Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Catholic Dictionary




The Blessed Virgin in Christian art or architecture. The most ancient image of the Blessed Virgin still extant is a painting in the Roman catacomb of Priscilla on the Via Salaria. Dating from the early second or late first century, the fresco pictures Mary seated with the Child Jesus in her arms and what appears to be a prophet standing next to her, volume in hand and pointing to a star above the Virgin. Three other Marian paintings in the same catacomb date from the second and third centuries. One image on the tomb of a Christian virgin shows Mary, as a type and model of virginity, holding the Child; another gives the scene of the wise men at Bethlehem; and a third is in the less common group of Annunciation paintings. Similar representations, all before the fifth century, are found in the Roman cemeteries of Domitilla, Callistus, Sts. Peter and Marcellus, and St. Agnes. The last mentioned is interesting for the monogram inscriptions of Christ, which are repeated on both sides of the drawing and turned toward the Child.

Paintings and sculpture of Mary in Christian antiquity featured her relations with Jesus, as virgin and mother, and generally in one of the Gospel scenes ranging from the Annunciation to the crucifixion or burial of Christ. The Council of Ephesus (431), which defined the divine maternity against Nestorius, ushered in a new artistic phase that began in the East but was soon introduced into Italy, Spain, and Gaul. Instead of the homely scenes from the Gospel, Mary was now more often depicted as heavenly queen, vestured in gold and seated in royal majesty.

Roman art adopted and propagated the "Byzantine Virgin," but in place of the Oriental posture of Mary at prayer, with hands upraised, Western painters and sculptors favored showing her as the "Seat of Wisdom." This was partly the result of cultural adaptation, but mainly an expression of real development in Marian doctrine. It verged away from the colder Asiatic lines in the direction of greater mildness, tempered by human affection. Historians of the subject have found in each of the great periods, beginning with the early Middle Ages in Europe, an artistic reflection of the dominant Marian relationship to religious thought.

In the Gothic period of architecture it was the "Mother of the Redeemer," featuring the merciful kindness of the Savior and of his mother as companion in the redemptive work of her Son. It corresponds to the "ages of faith" and the time of the Church's preoccupation with interior reformation of life and ecclesiastical discipline. During the Renaissance "Mother and Child" were the prevalent theme, graced by such names as Fra Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Lippi, Botticelli, Correggio, Dolci, Perugino, Titian, and Verrocchio in Italy; Van Eyck, Memling, and Rubens in Flanders; and the Younger Holbein and Dürer in Germany. Typical of the Baroque style was Mary's role as "Conqueror of Satan"; and in modern times as "Mediatrix of Grace," strengthened by historical association of the Blessed Virgin with authenticated revelations at La Salette, Lourdes, and Fátima, and to such mystics as Margaret Mary, Catherine Labouré, Don Bosco, and the Curé of Ars.