The Virgin Mary
Why is the Madonna so popular in art?

The Virgin Mary, or the Madonna, is one of the most popular tropes in Western religious art. Since 431 CE, when a council of Christian bishops met in Ephesus and canonized Mary as Theotokos, or the God-bearer, her holy figure has been used to represent a wide range of virtues. The singular madonna may gesture benediction & prayer on behalf of humanity, the madonna and child shows humanity’s embrace of the holy son, the Madonnas of humility sit on the ground to display their humble piety, the adoring madonna kneels at the foot of the christ-child. Madonna Lactans breastfeed the young Jesus to impart wisdom, the Virgin Hodegetria points out Christ’s divinity to humanity, Annunciations show Mary visited by an angel announcing her virgin conception, Assumptions of the Virgin show Mary ascending, often alive, to heaven, and the Black Madonnas depict a dark-skinned Mary, connecting to syncretic or cross-cultural faiths in the maternal divine.

Let’s talk about cults. The Council of Ephesus had a lot on their plate when it came to the Virgin Mary. Until the year 431, Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople, held that Mary could be called Christotokos, or Christ-bearer but not God-bearer, reflecting his belief that Christ was not a singular being, but divinity and humanity trapped in the same body. This went over poorly with the 250 bishops summoned to Ephesus, and Nestorius was charged with heresy and deposed, and the unexpected result of this orthodox drama was the canonization of the so-called Cult of Mary.

Cults, in the historical sense, were not personality-driven fringe religious movements with a taste for Kool Aid, they were, as Roman philosopher Cicero described them cultus deorum—the “cultivation of the gods” or “giving the gods their due.” The Cult of Mary, then, was the religious practice of her veneration, and by defining Mary as “God-bearer” the Council changed worship of Mary from idolatry to glorification of a divine mother. The rest, as they say, is 1600 years of history.

As one of the longest-standing figures in Western Art, it’s fun to watch the Virgin Mary evolve over time. She’s a fluid character, embodying both the somber faith of the Gothic era in Carlo Crivelli’s insouciant Madonna and Child Enthroned, and the warmth and humanism of the Italian Renaissance in Giampietrino’s Madonna and Child. And the modern era takes Mary even further. She is transformed into a vampiric temptress by Edvard Munch, a faceless every-mother by Mainie Jellett, a degenerate nightmare by Alice Neel, and by Henry Ossawa Tanner, back to the form she must have had more than two millennia ago—a young, confused girl, by herself.

When looking at these many, many madonnas, I find it interesting to take note of whether the artist is a man or a woman. With notable exceptions, like Tanner, male artists approach Mary as an icon, an archetype. Virtuous maiden, stately matron, grieving mother, ocassionally femme fatal. She is what her role proscribes her to be. Women artists, one the other hand, capture over and over again the humanness of the character. Elisabetta Sirani’s serene Mary is the cover of this article. Julia Margaret Cameron discovers both the beauty and the exhausting, constant labor of motherhood in the remarkable photograph Madonna with Children. Marianne Stokes depicts the new mother lost in a much-needed nap, and Barbara Longhi gives the ever-patient woman a book to read during her centuries-long modeling session.


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Reed Enger, "The Virgin Mary, Why is the Madonna so popular in art?," in Obelisk Art History, Published June 03, 2015; last modified November 08, 2022,

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Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Front, Giotto di Bondone

Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Front Giotto di Bondone, 1310

Angels Entertaining the Holy Child, Marianne Stokes

Angels Entertaining the Holy Child Marianne Stokes, 1887 – 1893

Assumption of the Virgin, Titian

Assumption of the Virgin Titian, 1516 – 1518

Chellini Madonna, Donatello

Chellini Madonna Donatello, 1450

Coronation of the Virgin, Diego Velázquez

Coronation of the Virgin Diego Velázquez, 1635 – 1636

Degenerate Madonna, Alice Neel

Degenerate Madonna Alice Neel, 1930

Doni Tondo, Michelangelo

Doni Tondo Michelangelo, 1507

Feast of Rose Garlands, Albrecht Dürer

Feast of Rose Garlands Albrecht Dürer, 1506

Fiesole Altarpiece, Fra Angelico

Fiesole Altarpiece Fra Angelico, 1424 – 1425

Head of the Virgin, Elisabetta Sirani

Head of the Virgin Elisabetta Sirani, 1638 – 1665

Holy Family with Sts Anne and Joachim, Elisabetta Sirani

Holy Family with Sts Anne and Joachim Elisabetta Sirani, 1662

Immaculate Conception, Francisco de Zurbarán

Immaculate Conception Francisco de Zurbarán, 1635

Madonna, Lorenzo Monaco

Madonna Lorenzo Monaco, 1400

Madonna, Edvard Munch

Madonna Edvard Munch, 1894

Madonna and Child, Luca della Robbia

Madonna and Child Luca della Robbia, 1475

Madonna and Child, Carlo Crivelli

Madonna and Child Carlo Crivelli, 1480

Madonna and Child, Giampietrino

Madonna and Child Giampietrino, 1510

Madonna and Child, Giampietrino

Madonna and Child Giampietrino, 1510 – 1525

Madonna and Child, Barbara Longhi

Madonna and Child Barbara Longhi, 1580 – 1585

Madonna and Child Enthroned, Carlo Crivelli

Madonna and Child Enthroned Carlo Crivelli, 1472

Madonna and Child with Scroll, Luca della Robbia

Madonna and Child with Scroll Luca della Robbia, 1455

Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist Orsola Maddalena Caccia, 1625

Madonna Enthroned, Giotto di Bondone

Madonna Enthroned Giotto di Bondone, 1310

Madonna Laboris (Sketch), Nicholas Roerich

Madonna Laboris (Sketch) Nicholas Roerich, 1936

Madonna of the Cherries, Giampietrino

Madonna of the Cherries Giampietrino, 1525

Madonna of the Rosary, Caravaggio

Madonna of the Rosary Peter Paul Rubens, 1607

Madonna with Child and Saints, Raphael Sanzio

Madonna with Child and Saints Raphael Sanzio, 1502

Madonna with Children, Julia Margaret Cameron

Madonna with Children Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864

Maesta of Santa Trinita, Cimabue

Maesta of Santa Trinita Cimabue, 1280 – 1290

Mary, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Mary Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1914

Pietà, Michelangelo

Pietà Michelangelo, 1498 – 1499

Pieta, William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Pieta William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1876

Pietà, Gustave Moreau

Pietà Gustave Moreau, 1876

Polyptych of Bologna, Giotto di Bondone

Polyptych of Bologna Giotto di Bondone, 1330 – 1335

Polyptych of Perugia, Piero della Francesca

Polyptych of Perugia Piero della Francesca, 1470

Polyptych of the Misericordia — Detail of the Madonna, Piero della Francesca

Polyptych of the Misericordia — Detail of the Madonna Piero della Francesca, 1460 – 1462

Portable Icon with the Virgin Eleousa, Medieval Art

Portable Icon with the Virgin Eleousa 1300

Purissima, Joseph Stella

Purissima Joseph Stella, 1927

Rest on the Flight to Egypt, Caravaggio

Rest on the Flight to Egypt Caravaggio, 1597

Standing Madonna in Mourning (G.Z.), Monogrammist GZ or Gabriel Zehender

Standing Madonna in Mourning (G.Z.) Monogrammist GZ or Gabriel Zehender, 1520

Study for Spring Madonna, Mainie Jellett

Study for Spring Madonna Mainie Jellett, 1939

Study for the Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Study for the Annunciation Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

The Adoration of the Magi, Hieronymus Bosch

The Adoration of the Magi Hieronymus Bosch, 1475

The Adoration of the Magi, Hieronymus Bosch

The Adoration of the Magi Hieronymus Bosch, 1515

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Anton Raphael Mengs

The Adoration of the Shepherds Anton Raphael Mengs, 1764 – 1765

The Annunciation, Jan Van Eyck

The Annunciation Jan Van Eyck, 1434 – 1436

The Annunciation, El Greco

The Annunciation El Greco, 1596 – 1600

The Annunciation, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Annunciation Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850

The Annunciation, Edward Burne-Jones

The Annunciation Edward Burne-Jones, 1879

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Annunciation Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

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