Plan Ahead

Visiting Manet/Degas?

You must join the virtual queue. Read the additional visitor guidelines.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Cult of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages

The Virgin Mary and the Church
A mother figure is a central object of worship in several religions (for example, images of the Virgin and Child call to mind Egyptian representations of Isis nursing her son Horus). The history of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, depends on the texts of the Gospels. Embellishments to her legend seem to have taken form in the fifth century in Syria. The life of the mother of Christ was exceptional: she was born free of original sin (21.168), through the Immaculate Conception; she was taken to heaven after her death (17.190.132); and, just as Saint Thomas doubted Christ’s Resurrection, so he doubted Mary’s Assumption. Theologians established a parallel between Christ’s Passion and the Virgin’s compassion: while he suffered physically on the cross, she was crucified in spirit. The Council of Ephesus in 431 sanctioned the cult of the Virgin as Mother of God; the dissemination of images of the Virgin and Child, which came to embody church doctrine, soon followed.

The Virgin Mary in Byzantine Representations
The Virgin Mary, known as the Theotokos in Greek terminology, was central to Byzantine spirituality as one of its most important religious figures. As the mediator between suffering mankind and Christ and the protectress of Constantinople, she was widely venerated. The Virgin is the subject of important liturgical hymns, such as the Akathistos Hymn, sung at the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) and during Lent. Narrative artistic representations of Christ’s mother focus on her conception and childhood or her Koimesis (her Dormition, or eternal sleep). Most images of the Virgin stress her role as Christ’s Mother, showing her standing and holding her son. The manner in which the Virgin holds Christ is very particular. Certain poses developed into “types” that became names of sanctuaries or poetic epithets. Hence, an icon of the Virgin was meant to represent her image and, at the same time, the replica of a famous icon original. For example, the Virgin Hodegetria is a popular representation of the Virgin in which she holds Christ on her left arm and gestures toward him with her right hand, showing that he is the way to salvation. The name Hodegetria comes from the Hodegon Monastery in Constantinople, in which the icon showing the Virgin in this particular stance resided from at least the twelfth century onward, acting to protect the city. A later type is that of the Virgin Eleousa, imagined to have derived from the Virgin Hodegetria. This type represents the compassionate side of the Virgin. She is shown bending to touch her cheek to the cheek of her child, who reciprocates this affection by placing his arm around her neck. Byzantine images of the Virgin were adopted in the West. For example, Early Netherlandish paintings such as the Virgin and Child (17.190.16) by the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend and the Virgin and Child (30.95.280) by Dieric Bouts reveal an interest in Byzantine representations of the Theotokos.

The Virgin Mary in Western Representations
Most Western types of the Virgin’s image, such as the twelfth-century “Throne of Wisdom” from central France, in which the Christ Child is presented frontally as the sum of divine wisdom, seem to have originated in Byzantium (16.32.194). Byzantine models became widely distributed in western Europe by the seventh century. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw an extraordinary growth of the cult of the Virgin in western Europe, in part inspired by the writings of theologians such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), who identified her as the bride of the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. The Virgin was worshipped as the Bride of Christ, Personification of the Church, Queen of Heaven, and Intercessor for the salvation of humankind. This movement found its grandest expression in the French cathedrals, which are often dedicated to “Our Lady,” and many cities, such as Siena, placed themselves under her protection.

The Virgin Mary in the Later Middle Ages
The hieratic images of the Romanesque period, which emphasize Mary’s regal aspect, gave way in the Gothic age to more tender representations (1999.208; 1979.402) emphasizing the relationship between mother and child. The early fourteenth-century Vierge Ouvrante (17.190.185) from Cologne articulates her role in Christian salvation. When closed, the hinged sculpture represents the Virgin nursing the Christ Child, who holds the dove of the Holy Spirit. Her garment opens up, like the wings of a triptych, to reveal in her body the figure of God the Father. He holds the cross, made of two tree trunks, from which the now-missing figure of Christ hung. The flanking wings are painted with scenes from Christ’s infancy or Incarnation, that is to say, the embodiment of God the Son in human flesh.