A Month of Christmas: The Madonna and Child

New Zealand - Scott #715 (1980)
New Zealand – Scott #715 (1980)

A Madonna (Italian: [maˈdɔnna]) is a representation of Mary, either alone or with her child Jesus. These images are central icons for both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The word is from Italian ma donna, meaning ‘my lady’. The Madonna and Child type is very prevalent in Christian iconography, divided into many traditional subtypes especially in Eastern Orthodox iconography, often known after the location of a notable icon of the type, such as the Theotokos of Vladimir, Agiosoritissa, Blachernitissa, etc., or descriptive of the depicted posture, as in Hodegetria, Eleusa, etc.

The term Madonna in the sense of “picture or statue of the Virgin Mary” enters English usage in the 17th century, primarily in reference to works of the Italian Renaissance. In an Eastern Orthodox context, such images are typically known as Theotokos. “Madonna” may be generally used of representations of Mary, with or without the infant Jesus, is the focus and central figure of the image, possibly flanked or surrounded by angels or saints. Other types of Marian imagery have a narrative context, depicting scenes from the Life of the Virgin, e.g. the Annunciation to Mary, are not typically called “Madonna”.

The earliest depictions of Mary date to Early Christianity (2nd to 3rd centuries), found in the Catacombs of Rome. These are in a narrative context. The classical “Madonna” or “Theotokos” imagery develops from the 5th century, as Marian devotion rose to great importance after the Council of Ephesus formally affirmed her status as “Mother of God or Theotokos (“God-bearer”) in 431. The Theotokos iconography as it developed in the 6th to 8th century rose to great importance in the high medieval period (12th to 14th centuries) both in the Eastern Orthodox and in the Latin spheres. According to a tradition recorded in the 8th century,

Icon of the enthroned Virgin and Child with saints and angels, and the Hand of God above. 68.5 x 49.7 cm. Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt, perhaps the earliest iconic image of the subject to survive.
Icon of the enthroned Virgin and Child with saints and angels, and the Hand of God above. 68.5 x 49.7 cm. Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt, perhaps the earliest iconic image of the subject to survive.

Marian iconography goes back to a portrait drawn from life by Luke the Evangelist, with a number of icons (such as the Panagia Portaitissa) claimed to either represent this original icon or to be a direct copy of it. In the Western tradition, depictions of the Madonna were greatly diversified by Renaissance masters such as Duccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, Caravaggio and Rubens (and further by certain modernists, such as Salvador Dalí and Henry Moore) while Eastern Orthodox iconography adheres more closely to the inherited traditional types.

Liturgy depicting Mary as powerful intercessor (such as the Akathist) was brought from Greek into Latin tradition in the 8th century. The Greek title of Δεσποινα (Despoina) was adopted as Latin Domina “Lady”. The medieval Italian Ma Donna (“My Lady”) reflects Mea Domina, while Nostra Domina (δεσποινίς ἡμῶν) was adopted in French, as Nostre Dame (“Our Lady”). These names signal both the increased importance of the cult of the virgin and the prominence of art in service to Marian devotion during the late medieval period. During the 13th century, especially, with the increasing influence of chivalry and aristocratic culture on poetry, song and the visual arts, the Madonna is represented as the queen of Heaven, often enthroned. Madonna was meant more to remind people of the theological concept which is placing such a high value on purity or virginity. This is also represented by the color of her clothing. The color blue symbolized purity, virginity, and royalty.

While the Italian term Madonna paralleled English Our Lady in late medieval Marian devotion, it was imported as an art historical term into English usage in the 1640s, designating specifically the Marian art of the Italian Renaissance. In this sense, “a Madonna”, or “a Madonna with Child” is used of specific works of art, historically mostly of Italian works. A “Madonna” may alternatively be called “Virgin” or “Our Lady”, but “Madonna” is not typically applied to eastern works; e.g. the Theotokos of Vladimir may in English be called “Our Lady of Vladimir”, while it is less usual, but not unheard of, to refer to it as the “Madonna of Vladimir”.

The earliest representation of the Madonna and Child may be the wall painting in the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, in which the seated Madonna suckles the Child, who turns his head to gaze at the spectator. The earliest consistent representations of Mother and Child were developed in the Eastern Empire, where despite an iconoclastic strain in culture that rejected physical representations as “idols”, respect for venerated images was expressed in the repetition of a narrow range of highly conventionalized types, the repeated images familiar as icons (Greek “image”). On a visit to Constantinople in 536, Pope Agapetus was accused of being opposed to the veneration of the theotokos and to the portrayal of her image in churches. Eastern examples show the Madonna enthroned, even wearing the closed Byzantine pearl-encrusted crown with pendants, with the Christ Child on her lap.

Madonna with Child Enthroned tempera on poplar wood in the Italo-Byzantine style, between circa 1250 and circa 1275 Currently in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Madonna with Child Enthroned tempera on poplar wood in the Italo-Byzantine style, between circa 1250 and circa 1275 Currently in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In the West, hieratic Byzantine models were closely followed in the Early Middle Ages, but with the increased importance of the cult of the Virgin in the 12th and 13th centuries a wide variety of types developed to satisfy a flood of more intensely personal forms of piety. In the usual Gothic and Renaissance formulas the Virgin Mary sits with the Infant Jesus on her lap, or enfolded in her arms. In earlier representations the Virgin is enthroned, and the Child may be fully aware, raising his hand to offer blessing. In a 15th-century Italian variation, a baby John the Baptist looks on.

Late Gothic sculptures of the Virgin and Child may show a standing virgin with the child in her arms. Iconography varies between public images and private images supplied on a smaller scale and meant for personal devotion in the chamber: the Virgin suckling the Child (such as the Madonna Litta) is an image largely confined to private devotional icons.

There was a great expansion of the cult of Mary after the Council of Ephesus in 431, when her status as Theotokos (“God-bearer”) was confirmed; this had been a subject of some controversy until then, though mainly for reasons to do with arguments over the nature of Christ. In mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, dating from 432-40, just after the council, she is not yet shown with a halo, and she is also not shown in Nativity scenes at this date, though she is included in the Adoration of the Magi.

By the next century the iconic depiction of the Virgin enthroned carrying the infant Christ was established, as in the example from the only group of icons surviving from this period, at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. This type of depiction, with subtly changing differences of emphasis, has remained the mainstay of depictions of Mary to the present day. The image at Mount Sinai succeeds in combining two aspects of Mary described in the Magnificat, her humility and her exaltation above other humans, and has the Hand of God above, up to which the archangels look. An early icon of the Virgin as queen is in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, datable to 705-707 by the kneeling figure of Pope John VII, a notable promoter of the cult of the Virgin, to whom the infant Christ reaches his hand. This type was long confined to Rome. The roughly half-dozen varied icons of the Virgin and Child in Rome from the 6th – 8th century form the majority of the representations surviving from this period; “isolated images of the Madonna and Child … are so common … to the present day in Catholic and Orthodox tradition, that it is difficult to recover a sense of the novelty of such images in the early Middle Ages, at least in western Europe”.

Madonna by Lorenzo Monaco, from the Monte Oliveto-Altar, Mitteltafel, tempera on wood, circa 1410. Currently in the collections of Palazzo Davanzati, Florence, Italy.
Madonna by Lorenzo Monaco, from the Monte Oliveto-Altar, Mitteltafel, tempera on wood, circa 1410. Currently in the collections of Palazzo Davanzati, Florence, Italy.

At this period the iconography of the Nativity was taking the form, centred on Mary, that it has retained up to the present day in Eastern Orthodoxy, and on which Western depictions remained based until the High Middle Ages. Other narrative scenes for Byzantine cycles on the Life of the Virgin were being evolved, relying on apocyphal sources to fill in her life before the Annunciation to Mary. By this time the political and economic collapse of the Western Roman Empire meant that the Western, Latin, church was unable to compete in the development of such sophisticated iconography, and relied heavily on Byzantine developments.

The earliest surviving image in a Western illuminated manuscript of the Madonna and Child comes from the Book of Kells of about 800 (there is a similar carved image on the lid of St Cuthbert’s coffin of 698) and, though magnificently decorated in the style of Insular art, the drawing of the figures can only be described as rather crude compared to Byzantine work of the period. This was in fact an unusual inclusion in a Gospel book, and images of the Virgin were slow to appear in large numbers in manuscript art until the book of hours was devised in the 13th century.

It was not until the revival of monumental panel painting in Italy during the 12th and 13th centuries, that the image of the Madonna gains prominence outside of Rome, especially throughout Tuscany. While members of the mendicant orders of the Franciscan and Dominican Orders are some of the first to commission panels representing this subject matter, such works quickly became popular in monasteries, parish churches, and homes. Some images of the Madonna were paid for by lay organizations called confraternities, who met to sing praises of the Virgin in chapels found within the newly reconstructed, spacious churches that were sometimes dedicated to her. Paying for such a work might also be seen as a form of devotion. Its expense registers in the use of thin sheets of real gold leaf in all parts of the panel that are not covered with paint, a visual analogue not only to the costly sheaths that medieval goldsmiths used to decorate altars, but also a means of surrounding the image of the Madonna with illumination from oil lamps and candles. Even more precious is the bright blue mantle colored with lapis lazuli, a stone imported from Afghanistan.

Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi, tempera on wood, 1466. Currently in the collections of the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan, Italy.
Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi, tempera on wood, 1466. Currently in the collections of the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan, Italy.

This is the case of one of the most famous, innovative and monumental works that Duccio executed for the Laudesi at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Often the scale of the work indicates a great deal about its original function. Often referred to as the Rucellia Madonna (c. 1285), the panel painting towers over the spectator, offering a visual focus for members of the Laudesi confraternity to gather before it as they sang praises to the image. Duccio made an even grander image of the Madonna enthroned for the high altar of the cathedral of Siena, his home town. Known as the Maesta (1308–11), the image represents the pair as the center of a densely populated court in the central part of a complexly carpentered work that lifts the court upon a predella (pedestal of altarpiece) of narrative scenes and standing figures of prophets and saints. In turn, a modestly scaled image of the Madonna as a half-length figure holding her son in a memorably intimate depiction, is to be found in the National Gallery of London. This is clearly made for the private devotion of a Christian wealthy enough to hire one of the most important Italian artists of his day.

Despite all of the innovations of painters of the Madonna during the 13th and 14th centuries, Mary can usually be recognized by virtue of her attire. Customarily when she is represented as a youthful mother of her newborn child, she wears a deeply saturated blue mantle over a red garment. This mantle typically covers her head, where sometimes, one might see a linen, or later, transparent silk veil. She holds the Christ Child, or Baby Jesus, who shares her halo as well as her regal bearing. Often her gaze is directed out at the viewer, serving as an intercessor, or conduit for prayers that flow from the Christian, to her, and only then, to her son. However, late medieval Italian artists also followed the trends of Byzantine icon painting, developing their own methods of depicting the Madonna. Sometimes, the Madonna’s complex bond with her tiny child takes the form of a close, intimate moment of tenderness steeped in sorrow where she only has eyes for him.

While the focus of this entry currently stresses the depiction of the Madonna in panel painting, it should be noted that her image also appears in mural decoration, whether mosaics or fresco painting on the exteriors and interior of sacred buildings. She is found high above the apse, or east end of the church where the liturgy is celebrated in the West. She is also found in sculpted form, whether small ivories for private devotion, or large sculptural reliefs and free-standing sculpture. As a participant in sacred drama, her image inspires one of the most important fresco cycles in all of Italian painting: Giotto’s narrative cycle in the Arena Chapel, next to the Scrovegni family’s palace in Padua. This program dates to the first decade of the 14th century.

The Madonna of the Book, or the Madonna del Libro, is a small painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, and is preserved in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan. The painting is executed in tempera on panel. It dates from between 1480 and 1483.
The Madonna of the Book, or the Madonna del Libro, is a small painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, and is preserved in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan. The painting is executed in tempera on panel. It dates from between 1480 and 1483.

Italian artists of the 15th century onward are indebted to traditions established in the 13th and 14th centuries in their representation of the Madonna. While the 15th and 16th centuries were a time when Italian painters expanded their repertoire to include historical events, independent portraits and mythological subject matter, Christianity retained a strong hold on their careers. Most works of art from this era are sacred. While the range of religious subject matter included subjects from the Old Testament and images of saints whose cults date after the codification of the Bible, the Madonna remained a dominant subject in the iconography of the Renaissance.

Some of the most eminent 16th-century Italian painters to turn to this subject were Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael, Giorgione, Giovanni Bellini and Titian. They developed on the foundations of 15th century Marian images by Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, Mantegna and Piero della Francesca in particular, among countless others. The subject was equally popular in Early Netherlandish painting and that of the rest of Northern Europe.

The subject retaining the greatest power on all of these men remained the maternal bond, even though other subjects, especially the Annunciation, and later the Immaculate Conception, led to a greater number of paintings that represented Mary alone, without her son. As a commemorative image, the Pietà became an important subject, newly freed from its former role in narrative cycles, in part, an outgrowth of popular devotional statues in Northern Europe. Traditionally, Mary is depicted expressing compassion, grief and love, usually in highly charged, emotional works of art even though the most famous, early work by Michelangelo stifles signs of mourning. The tenderness an ordinary mother might feel towards her beloved child is captured, evoking the moment when she first held her infant son Christ. The spectator, after all, is meant to sympathize, to share in the despair of the mother who holds the body of her crucified son.

In some European countries, such as Germany, Italy and Poland sculptures of the Madonna are found on the outside of city houses and buildings, or along the roads in small enclosures. In Germany, such a statue placed on the outside of a building is called a Hausmadonna. Some date back to the Middle Ages, while some are still being made today. Usually found on the level of the second floor or higher, and often on the corner of a house, such sculptures were found in great numbers in many cities; Mainz, for instance, was supposed to have had more than 200 of them before World War II.[16]≈ The variety in such statues is as great as in other Madonna images; one finds Madonnas holding grapes (in reference to the Song of Songs 1:14, translated as “My lover is to me a cluster of henna blossoms” in the NIV), “immaculate” Madonnas in pure, perfect white without child or accessories, and Madonnas with roses symbolizing her life determined by the mysteries of faith.

An ivory cover of the Codex Aureus of Lorsch, Germany, circa 800.
An ivory cover of the Codex Aureus of Lorsch, Germany, circa 800.

In Italy, the roadside Madonna is a common sight both on the side of buildings and along roads in small enclosures. These are expected to bring spiritual relief to people who pass them. Some Madonnas statues are placed around Italian towns and villages as a matter of protection, or as a commemoration of a reported miracle. In the 1920s, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed statues called the Madonna of the Trail from coast to coast, marking the path of the old National Road and the Santa Fe Trail.

Angels and the Nativity have been portrayed on Christmas stamps, but the most popular theme seems to be the Madonna and Child. In fact, every year since 1978 the United States Postal Service has issued a new Madonna and Child Christmas stamp. The art for the Madonna and Child stamp is a newly created work, but rather it is a reproduction from some of the most well-known of the world’s masterpieces. For instance, the very first Madonna Christmas stamp (Scott #1321), issued in 1966, featured Mary and the infant Jesus from a painting by Flemish Renaissance painter Hans Memling. The stamp did not reproduce the com­plete painting, but only the detail of Mother and Child. The following year, this same stamp was reissued in a slightly larger size to feature more of the painting (Scott #1336). The original Memling masterpiece hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., as do most of the originals chosen for the Madonna and Child Christmas stamps.

The terra cotta sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Andrea della Robbia seen on today’s featured stamp, Scott #715 issued by New Zealand on October 1, 1980, was also depicted on the 1978 Madonna and Child stamp released by the United States on October 18 of that year (Scott #1768). For today’s article, I opted for the New Zealand version due to its larger size and the fact that I am trying to feature stamp issuing entities other than the United States for this Month of Christmas (there is at least one U.S. stamp forthcoming in the next few days).

United States - Scott #1768 (1978) first day cover, ArtCraft cachet
United States – Scott #1768 (1978) first day cover, ArtCraft cachet

In 1978, New Zealand’s annual Christmas sets each had the lower value depicting a Grand Master painting, the middle value a church building related subject, and the higher value a design related to Christmas. For the 1980 set, the 10-cent stamp features the “Madonna and Child with Cherubim” by Andrea della Robbia, a terra-cotta sculpture covered with enamel glaze using a technique developed in the 1430s and 1440s by his uncle Luca. The glazed coating gives the colours of della Robbia’s works a degree of durability impossible for sculpture that was simply painted. The sculpture is part of the Andrew W. Mellon Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C.

The 25-cent stamp (Scott #716) features a drawing of Saint Mary’s Church, New Plymouth – the oldest stone church in New Zealand. Construction began in March 1845 and the church opened for worship in September 1846. The Land Wars of the 1860s strongly affected the Parish and tombstones and memorials in the church bear witness to the conflicts between settlers and local Maori at that time. The 35-cent denomination (Scott #717) illustrates a scene typical of Christmas in New Zealand, a couple having a Christmas Day picnic in the height of summer. The Southern Hemisphere’s summer at Christmas time has led to radically different traditions from their Northern Hemisphere counterparts. The festive season is more likely about the beach and picnics rather than the traditional snow of the north.

All three of the stamps were printed using the photogravure process on granite paper, comb-perforated 11¾.

Born in Florence on October 24, 1435, Andrea della Robbia was the son of Marco della Robbia, whose brother, Luca della Robbia, popularized the use of glazed terra-cotta for sculpture. Andrea became Luca’s pupil, and was the most important artist of ceramic glaze of the times. He carried on the production of the enameled reliefs on a much larger scale than his uncle had ever done; he also extended its application to various architectural uses, such as friezes and to the making of lavabos, fountains and large retables. One variety of method was introduced in his enameled work. Sometimes he omitted the enamel on the face and hands of his figures, especially in those cases where he had treated the heads in a realistic manner; as, for example, in the tympanum relief of the meeting of St Domenic and St Francis in the loggia of the Florentine hospital of San Paolo, a design suggested by a fresco of Fra Angelico’s in the cloister of St Mark’s.

One of the most remarkable works by Andrea is the series of medallions with reliefs of the Infant Jesus in white on a blue ground set on the front of the foundling hospital in Florence. These child-figures are modelled with skill and variety, no two being alike. Andrea also produced, for guilds and private persons, a large number of reliefs of the Madonna and Child varied with much invention. These are frequently framed with realistic yet decorative garlands of fruit and flowers painted with coloured enamels, while the main relief is left white. The hospital of San Paolo, near Santa Maria Novella, has also a number of fine medallions with reliefs of saints, two of Christ Healing the Sick, and two fine portraits, under which are white plaques inscribed DALL ANNO 1451 ALL ANNO 1495. The first of these dates is the year when the hospital was rebuilt owing to a papal brief sent to the archbishop of Florence.

Madonna and Child with Cherubim by Andrea della Robbia, glazed terra cotta, circa 1485. Currently in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Madonna and Child with Cherubim by Andrea della Robbia, glazed terra cotta, circa 1485. Currently in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Arezzo possesses a number of enameled works by Andrea and his sons: a retable in the cathedral with God holding the Crucified Christ, surrounded by angels, and below, kneeling figures of San Donato and San Bernardino; also in the chapel of the Campo Santo is a relief of the Madonna and Child with four saints at the sides. In Santa Maria in Grado is a noble retable with angels holding a crown over a standing figure of the Madonna; a number of small figures of worshipers take refuge in the folds of the Virgin’s mantle, a favorite motive for sculpture dedicated by guilds or other corporate bodies. Perhaps the finest collection of works of this class is at La Verna, not far from Arezzo. The best of these, three large retables with representations of the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, and the Madonna giving her Girdle to St Thomas, are probably the work of Andrea himself, the others being by his sons.

In 1489, Andrea made a relief of the Virgin and two Angels, now over the archive-room door in the Florentine Opera del Duomo; for this he was paid twenty gold florins. In the same year he modelled the tympanum relief over a door of Prato cathedral, with a half length figure of the Madonna between St Stephen and St Lawrence, surrounded by a frame of angels’ heads. In 1491, he was still working at Prato, where many of his best reliefs still exist. A bust of San Lino exists over the side door of Volterra Cathedral, which is attributed to Andrea. Other late works of known date are a magnificent bust of the Protonotary Almadiano, made in 1510 for the church of San Giovanni de’ Fiorentini at Viterbo, and a medallion of the Virgin in Glory, surrounded by angels, made in 1505 for Pistoia cathedral. The latest work attributed to Andrea, though apparently only a workshop production of 1515, is a relief representing the Adoration of the Magi, made for a little church, St Maria, in Pian di Mugnone, near Florence.His workshop was carried on by his son Giovanni della Robbia after his death on August 4, 1525.

The 2018 U.S. Madonna and Child stamp (Scott #5331) features a detail of an oil-and-gold-on-panel painting by Italian Renaissance artist Francesco d’Ubertino Verdi (1494–1557), known as Bachiacca. Dating from the early 1520s, the painting is part of the Jack and Belle Linsky Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. William J. Gicker served as art director for this stamp, and Greg Breeding was the designer. The first day of issue ceremonies were held on October 3 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The 2018 U.S. Madonna and Child stamp (Scott #5331) features a detail of an oil-and-gold-on-panel painting by Italian Renaissance artist Francesco d’Ubertino Verdi (1494–1557), known as Bachiacca. Dating from the early 1520s, the painting is part of the Jack and Belle Linsky Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. William J. Gicker served as art director for this stamp, and Greg Breeding was the designer. The first day of issue ceremonies were held on October 3 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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