Meaning, Mystery, and Marian Art

Meaning, Mystery, and Marian Art

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In her Magnificat the Blessed Virgin Mary proclaims that her name and memory will continue to be blessed in generations to come (Luke 1: 48). The history of Marian art testifies to the enduring truth of this prophecy. Such art also provides the ardent student of Christian culture with ample resources for faithful reflection of a philosophical nature, as well as for delving more deeply, by means of prayerful meditation, into the mystery of the Trinity, the central mystery of the Catholic faith. If William Cullen Bryant was correct to characterize the landscape paintings of his friend Thomas Cole as akin to religious acts in his funeral oration for the founder of the Hudson River School, then all the more do Marian images provide a proper medium for soulful meditation. Devotion to Mary is both properly Christological and Ecclesiological, as chapter 8 of Lumen Gentiumso clearly articulates. Christ is the way to the Father, and Mary is God’s chosen way to her Son. Such was the devotion to Mary practiced and preached so ardently by St. Louis De Montfort. Marian art, therefore, offers an invitation to all those who, like King Lear, would like to take upon themselves the mystery of things.



Mysticism derives from the Greek word mysteria (mystery), which was used to describe the mystical cults of antiquity whose practices were once shrouded in secrecy. Hence mystical experience is said to be connected to what is silent or ineffable. Recall that in the famous hymn by Franz Gruber we sing about a Night which is both silent and holy. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous concluding and quite mysterious sentence to the Tractatus also trades upon this very same connection between silence and a religious sensibility: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” This quote is itself traceable back to the Pseudo Dionysius (circa 500 AD), whose works comprise a synthesis of Christian dogma and Procline Neoplatonism, and who stands as one of the seminal figures in the development of medieval mysticism in the West. For Gabriel Marcel the realm of mystery is to be distinguished from the realm of the problematic. Problems are to be solved in a puzzle-like fashion whereas mysteries are to be revered, the most conducive atmosphere for which is contemplative silence.

Human Being, according to the metaphysical interpretation given to it by Fernando Rielo, a recently deceased Catholic philosopher, mystic, and poet, is to be properly characterized as More-Than-Human.1 This Divine pedigree of human nature is given some biblical reinforcement from Christ himself when he refers to the Psalm 81 ascription of a god-like status to the judges in John 10:34. For Rielo the biblical principle of imago dei means that all humans are in-dwelt by a divine and wholly trinitarian constitutive presence. Rielo’s view thus quite openly competes with the longstanding analogical model of being worked out by Thomas Aquinas. Be that as it may, according to Rielo’s view Marian images must therefore always be more than merely Marian, and hence must always be related to the Trinity.

Classical mystical literature often refers to the so-called stages of mystical development: 1) Via Purgativa; 2) Via Illuminativa; 3) Via Unitiva. Purgation involves a detachment from and a renunciation of all sensibilia in order to come to the closest possible contact with one’s true self. Socrates himself once invoked the dictum of the Delphic Oracle to know oneself as being at the very heart of philosophical reflection. Mary as immaculate has of course no need of purgation, nor need of relief from any dark night of the soul, such as is delineated so beautifully by St. John of the Cross in The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Nevertheless, Mary as the mater dolorosa, as she appears, for example, in Jacopone da Todi’s stirring word portrait in the Stabat Mater, or in a painting like Giovanni Bellini’s Pietà at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, provides a role model for the paradox of how great joy can coexist with great anguish. Mary in her perpetual virginity was perhaps spared the pain of childbirth, which usually accompanies the incipient joy of new motherhood. But any insight gained into such an emotional paradox by way of pictorial persuasion can be of invaluable service for the spiritual healing of the grief stricken soul as it tries to ascend the latter of spiritual purgation and illumination in quest of ultimate union with God.

Marian art presents us with a visualization of the cycle of Christocentric mysteries presented in the Rosary. As such, contemplation of and meditation upon such mysteries, with the visual aid to the imagination that is provided by great works of religious art, can only lead us closer to a magnified intellectual appreciation of and a closer personal union with the persons of the Most Holy Trinity. To borrow from St. Teresa of Avila, contemplation of great works of Marian art, with their total absorption in Christocentric themes, can help to guide us along the way of perfection until we reach that interior castle within us in which resides the temple of the Holy Spirit. A witty antithesis attributed to Simonides has it that poetry is a speaking picture and painting a mute poem. From this perspective Marian art can be understood as embodying and preserving the silence of poetry in a portrait, which captures the momentary yet intimate, and often private, communion between Mary and almighty God.


In his interpretation of Christian ethics Dietrich von Hildebrand argues for a realistic Platonic interpretation of moral values. These values demand an appropriate response from human beings. One can also argue in like fashion that the intertwining of beauty and truth in Christian art in general, and in Marian art in particular, makes the same urgent demand upon its viewers. And when one contemplates the beautiful one is also in contemplation of what is both true and good. This view was held both by Plato, as is partly revealed in his reidentification of the Form of the Good in the Republic as the Form of Beauty in the Symposium, and by scholastic thinkers in their treatment of the transcendental concepts. John Keats poetically conveys the mingling of truth and beauty in his Ode on a Grecian Urn. “Beauty is truth; Truth Beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” Given the massive NeoPlatonic influence upon Romantic poetry it is not surprising to have Plotinus in Ennead 5 ask “ Without beauty, what would become of Being?” and conversely, “ Without Being what would become of beauty?”.

3.1) The Annunciation

The story of the Annunciation has been a recurring theme in Marian art. Interestingly, the two gospel stories dealing with the Annunciation involving both Mary and Zechariah has been used to try and illustrate a distinction between metaphysics and epistemology, or between Being and knowledge, which are obviously quite intimately linked. After all, Christ is both Truth and Life. Luke informs us that Zechariah responds to the good news of the impending birth of the Baptist with the question: “How will I know that this is so?”. For such skepticism regarding the veracity of the information conveyed by the messenger of God he is struck mute for nine months. Mary responds quite differently in her encounter with Gabriel, expressing metaphysical curiosity and not epistemological doubts in her query: “How can this be?”. While Mary is rewarded for her submissive curiosity about the Incarnation, Zechariah is punished. By being struck mute he himself must undergo a gestation period of penance and spiritual growth by way of his own pregnancy of silence.

Mary’s commitment to the truth of the angelic message is at once both illuminative and unitive in its effect. Jacques Maritain refers to poetic intuition as a kind of connatural knowledge, a non-rational awareness that is born and then abides in the preconscious part of the intellect, and which is released by the stimulus of emotion. The affinity between this description of the process by which poetic intuition takes place and the Incarnational principle is apparent. Such intuition is mirrored in the kind of Trinitarian based spiritual intuition described by Julian of Norwich in which words are silently spoken to the understanding and showings appear to ghostly sight. In reflecting upon the compassion of Mary for our Lord’s passion in her Revelations of Divine Love Julian reinforces the earlier point that Mary embodies the paradox in which great joy and great sorrow can coincide in the same experience. She writes that Christ and Mary were so one in love that the magnitude of her love was itself the immediate cause of the extent of her pain.2

In traditional depictions of the Annunciation Mary is portrayed in a way which is consistent with the mood of ascetic devotion achieved by Fra Angelico in his pictorial representation of the Gospel story. Wings aside, there is very little physical difference between Mary and the angel. A similar physical resemblance holds true in the Annunciation of Robert Campin, which is part of the Cloisters Collection in New York. In many non-Italian or Northern European paintings Mary often loses her Italian features and assumes the ethnic look of the region under whose auspices a particular painting has been commissioned. The same applies in the case of the many Marian paintings produced by Spanish painters such as Murillo and others in what might be designated as the post- Raphaelite period. In El Greco’s highly original rendering of the Annunciation, in the painting which hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, Mary is shown as completely composed despite the emotional turbulence evoked by the searing and luminescent licks of white flame which are meant to amplify the arrival of the dove who symbolizes the Holy Spirit. These tongues of flame also indicate the overshadowing of Mary by the Spirit in a way which does not rely upon the by then well-known technique of chiaroscuro, wielded with such great effect by the likes of both Leonardo and Caravaggio. In the tripych by Campin, of which the Annunciation forms the central panel, Mary looks wholly Flemish, with rounded face and all. When in the North Mary becomes a hausfrau who is where she should be, so to speak – in the home. When in Rome however the accessories of hearth and home are sacrificed in order to heighten the solemnity of the encounter in which her life has been entirely transfigured.

The Annunciation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti entitled Ecce Ancilla Domini, which hangs in the Tate Gallery in London, tells another story. Instead of a young girl with precocious spirituality Mary is portrayed by Rossetti as a frightened young woman who is lying crumpled upon a bleached white bed, and whose eyes are filled with child-like wonderment. Incidentally, it is Christina Rossetti, the artist’s sister, who served as the model. The Virgin’s reaction to the arrival of the angel in this painting might be characterized in terms of Rudolf Otto’s famous phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. It is an experience which is overpowering, threatening, and wholly other.

Dated 1850, this picture was painted only two years after the founding of the preRaphaelite Brotherhood, part of whose philosophy and motivation was to express the principles of Christianity in painting by means of emotional intensity. Later on, Leo Tolstoy in What is Art? And R.G. Collingwood in The Principles of Art would argue that the very purpose of art is to communicate deep-seated feelings and emotions. Interestingly, Charles Darwin’s very last book would deal with the attempt to scientifically codify how emotions can be read from facial expressions. Collingwood’s view that art itself involves a psychological process in which dim and chaotic feelings become lucid and coherent seems relevant for describing this critical moment in the life of the Virgin as depicted by Rossetti. Mary is about to enter into the light of a new relationship with God, but not in a way which completely escapes from the superluminous darkness, to borrow Karl Rahner’s phrase, that always accompanies the leap from one stage of life into another. As Laurie Sheck writes in her poem about the Annunciation, Mary exhibits the “honest grace” of not attempting to hide her fear, a kind of prefiguration if you will of Christ’s own later very human ambivalence concerning his impending passion. The Annunciation functions as a naming ceremony in which Mary is anointed with a new name, “Most favored one.” By saying yes, and in so doing giving a proper response to the angel, Mary is literally accepting a new identity, one in which she is aware of being more than she was before. Rossetti, in one of his poems, refers to Mary as a Woman-Trinity – “Now sitting fourth besides the three, thyself a Woman-Trinity.” The Coronation of the Virgin by Velasquez, which hangs in the Prado, shows Mary in her full Trinitarian splendor. Seated upon a canopy of clouds and surrounded by the persons of the Trinity, who create a triangular frame around her, Velasquez concentrates all of Mary’s expressiveness into the eyes and the mouth. By creating this centralization effect in which the viewer is focused upon the face of the Virgin, the humility of God is beautifully enhanced.

Given the chance, the average viewer will easily come to realize that the Annunciation of Rossetti lacks the immediate beauty of the Coronation of Velasquez, or even of the Immaculate Conception of Murillo in which the Virgin is born upward upon billowing clouds, or the exquisite Sistine Madonna of Raphael in which the artist creates a sense of weightlessness in which the movement of the virgin seems to defy the gravitational resistance of the earth. This lack of beauty is purposeful on the part of Rossetti. He and other like-minded artists were engaged in an artistic rebellion against the aesthetic commitments of Raphael and his artistic disciples, who preferred grace and beauty to substance and meaning. Rossetti even believed that the superficiality of Victorian culture was traceable to an acquiescence to this Raphaelesque aesthetic. He longed for a return to the artistic sensibility of Giotto, Fra Angelico, and even of Dante; hence the name pre-Raphaelite. Rossetti’s artistic philosophy was that art should be based upon a scrupulous attention to fact and detail. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited the dandified aesthete Anthony Blanche tells the protagonist Charles Ryder that charm, personified by Sebastian, is what strangles and kills life. This is also Rossetti’s view. Rossetti wanted to provide the viewer with an eyewitness point of view to an important event in salvation history. If Hegel in his philosophy can be said to have rationalized Romanticism, one might describe the artistic intentions of Rossetti as involving an attempt to romanticize the actual facts of life without over-idolizing them.

3.2) Fides et Ratio

Pope John Pope II concludes his final encyclical of the second millennium Fides et Ratio by drawing a connection between Mary and philosophy. It is not unfair to say that both the life and the papacy of John Paul II were devoted to both. In paragraph 108 he refers to the role of the handmaiden, a role played by both Mary and philosophy in their respective ways: Mary in relation to the Word made flesh, and philosophy as providing the method and the resources for theology.3 Mary’s special role as providing a spiritual support for popes is symbolized, for example, by the papal tiara that appears in front of the balustrade in Raphael’s Sistine Madonna.

Karl Rahner’s oxymoronic reference to a super luminous darkness is reminiscent of Dryden’s even more poetic “darkness that defies the light.” In the NeoPlatonic Christian mystical tradition the distinction between positive and negative theology, and between light and dark, has been an important one. The negative theological tradition asserts that the super luminescence of God, despite his reality and brightness, can not be directly known by the limited faculties of human perception and cognition. The light of God is hidden from us and can only be known in an indirect or negative manner. For the most part, however, the Marian art of the Renaissance better enabled the viewer to contemplate a direct relationship with God, but without forsaking tradition, thus allowing for the very same kind of personal relationship with God that Reformers, like Luther, also endorsed. Building upon the naturalistic style of Giotto and the naturalistic spirituality of St. Francis, Marian art in the Renaissance began to portray the supernatural relationship between Mary and her son in more natural settings. This was the great age of the Pastoral Madonna whose foremost representative was Raphael. NeoPlatonism exerted an important influence upon Marian art in the Renaissance, as we shall soon consider in the case of Michelangelo’s Pietà.

3.3) NeoPlatonism

With the advent of Humanism in the Renaissance both Platonic and NeoPlatonic influences upon artistic, literary and intellectual activity came into vogue. Michelangelo’s alleged modus operandi for choosing a worthy piece of marble seems to come directly from Ennead 1.6, the famous Plotinian tract on Beauty. Michelangelo is supposed to have chosen his marble based upon an uncanny, even unearthly, ability to see the figure of his intended sculpture already trapped within the stone. Hence his sculptural efforts amounted to a liberation, or resurrection if you will, of the preexisting form from its sepulcher. Such an artistic activity is meant, form the perspective of humility, to be identified more with an act of Platonic discovery, such as in the theory of recollection enacted in Plato’s Meno, than with any inventive act of creation ex nihilo. In Ennead 1.6 Plotinus writes the following:

How then can you see the sort of beauty a soul has? Go back into yourself and look; and if you do not see yourself beautiful, then, just as someone making a statue which has to be beautiful cuts away here and polishes there and makes one part smooth and clears another till he has given his statue a beautiful face, so you too must cut away excess and straiten the crooked and clear the dark and make it bright, and never stop ‘working on your statue’ till the divine glory of virtue shines out on you, till you see ‘self-mastery enthroned upon its holy seat.’4

Both Michelangelo and Botticelli had been associated with the Medicean Platonic Academy in Florence. Marsilio Ficino, a charter member of this loose association of artists and scholars, was responsible for the translation of both the works of Plato, begun in 1463, and Plotinus, begun in 1484, into Latin, as well as for influential commentaries on the thought of both Plato and Plotinus. The sonnets of Michelangelo, although not of outstanding literary merit, bear the imprint of the idealized view of love that was associated with both Platonic and NeoPlatonic sensibility.

The fusion between Platonism and Christianity was, of course, by no means novel. It stretches back to the earliest development of Christian Apologetics. In the 12th century, amidst the emergence of the austerity of Gothic architecture associated with the Abbot Suger of St. Denis – which acted as a foil to the exuberance of the Romanesque despite initial Church resistance up until the Lateran Council of 1215, and the celebrated intellectualism of the unfortunate Abelard, St. Bernard of Clairvaux was instrumental in helping to redirect early Christian humanism in a more spiritual direction. Already in possession of the Latin translation of Plato’s Timaeus by Chalcidius in the fourth century AD, Christianity would absorb other Platonic ideas and influences in the centuries to come.

Michelangelo was self-consciously committed to the devotional value of great religious art. He writes the following.

Frequently images badly painted distract and cause devotion to be lost, at least in those who possess little; and, on the contrary, those that are divinely painted provoke and lead even those who are little devout and but little inclined to worship to contemplation and tears.5

Michelangelo’s Pietà, completed in 1498-1499 when he was only twenty-three, depicts the Virgin mourning over the body of her dead son. The word Pietà itself means “pity” or “mercy.” This literal meaning was connected to an earlier treatment of the same subject in Northern Europe (Scandinavia, Germany, France), where it was usually handled in a grisly and gruesome manner that would evoke pity. Ironically, this first great sculpture of a man known more for his artistic terribilità than for his humility will be the only one that ever bore his signature. His last sculpture, the unfinished Rondanini Pietà, implements another artistic approach to the theme.

Michelangelo completely reinterprets the traditional approach to the Pietà theme in his youthful masterpiece. In Michelangelo’s version we see a life-sized Christ. It is interesting to note the differences in the sizes of Christ in both pre and post-Michelangelo renditions of the Pietà theme in sculpture. Such departures from realism may reflect differing assessments of God in the Middle Ages and the Baroque respectively. Michelangelo’s Christ, it has been said, assumes a posture which represents less the limpness of death and more the thorough relaxation of the anatomy that might be associated with the kind of restful sleep which anticipates the resurrection.. Thus the Christian and Platonic theme of the soul’s personal immortality is conveyed in silent fashion through the medium of marble. In Theologica Platonica de Immortalitate Animarum Marsilio Ficinohad himself presented arguments for the immortality of the soul in rivalry to the Averroistic Aristotelianism of the time which cast personal immortality into doubt. The personal immortality of the soul would be given doctrinal standing at the Fifth Lateran Council in 1512. Michelangelo’s death in 1564 may have coincided with the birth of Shakespeare, but his Pietà is no mere “sleep of death” whose dreams are subject to the strategies of doubt that Montaigne and others were soon to invoke in their incisive assault upon the foundations of knowledge.

The Pietà is a testimonial to Michelangelo’s Platonic commitment that ideal physical beauty is an expression of the divine. St Thomas Aquinas, who would develop the fragmentary aesthetics of Aristotle within the context of the mystical NeoPlatonism of the Pseudo Dionysius, understood earthly beauty as an imperfect manifestation of divine beauty. Michelangelo did his best to minimize such human imperfection. The age of the Virgin is technically inaccurate as she in no way appears to have aged sufficiently for a woman whose son had already passed the age of thirty at the time of his death. But Mary, to use Goethe’s phrase, represents the Eternal Feminine, and her youthful appearance can be construed as theologically if not chronologically correct. Mary is no ageless Dorian Gray trading upon deceit to represent her best face to the world, but a woman who lives up to the letter of the Wildean law that by forty we all get the face that we deserve. Michelangelo’s timeless Neoplatonic meditation upon the mystery of life and death is thus far removed from something like Salvador Dali’s Annunciation, in which a surrealistic Mary barely emerges out of splashes of beautiful color.

3.4) The Myriad Problems of Marian Art

Many of the technical problems faced by the Marian artist in representing the mystery of the Mother of God (theotokos) also confront Christian and religiously oriented art in general. In the Encyclical Ubi Primum Pope Pius IX writes that “God has committed to Mary the treasury of all good things, in order that everyone may know that through her are obtained every hope, every grace, and all salvation.”6 Thus we do no disservice to philosophical universality by allowing Mary to frame any meditation upon the metaphysical and mystical aspects of divine reality.

According to the interpretation given by Miguel de Unamuno in The Agony of Christianity we must always distinguish between a person who has died and a personality which lives on in memory, often through the transmission of great works of art.7 Unamuno claims, for example, to possess a more real and intimate knowledge of Don Quixote, who he refers to as the Spanish Christ, than of Cervantes himself. He also says that characters such as King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth did more to create Shakespeare than the reverse. Whatever problems this view presents, Unamuno nevertheless makes an important point that we can stretch to fit our own purpose. Other than those private revelations which are the privilege of the few, and prayer itself, perhaps the closest contact between the personality of Mary and her children here on earth is to be had through Marian iconography or art. Moreover, Marian art provides a magnificent stimulus and reminder to communicate continuously with Mary through prayer. The inspirational limitations of the earliest Marian art were due primarily to limitations in pictorial technique, not devotion. The third century fresco of the Virgin and Child in the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome is our earliest known piece of Marian art. The building of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome was a direct response to the doctrinal definition of Mary as Mother of God at the Council held in Ephesus in 431 AD.


The earliest depictions of the Virgin mother did, despite their simplicity, faithfully reflect a pattern of life that was chosen by a significant number of the faithful during the first centuries of the church. Virginity itself was a form of the asceticism which flourished in the church during the first half of the first millennium and beyond. Early Marian and Christian art succeeded in capturing the monastic call to retreat from the world. It is interesting to note, as the Encyclopedia of Catholicism (1995) points out, that there exists no official dogmatic formulation of the Virgin Birth, unlike the other Marian dogmas. St. Jerome defended the concept of Semper Virgo in his letter against Helvidius, and the Synod held in Milan in 391 was the first in the West to clearly articulate the meaning of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The sacramentalization of marriage as a procreative license issued by Christ was itself a testament to the value and virtue of virginity, which St. Paul rates even above marriage. For marriage consecrates both a beginning and an end, which is marked by a change in the type of chastity that newly espoused partners are required to practice. In the last century Thomas Merton will generalize virginity as that “untouched center” which exists in every human heart.8

While the earliest works of Marian art do inspire us, it is for the most part with a sort of respect or hieratic solemnity, although early Christian art always intended to be instructive and inspirational to the extent of reassuring the faithful that death was not the end of life. To substantiate the claim that iconography is related to and can epitomize shifting opinions and ideas one only need note the shift from the Risen Christ motif so typical of Byzantine art to the Suffering Christ motif which supersedes it in the Middle Ages. This shift was probably in some way connected to the eschatological hopes for the new millennium which, as we know from hindsight, were never fulfilled.

After the conquest of the Italian peninsula by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century AD Marian art in the West began to be dominated by the Byzantine style. This included a simple background of gold leaf for religious scenes. Clothing in such early Christian art appeared stiff. Backgrounds would not receive any elaboration for the most part until there was an increase in both the knowledge and the technique which could allow for it. The perfection of perspective in the 15th century, which allowed for an enriched simulation of reality in two dimensions, is one case in point. Emotions were especially hard to render with Byzantine colored tile or mosaic technique. The flame of spirituality in art was kindled by the Cluniac reforms which occurred near the end of the first millennium. But due to limitations of technique pictorial naturalism was not yet a substantial possibility for conveying the theologically real depths of the Christian faith. Hence Romanesque art in the tenth and eleventh centuries suggested what was theologically real by relying mostly upon religious symbolism and illusion.

The passage from the Romanesque to the Gothic at the end of the 12th century was due primarily to advances in the science of engineering that made possible such architectural structures as ribbed vaults and the flying buttress. As a result the walls of Christian Churches, especially in the north of Europe, could be studded with stained glass that let in light since the walls themselves were no longer needed as the sole support for the roof. NeoPlatonic light imagery, which expressed the grandeur of God, did not therefore need to be limited to literary expression. Divine light could flood the interior of a Church, thus making the Gothic cathedral the first real example of virtual reality, as the Church virtually became heaven on earth. In Italian Churches, where the Gothic style was slower to take root, interior frescoes decorating the massive walls were the decoration of choice. Hence scientific constraints were instrumental in the development of the meaning and mystery of Christian and Marian art.

This brief historical sketch concerning the development of Christian and Marian art provides us with a context for the consideration of the important problem of realism in Marian art. Secular art provides many examples of the superior persuasive power of an unrealistic portrayal of physical reality. A favorite of mine is that of Thomas Moran’s depiction of the mountainous territory that was destined to become Yellowstone National Park. He joined Dr. Ferdinand Hayden’s geological survey expedition to Utah and the Wyoming territory in 1871. Moran’s landscapes of the Yellowstone region, which gave a romanticized yet still true impression of this brave New World, in accordance with the aesthetic principle advocated by John Ruskin to preserve the essence of the subject, far exceeded the survey’s more factually accurate journalistic and photographic accounts in their popularity with the public back home in the east. Moran’s purposeful imprecision thus extended a more enticing invitation to go West.

What about the issue of realism when it comes to depictions of Mary? For the task of portraying Mary in painted form we may ask the following question: Is it at all possible to idealize or over-idealize Mary? Goethe, in his assessment of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, who is facially very similar to the woman that appears in his Donna Velata, says that Mary represents the Mutter Urbild – the archetype of all mothers. On the contrary, historians of art in comparing the styles of Michelangelo and Raphael have often made the claim that the former painted man whereas it was the latter, Raphael, who painted real men and real women. Another example of taking liberties with Mary would be Botticelli. Sandro Botticelli’s model for his Lady of the Magnificat was a woman named Simonetta, who was known to be the mistress of Julian de Medici. She also was a model for Botticelli’s pagan goddess, Pallas Athene. Moreover, Botticelli, before he entered his final mystical phase under the influence of the religious revival spearheaded by Savonarola, employed a kind of pictorial poetry in which the themes of Madonna and pagan goddess were often interwoven. For example, in some of his purely pagan paintings, such as the Birth of Venus and the Primavera and the Three Graces, the females possess a sort of Madonna-like innocence. From the perspective of reverence, the allowance of such an affinity between the sacred and secular might be said by some to transgress the bounds of Christian or Marian decency. Such a criticism however would not be warranted in the case of the pairing of Schubert’s Ava Maria with Scott’s Lady of the Lake. The fusion of pagan and Christian meaning in art had been one of the topics tackled within the NeoPlatonic circles in Florence in which the young Botticelli had been known to participate. Historical precedent for the admixture of Marian and secular feminine themes had a precedent in the role played by Mary in undermining the cult of the goddess Diana in Ephesus.

Does our Lady of Guadalupe’s perfectly preserved appearance as an Aztec girl, or the smoke blackened face of the icon of our Lady in Jasna Gora, suggest that portrayals of our Lady need not be physically accurate? If yes, then depictions of Mary can legitimately be left to sheer contingency as in the case of the Polish icon, or to what will most spiritually inspire and uplift a particular ethnic group, as in the case of Guadalupe. Recall that the appearance of the many Madonnas of Spanish painters: such as Murillo, Morales, Zurbaran, Antolinez, Velasquez, to name a few, is Iberian; whereas the appearance of the Northern European Madonna takes on different facial characteristics. In Rembrandt’s The Holy Family, which hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, we are presented with a partial and indistinct view of the Virgin, while St. Joseph in the background is barely visible at all. But Rembrandt’s main emphasis in this painting was not the family per se, but its Holiness. The cradled Christ in the foreground seems to sing out the beautiful words from the Marian Lullaby of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “This holier in sleep than a saint at prayer.”

If artists in portraying the unknown face of Mary do not commit themselves to any agreed upon criteria of accuracy, then is it safe to assume that Marian artists are free to explore their artistic urges? This is certainly the case, for example, when Mary is modeled by an actual flesh and blood woman, such as Christian Rossetti or Raphael’s La Velata, who was none other than Raphael’s own mistress, Margherita. On the other hand, many depictions of Mary seem to follow apparitional traditions, such as those of Lourdes and Fatima in more recent times. But of course the source of such traditions is quite often the unreliable testimony of small children who are not themselves artists. Ecclesiastical approval of an apparition pertains to the actual appearance of Mary, not to what she looked like.

One fascinating consideration regarding the facial likeness of Mary comes to mind in light of modern genetic theory. In canto XXXII (85-86) of the Paradiso the pilgrim Dante is urged by St. Bernard to gaze upon the face most like that of Christ (Riguarda omai ne la faccia che a Cristo più si somiglia). Given the biological nature of the Incarnation, in which there was no genetic contribution by St. Joseph, one might reverently argue that, humanly speaking, Christ is a flesh and blood clone of the Blessed Virgin. The Marian artist in particular, like the Christian artist in general, has a primary responsibility to theological or doctrinal realism. There should never be any falsification in the portrayal of what Christians actually believe about Mary. Where physical or pictorial realism can reinforce or highlight the mystical content of a painting, so much the better. Mary should be maximized on canvas as she has been in the development of Marian doctrine. This principle of maximalism was employed by Duns Scotus, for example, to argue for Mary’s Immaculate Conception about six hundred years prior to the publication of Ineffabilis Deus by Pope Pius IX in 1854. St. Bernard in Epistle 174 had already voiced some doubts as to the doctrine, as did Aquinas, although his final set of Lenten sermons brought him much closer to what we now all profess as Catholics upon this issue.

Naturalism in Christian art received its motivational impetus from the teachings of St. Francis who held that the study and appreciation of the natural world led to God. Giotto’s realistic frescoes devoted to the life of St. Francis, for example, incorporated this realistic injunction in terms of both architecture and landscape. Giotto’s more realistic natural background settings thus do away with the beautiful but artificial golden empyrean of Byzantine art. As a result, the emotions of the persons depicted could be made to correspond to appropriately selected natural phenomena, analogous to the later pairing of music with action that would become the hallmark of the Wagnerian music drama.

Such a fusion between the personal and naturalistic elements within the religious work of art manifested the coherence and unity of the created order in a way that differed from the linear hierarchy in the Chain of Being. As result of this connection between the natural and the psychological, as it began to take shape in the work of Giotto, emotions and psychological processes, which otherwise would remain obscured, could receive a more extensive pictorial treatment. Hence one might claim that the art of physiognomy, of trying to read emotions from facial expressions, which Darwin tried to utilize upon apes in the zoo, was also part and parcel of the praxis of religious artistry during the Renaissance. The later emergence of interiority so closely identified with the Cartesian revolution had in a way already begun to be explored in early Renaissance Christian and Marian art.

But the Franciscan turn in painting could not have been achieved if unaccompanied by improvements in pictorial technique and other resources. Improvements in, and the codification of, mathematical perspective based upon geometrical optics was of course pivotal in the development of pictorial realism in the Renaissance. Names like Brunelleschi, Alberti, and Piero della Francesca, are just a few of the artists and architects associated with such advances. Leonardo’s detailed and accurate anatomical researches preceded the publication of the De Fabrica of Vesalius in 1543 by half a century, although the content of Leonardo’s Notebooks would not become available to the public for several centuries.

Giovanni Bellini, a Venetain painter, developed a smooth oil painting technique that made it possible for him to achieve natural lighting effects and an intensification of color in his paintings. Bellini’s pastoral and other Madonnas are among the most celebrated of the Renaissance. It is perhaps ironic that a Venetian should adorn his paintings of Madonna and Child with a landscape background, for the obvious reason that Venice is not known for its terrain. Canaletto and Guardi will eventually seize the opportunity presented by the Venetian canals to great effect. Bellini’s Madonnas are lyrical and sweet in appearance. Mary is no longer simply the mater amabilis absorbed with concern for her son. Bellini gives us an introspective Virgin, as in the case, for example, of his Madonna and Child which hangs in the Correr Museum in Venice, in which Mary takes time out from her maternal cares to ponder upon the mysteries of her own unique station in life.

Dante writes in Canto XI (105) of the Inferno that art is like the grandchild of God (si che vostr’ arte a Dio quasi è nepote). Maritain seconds this by saying that in art we humans continue the work of divine creation. But does this not imply that irreverent art should be considered bad art? In the Madonna with the Host by John Auguste Dominique Ingres, which hangs in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, we are presented with a portrait of an Enlightenment Mary in NeoClassical style. This painting provides a perfect example of a painter who has taken an outrageous liberty with theological realism as Catholics interpret it. As with other paintings in the Marian genre, Mary is depicted with Jesus, but this time in the form of the consecrated host. In one of his famous poems the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins compares Mary to the air we breathe. This is an appropriate simile as Mary provides us with the spiritual oxygen by which we are able to inhale the life of her divine Son. But Ingres’ portrait depicts a priestly Mary at the altar in the midst of a transubstantive act, although this fact is left, to be fair, to the imagination of the viewer. Simone de Beauvoir might approve as the Virgin is no longer cast in an inferior posture, as a supplicant at the foot of the cross. She is presiding over a sacramental act with full parental and priestly authority.

In Christian theology, as in physics, darkness is defined as the absence of light. Caravaggio’s famous chiaroscuro technique, which was to become a staple of Baroque painting, was instrumental in creating a dark somber mood which could involve the spectator in the drama of a pictorial narrative, as for example, in his Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Chiaroscuro was a technical device for staging a scene in darkness. This darkness would then be ruptured by the illumination of a well-chosen shaft of light. Caravaggio’s style is often described as realistic, but it is more correct to describe it as a form of psychological realism because the force of its impact upon viewers is closely tied to its reliance upon the effects it achieves as the result of carefully chosen psychological details.

In his death of the Virgin which hangs in the Louvre in Paris Caravaggio abandons the convention of depicting sacred figures in heroic fashion. The scene depicted deals with a debatable point in Mariology, the so-called dormition of the Virgin. This topic, which deals with whether Mary actually died a bodily death or not before being assumed both body and soul into heaven had its precedents in sacred literature. It was referred to, for example, in both the second sermon of John of Damascus as well as in the Golden Legend of Jacopo de Voraigne. The shaft of light which illuminates the face of the Virgin in Caravaggio’s painting was not meant to be symbolic of any heavenly radiance, but is a pictorial device for both fixing the eye of the viewer upon the Virgin, and for amplifying the sense of disorientation the viewer feels due to the diagonal descent of the light from the top left corner of the picture. Baroque painting would come to be known for its use of such illusionistic techniques for the heightening of dramatic energy and psychological tension.


Attending the deathbed of the Virgin are a ragamuffin group of barefoot disciples, including one young woman. If these disciples are the Apostles then a question arises, how did they get there if according to Marian tradition the Virgin ended her earthly days at Ephesus with John? Mary is featured as having aged in normal fashion. There is no attempt by Caravaggio to idealize her looks, though her appearance in death is in no way hideous. Caravaggio’s tableau of the Apostles, which was viewed as indecorous at the time, was possibly a direct pictorial jab at the Counter Reformational teaching with stressed that ordinary persons could not become saints without the benefit of an intermediate clergy between themselves and God. While Rembrandt in his Holy Family used chiaroscuro to create scenes that are timeless and typically Dutch, in which facts are pregnant with spiritual significance, Caravaggio employed darkness to unsettle the viewer. To the extent that art mirrors life, this should come as no surprise for an artist whose own life was marred by both violence and murder. Both painters, Caravaggio and Rembrandt, employed the contrast between darkness and light as space denying and space creating techniques, thus giving a finite frame or canvas limitless possibilities. A deft use of darkness can also have the effect of isolating the individual in light and thus enhancing the contact between the viewer and the interiority of the person(s) portrayed. Rembrandt’s darkness dominated peek into the secret life of the Holy Family emphasized the frugal contentment of family life in conformity with the simplicity of the Gospel message. Caravaggio, in his Death of the Virgin and other religious works, seems to have been very self-consciously engaged in the act of creating a sense of sinister spirituality.

The so-called Proto-Gospel of St. James is the source for various Marian legends. The Virgin’s parents, St. Anne and St. Joachin, are mentioned here. Raphael’s famous Sposalizio or Marriage of the Virgin, painted while still more or less under the influence of Perugino’s formal style, who in turn studied under the highly perspective sensitive Piero della Francesca, depicts a scene from the Proto-Gospel. Leonardo’s famous 1510 painting of St. Anne, the Virgin and the Infant Christ with a Lamb, which hangs in the Louvre, can boast none other than Sigmund Freud among its admirers and critics.9 Freud somehow sees a vulture in the garment of the Virgin, which is in some way symbolically related to a youthful dream attributed to Leonardo. Such oneric speculation aside, the painting allows for an interesting psychological interpretation. Both St. Anne and Mary seem to be about the same age. Instead of mother and grandmother, it is as if there are two mothers present, just as there are, in a sense, two lambs. Freud, no stranger to the psychological significance of jokes, quipped that perhaps the versatile Leonardo simply could not paint old age. While Mary attempts to restrain the Christ child from cavorting with the lamb, St Anne does just the opposite, or at least she puts up no observable resistance to Christ’s attempt to more closely embrace the lamb. Therefore, it is as if these two women represent the ambivalence within the heart of the real Mary. She wants to both protect her son as well as resign herself to his redemptive fate, a fate that both mother and son must freely embrace.

An important feature in several landscape paintings by Leonardo is the complementarity they exhibit between the human person and the impersonal environment. Raphael would emulate this feature of Leonardo’s technique in a number of his own pastoral Madonnas. The tableau depicted in the St. Anne painting just discussed is one which depicts a veritable cascade of sacred genealogy, starting with the seamless downward force which flows from St. Anne at the top, to Mary on her lap, whose hands extend to that of the Christ child, and finally to that of the lamb embraced by Christ who completes this living aurea catena. While the present and practically carefree action in the painting contemplates the future of Christ’s passion, the landscape seems to evoke a sense of a more primitive and pagan past. It consists of rocky mountains and flowing rivers, and exudes an atmosphere of a remote, prehistoric age. Silence pervades a scene of falling snowflakes, an aqueous manna from the heavens which forms a part of the hydrological cycle which nourishes the earth. Thus Leonardo has given us a sacred space in which past, present, and future coincide. Leonardo invites the spectator to meditate upon temporality, for the Christian God is no Prometheus bound by the tyranny of tense.

Although not a Marian painting, the Mona Lisa provides the quintessential example of Leonardo’s attempt to express the symmetry between man and nature. The tresses of La Gioconda’s hair and the folds and creases in her clothing are mirrored in the flow of running water in the background of the picture. This pictorial harmony was the result of Leonardo’s preoccupation with the NeoPlatonic view concerning the microcosm, symbolized by the human body, and the macrocosm, symbolized by nature. While this conception is much older than NeoPlatonism, both the Stoics and the Pythagoreans harbored analogous views, it nevertheless reveals that for Leonardo there exists a cosmic harmony throughout the created order.10

This principle of harmony borders upon the mystical in the two versions of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. One hangs in the Louvre, the other in the National Gallery in London. A forerunner to chiaroscuro, in these paintings Leonardo employed a technique known as sfumato in which there is a gentle, almost imperceptible, transition from light to shadow. Such carefully modulated lighting is used to bathe the entire cavernous landscape in a mystical glow, which matches the delicate and sweet figuration of the Madonna and her entourage, which consists of an angel, the baby Jesus, and the Baptist.

Raphael will adopt this principle of pictorial harmony from Leonardo. His Madonnas will require a vastly different treatment of landscape and physical ambience than Leonardo’s renditions of the Virgin of the Rocks. The smile of Leonardo’s Madonna is mysterious and subtle, rare and inexplicable. The smile of Raphael’s Madonna is at the same time innocent and ingenuous, typical and familiar. Leonardo’s Virgin is placed in a rock grotto, or cathedral in the bosom of the earth, reminiscent of those “caverns measureless to man” referred to by Coleridge. This geological holy place is meant to remind us of the womb of Mary in which the gestation of salvation took place. In paintings like Raphael’s Madonna in the Meadow (Vienna), the Canigiani Holy Family (Munich), and the unfinished Esterhazy Madonna (Budapest) the background landscape takes on the appearance of the Umbrian countryside with its open fields, a scene that conveys utter tranquility.


John Dewey held that life itself is an artistic project. With Oscar Wilde, for example, this artistic view of life was enacted and put on display for all to see, with less than adequate results. If we view man as God’s greatest creation, and Mary as the greatest product of this outpouring of Divine love, then Marian art is perhaps best understood as a tribute to the living work of art that is a sinless life. While it might seem as if the golden age of the Madonna in art is well behind us, we would do well to remember the prediction of the Magnificat. Let generations of artists to come reveal the splendor of God’s most sublime creation.


1 Marie-Lise Gazarian, Fernando Rielo: A Dialogue With Three Voices, tr. by David G. Murray (Madrid: Fernando Rielo Foundation, 2000).

2 F.C. Happold, Mysticism (Penguin: 1970 revised edition), pp. 322-332.

3 Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (Daughters of St. Paul, 1998), p.130.

4 Plotinus, Loeb Classical Library, tr. by A.H. Armstrong (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966).

5 John Martin, Roses, Fountains, and God: The Virgin Mary in History, Art and Apparition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), p. 125.

6 Mark Miravalle, Mary: CoRedemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate (Santa Barbara: Queenship Publishing, 1993), p. 41.

7 Miguel de Unamuno, The Agony of Christianity, tr. by Kurt Rainhardt (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1960).

8 Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Quoted by Kathleen Norris, Meditations on Mary (New York: Viking, 1999), p. 32.

9 Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci, tr. by A.A. Brill (New York: Vintage, 1974), ch. 5.

10 Stephen Jay Gould, Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (New York: Harmony, 1998), pp. 17-44.