Published: December 2004
As might be expected of a Jesuit university, Boston College is home to dozens of images of the Madonna and Child, represented in media that include stained glass, illustrated manuscripts, and paintings. A computerized search of the McMullen Museum of Art’s permanent collection database alone turns up 17 works with “Madonna/Virgin/Blessed Mother/Mary” and “Christ/Child” in the title.
According to art historians, the earliest known “virgin and child” themes appeared in ancient Egyptian renderings of Isis, goddess of fertility and motherhood, and her son Horus, who, in the Egyptian creation myth, was conceived after the death of his father Osiris. Isis and Horus were often depicted seated, with Horus in his mother’s lap, or being nursed by her. These motifs appeared in Greek and Roman art, and surfaced in later Christian depictions of Mary and Jesus.
The oldest known Madonna and Child image dates from the beginning of the third century A.D., and is found in a fresco in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. It was not until 431 that depictions of the Madonna and Child began to proliferate. In that year, Pope Celestine I reaffirmed that the Virgin Mary, while fully human, could be honored as the Theotokos (God-bearer, or Mother of God). Following this, faithful Christians began to create or commission images of Mary and the child Jesus to serve as objects of devotion. In 787, the Second Council of Nicea decreed that images of Christ, his mother, and the saints were to be venerated, and the Madonna and Child became one of the most popular subjects within European visual art. As of 1949, one in every 20 pictures in London’s National Gallery was titled Virgin and Child.
Over the centuries, artists have attached a set of symbolic meanings to clothing and objects in these works. Mary is traditionally depicted wearing a red tunic, representing love and religious aspiration, and a blue mantle that represents constancy and purity. She is often shown radiating a halo or a mandorla (a halo surrounding the entire figure). The Christ Child is sometimes shown with an object such as a bird (the soul), an apple (conscience), grapes (Eucharistic wine), a dove (the Holy Spirit), seeds of grain (Eucharistic bread), cherries (fruit of paradise), a pomegranate (Resurrection), or a lamb (Christ’s sacrifice). The Madonna and Child motif known as the Sacra Conversazione, in which a retinue of heavenly and earthly companions accompanies the pair, became an important artistic theme during the Italian Renaissance.