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
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 by the Master of the Saint Ursula
Legend and the Virgin and Child 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. 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

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 emphasizing the relationship between
mother and child. The early fourteenth-century Vierge Ouvrante 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.


1/ Icon with the Koimesis ("Falling Asleep") of the Virgin Mary, late 10th century
Byzantine; Probably made in Constantinople. Inscribed in Greek: The Koimesis. Ivory
7 1/4 x 5 3/4 in. (18.4 x 14.6 cm). Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.132).

The Koimesis, or "falling asleep in death," of the Virgin is first found in Byzantine art in the
900s. This image would become one of the most popular icons in the Middle and Late
Byzantine world, often appearing over the doors of churches to be contemplated by the
faithful as they left the service. In painted icons and in ivory ones like this example, the
Virgin is shown lying on a bier, or pallet, for the dead. Christ stands behind her holding up her
soul, as if it were a baby, offering it to attendant angels to take to heaven. The apostles stand
witness, led by Saint Paul at her feet and Saint Peter behind her head. The holes on the ivory
suggest that it may have been used as decoration on a book cover, probably in the Latin West,
where Byzantine ivories were prized for such purposes.

2/ Pendant Brooch with Cameo of Enthroned Virgin and Child, cameo 11th–12th century;
Rus' mount 12th–14th century. Byzantine (Constantinople). Chalcedony cameo in gold mount
with pearls, emeralds, garnets, sapphires, and sardonyx intaglio. 2 7/8 x 2 1/4 in. (7.2 x 5.5.
cm). Purchase, Acquisitions Fund, Christopher C. Grisanti and Suzanne P. Fawbush, Austin B.
Chinn, and Katharine R. Brown Gifts, Gifts of Marx Freres, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Mrs.
Frank D. Millett, by exchange, and funds from various donors, 2007 (2007.9).

This elegantly wrought pendant brooch displays a finely carved blue Byzantine cameo in a
bejeweled gold frame. Carved gems produced in the Byzantine empire were valued
throughout the medieval world as diplomatic and religious gifts and as trade goods. This
example displays the Virgin and Child enthroned and flanked by busts of two archangels, a
miniature version of the decoration of the apse in many Byzantine churches. The frame, with
pearls and gemstones on the face and a repoussé image of Christ holding his gospels and
raising his right hand in a blessing gesture on the reverse, is similar to frames now in the
Kremlin in Moscow that are dated to between the twelfth and the fourteenth century and
attributed to Rus', the large region north of the imperial territories that in 988, under Vladimir
the Great of Kiev, became a Christian state allied with Constantinople. The cameo was
probably sent to Rus', where the frame was made to appropriately house the rare object from
the capital. The size and decoration of the pendant suggest that it may have been made for a
ranking prelate of the Orthodox Church. The whole is an outstanding manifestation of the
complex artistic relationships within the Byzantine sphere.

3/ Enthroned Virgin and Child, ca. 1260–1280. French; Paris. Elephant ivory with traces of
paint and gilding . H. 7 1/4 in. (18.5 cm). Purchase, The Cloisters Collection and Michel
David-Weill Gift, 1999 (1999.208).

Few representations of the Virgin and Child can match this example, regal and sensitive,
produced in Paris, the principal center of ivory carving during the Gothic era. The face of the
youthful Virgin emphasizes her tenderness toward the Christ Child. Here the focus of the
work is on the human and loving mother rather than the Queen of Heaven. The statuette was
probably set into a small architectural tabernacle, and functioned as an object for private

4/ Madonna and Child, ca. 1300. Duccio di Buoninsegna (Italian, Sienese, active ca. 1278–d.
1318). Tempera and gold on wood, with original engaged frame. Overall, with frame, 11 x 8
1/4 in. (27.9 x 21 cm); painted surface 9 3/8 x 6 1/2 in. (23.8 x 16.5 cm). Purchase, Rogers
Fund, Walter and Leonore Annenberg and The Annenberg Foundation Gift, Lila Acheson
Wallace Gift, Annette de la Renta Gift, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, Louis V. Bell, and
Dodge Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, several members of The Chairman's Council Gifts,
Elaine L. Rosenberg and Stephenson Family Foundation Gifts, 2003 Benefit Fund, and other
gifts and funds from various donors, 2004 (2004.442).

This exquisite picture defines a transforming moment in Western art. Departing from the
Byzantine notion of painting as a symbolic image of a divine being, Duccio, the founder of
Sienese painting, endowed his figures with a new humanity, exploring the psychological
relationship between Mother and Child. Unquestionably, the master had looked closely at the
work of his younger contemporary Giotto. The parapet, a pictorial device that relates the
fictive space of the picture to the real space of the viewer, will become a common feature of
Renaissance painting; here, it is a novelty. Few of Duccio's paintings survive: this panel was
the last known work in a private collection and its acquisition transforms the Museum's
presentation of the history of European painting. The damage along the bottom of the original
frame is from candles lit before the picture, which was used for private devotion.

5/ Portable Mosaic Icon with the Virgin Eleousa, early 14th century. Byzantine, probably
Constantinople. Miniature mosaic set in wax on wood panel with gold, multicolored stones,
and gilded copper tesserae; some portions restored. 4 3/8 x 3 3/8 in. (11.2 x 8.6 cm)
Gift of John C. Weber, in honor of Philippe de Montebello, 2008 (2008.352).

In the fourteenth century, Byzantine artists developed a new art form: micromosaics worked
in exceptionally tiny tesserae in a painterly style. These intimate images were made primarily
for use in private devotions, and few of them survive. The Museum's micromosaic, which
depicts the Virgin Eleousa, the Virgin of Compassion, emphasizes the humanness of the
Christ Child, as he reaches forward to touch his head to his mother's cheek. The Virgin
lovingly embraces her son, while her mournful gaze invites the viewer to contemplate his
future sacrifice and death. On the reverse of this mosaic is an inscription in a late fifteenth-
century Humanist hand that identifies it as the icon that moved Saint Catherine of Alexandria
to convert to Christianity in the fourth century. Such labels attest to the popularity of
micromosaics in the Latin West, where, during the Renaissance, they were often inaccurately
dated to the first Christian centuries. This icon first came to scholarly attention when it was
lent to the Museum's 2004 exhibition "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557)“.

6/ Initial G with the Birth of the Virgin, ca. 1375. From a gradual created for the
Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Florence. Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci
(Italian, 1339–1399). Italian (Florence). Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment. 11 1/2 x 11 3/4
in. (29.2 x 29.8 cm). Rogers Fund, 1921 (21.168).

The letter G, overgrown by rich foliage with lillies, opens into the interior of Saint Anne's
bedroom. Having given birth to a daughter, she sits up on her bed and glances at her child,
who is about to be bathed. A maiden with the child on her lap is testing the temperature of the
water in the bowl, while another adds more water to it. Other maidens are gathered around
Saint Anne. A nimbed female figure, probably Anne's sister Hismeria, sits on the edge of the
bed and, with a prophetic glance, turns her head upward. This initial G was the first letter of
the introit to the Mass for the feast commemorating the birth of the Virgin, while the
iconography is Sienese. Faithfully following the composition of Pietro Lorenzetti's Birth of
the Virgin altarpiece for Siena Cathedral, the leaf comes from a series of choir books made for
the use of the monks of Santa Maria degli Angeli, a Camaldolese monastery in Florence, of
which Don Silvestro was a member.

7/ Bust of the Virgin, ca. 1390–95. Bohemia. Terracotta with polychromy. 12 13/16 x 8
13/16 x 5 7/16 in. (32.5 x 22.4 x 13.8 cm). The Cloisters Collection, 2005 (2005.393).

Elegaic, dignified, and poised, the Virgin tilts her youthful head as if burdened by the weight
of the ornate crown, and her downcast eyes and pursed lips convey her sorrowful resignation.
This bust, the upper portion of a standing or enthroned figure that would have included the
Christ Child, is a textbook example of the so-called Beautiful Style, which originated in
Prague at the end of the fourteenth century. A technical tour de force, it is the only known
terracotta sculpture from medieval Bohemia. Artists working in clay normally cut larger
figures horizontally with a wire to ensure that they dried evenly. Once fired, the sections were
reassembled with mortar, which would be disguised under the polychromy. Thanks to the
hardness of terracotta, the sculptural form of this bust is virtually intact except for minor
losses, and the details remain as crisp as they were when it left the potter's kiln. The complete
original figure, more than a meter high, was probably installed above an altar in a church.
Traces of several campaigns of paint attest to its long history as an object of veneration.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York. Retrieved 26/4/2011.


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