Mother of God

The 14th and 15th centuries were a period of change for art and for theology, as Europe transitioned from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. The image of the Madonna and Child remained one of the most prolific subjects for artists and an anchor for European culture. Mary and Christ are painted as royalty and common people, as God and as flesh, and most significantly as a mother and son. Through Mary's shifting image we see the true scope of the Early Renaissance from flat and framed Byzantine iconography to portraits of the domestic and the scenic. Four archetypes dominate this period: Madonna Enthroned, Madonna in Adoration, Madonna as a servant of God, and the domestic Madonna. The image of a queen heralded by angels fades in popularity as the Renaissance progresses in favour of more intimate portraiture, often showing Mary holding up Christ or expressing her devotions in prayer. The Madonna and Child remains the most significant portrayal of Mary, who is a pillar of the Catholic faith and arguably the most popular subject of European art. As a Queen of Heaven or a woman of faith, Mary remains above all else a Mother of God. 

Duccio is one of the most prominent Italian painters of the Middle Ages and this Madonna and Child produced late in his career is typical of his Italo-Byzantine style. Mary holds Christ gently as any mother would and he touches her veil. They are both somber figures, but they exchange a tender look. They are framed by a golden halo, set apart from our earthly world without perspective or sense of weight. Mary and her son appear spiritual, beautiful, and above the life of flesh and blood.
Giotto is considered one of the first Italian masters, an innovator of the Renaissance style, and the father of European painting. Mary and Christ appear solid and corporeal and he holds out his hand in a baby-like gesture. This painting represents the popular Madonna Enthroned archetype, where Mary and her son are encased by a golden crown. The Mary pictured here is a Queen of Heaven and Christ both her son and the Son of God.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti was an Italian of the Sienese School and much of his work drew on the Byzantine influences there. Here, Madonna is enthroned with an angular golden backdrop and embraces Christ with two hands as she nurses him. The maternal pose is contrasted with her royal treatment in this work, as breastfeeding was often done by nursemaids during this period. However, Mary nursing Christ is an essential part of the Marion iconography. She represents the universal experience of motherhood, nurturing out of love and devotion.
Barnaba da Modena painted in Lombardy in the 14th century. In this Madonna and Child, Mary holds up the infant Christ under an architectural frame. They glow with a heavenly light and Christ seems to float in Mary's hands. They look out at the viewer, not unlike a mother and son posed for a photograph, and exude serenity. There is no doubt that this is the Mother of God and yet Mary and Christ show a tenderness and physicality that evokes a worldly maternal affection.
Bono da Ferrara was a self-described pupil of Pisanello who worked in Siena and Ferrara in the 15th century. He paints a standing Christ with Mary gently holding him. Mary looks more like a Renaissance woman than a queen without her blue veil or golden crown, but Christ is not simply an infant. He stands on his own feet with his left palm facing out and the globus cruciger, a symbol of Christian authority, in his right hand. Standing behind him as a physical and spiritual support, his mother acts as a literal pillar of faith.
Giovanni di Paolo was a painter in the Sienese school who was influenced by the International Gothic style. In this representation of the annunciation, Madonna is enthroned and surrounded by angels. She cradles the infant Christ as he nurses. The curved golden backdrop is enhanced by the full-bodied figures and two miniature angles in the foreground. This is an example of the dual nature of the Mother of God: Mary is engaged in an intimately maternal act and surrounded by the celebratory glory of Heaven.
Botticini was an Early Renaissance painter from Florence who worked throughout the 15th century. Madonna Adoring the Christ Child puts one of the classical poses for Mary in sharp relief with a scenic backdrop found in many Renaissance works. The Madonna in Adoration is an expression of Mary's humility, also called the Madre Pia. She is usually kneeling or bent with her hands clasped in reverence before the infant Christ. The Adoration emphasizes Mary's devotion to God through her devotion to her son.
Lorenzo di Credi was an important figure in the Italian Renaissance and influenced by Perugio and Fra Bartolomeo. In this work, Mary holds an unsteady infant Christ as he stands and reaches upward. The Madonna and Child as a domestic scene, set inside the home, becomes increasingly popular as the Renaissance progresses. This display of motherhood is the most earthly of any of Mary's representations and the pomegranate, a symbol of Christ's passions, is a sharp reminder of mortal suffering.
Bernardino Fungai worked in Siena as the Early Renaissance became the High Renaissance. In this work, Christ stands with an open posture and looks out at the viewer. The pose is less of a mother and son and more of a rigid depiction of the infant as the Son of God. Mary holds up her hand and two saints behind her witness the miracle of Christ. The infant Christ is the focal point of the painting and the gaze of every other figure is drawn to him. This devotional image is one that emphasizes the humility of motherhood and Mary as a servant of Christ.
Durer is infamous for his role in the German Renaissance, but his work was influenced greatly by the movement in Italy. Here Madonna holds up her son inside their home without crown or heralding angels. The Christ child is fully supported by his mother as a real infant would be and their bodies are weighty and corporeal. The domestic interior shows texture and depth and the stark red-blue contrast is a departure from the heavenly glow of Early Renaissance portraits. Mary is portrayed as worldly and as womanly as any mother caring for her son.
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