In Christian hagiography she is simply Mary the mother of Jesus. As the "Mother of God" (Theotekos) she first gains prominence in Catholic worship after the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. Images of Mary in Christian art date from the 3rd century but "Marian" art became a popular subject in Western Renaissance painting and sculpture and especially in Italian art of the period. The affectionate term "Madonna" is after all Italian.
In art, she is portrayed in many roles, but the most powerful images have always been those depicting Mary holding the infant Jesus. As an archetypal symbol of our humanity the image of Madonna and Child transcends any single faith for the symbol is, in fact, most ancient.
The image is also inextricable for we can hardly imagine a mother without a child.
The mother's story is bound to the great myth of the "Wonder Child." According to this ancient tradition, the child is born in the depth of winter, at the darkest hour, and his birth heralds a seasonal and spiritual shift toward the light.
As the images on these pages show, there are many interpretations of the archetypal mother and child but they all reaffirm a fundamental message.
No matter how troubled the world seems, no matter how trammeled our own lives, the Madonna remind us that life is ever renewing and where she is present so hope abides. Hold fast, she reminds us, treasure those you love, for we are all fragile beings, vulnerable as a new born. The Wonder Child is within each of us and we are all heralds of the coming light.
A MADONNA FOR ALL SEASONS
This Madonna from the African nation of Rwanda is remarkable for its portrayal of maternal tenderness and care.
This stamp is from a 1965 issue. The artist, unfortunately, is not identified.
Perhaps as old as 800 BC, this faience statuette shows the Egyptian goddess Isis, suckling the infant Horus. Antiquity abounds with representations of the mother and child, illustrating the universality of the archetype.
A Madonna without a halo, the Litta Madonna in the Russian Hermitage Museum is believed to be at least the partial work of Leonardo da Vinci. The Madonna herself is characteristic of Leonardo's renderings but the child may be the work of a pupil who worked in Leonardo's workshop around 1490.