrayed Mary and Jesus in keeping with the people of the region where the image was made.

Among some of the oldest extant Christian art, they were often produced in Coptic areas of Syria, Egypt and sub-Saharan Ethiopia and later taken to Constantinople. These Black Madonnas are frequently credited to the Evangelist Luke, who in some traditions was said to be a Syrian. Arguably the most famous Black Madonna is the icon known as “Our Lady of Częstochowa,” revered as the patroness of Poland.

Our Lady of Częstochowa is also called “Our Lady of Jasna Gora” after the name of the “bright hill” in Poland where the monastery that houses the image is located. The oft-repeated story is that sometime around 1384, Prince Wladyslaw, attempting to save the image from an invasion by the Tartars, was taking the painting to his birthplace in Opala. He stopped for the night in Częstochowa, where the image spent the night in a small church dedicated to Mary’s Assumption. The next morning the portrait was placed in a wagon, but the horses refused to move, and the painting has remained there ever since. Later, the image was damaged by a Tartar arrow and in 1430 Hussites (the Czech forerunners of the Protestant Reformation) stole and vandalized the image – and by some accounts were miraculously struck dead for this sacrilege.

Repeated overpainting and attempts to repair the icon are said to have been unable to cover the scar. This could easily be the case, as the Byzantine encaustic technique of painting with wax and resin had been lost to medieval painters.

Science and art history show the current image to be 13th century Byzantine in form and composition – almost certainly based on an icon from Constantinople that had been venerated in a church in the Hodegon Monastery quarter dating to the fifth century.

It is a traditional Eastern icon composition known as a “Hodegetria” or “One who shows the way.” In these type of icons, Mary directs the viewer’s gaze from herself toward the Christ Child, who in turn offers the viewer His blessing.

What is special about Our Lady of Częstochowa is not the uniqueness of its art or the importance of its history, but the amazing accounts of miracles associated with its veneration.

In 1655 the Black Madonna was said to have saved Jasna Gora from a Swedish invasion. It was after this event that the image was declared Queen of Poland. This was later followed by a Canonical Coronation decreed by Pope Clement XI in 1717. Several jeweled crowns were presented and stolen from the image in subsequent wars, only to be replaced by papal and international donations. It is customary for Polish women to wear red coral beads, and thousands of these beads line the walls of her shrine – left in thanksgiving for prayers answered. All the accounts of miracles and cures attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Częstochowa are preserved in the records of the Pauline Fathers, who have kept the shrine for centuries.

Devotion to the image grew as Pope John Paul II venerated it, offering prayers of petition and thanksgiving in 1979, 1983 and 1991. Perhaps most poignant of all the stories are the countless reports of pilgrims traveling at night to pray for Our Lady’s intercession during the Nazi occupation when Hitler prohibited pilgrimage – among them a young student named Karol Wojtyla, the later Polish pope John Paul II.

Over the intervening centuries Our Lady of Częstochowa has become a very potent symbol – not just for Poland but for those all who are suffering and persecuted – a call to Motherly devotion and, above all, a testament to the resilience of faith.

COMING SOON: More artwork featuring Mary in this series created by Tricia Kent, a parishioner of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Charlotte.