The Sublime Image of Our Lady in Art

“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”

-Archangel Gabriel (Luke 1:28)

The thought and history of the Blessed Mother in art is a magnificent subject that has enraptured Christians for over twenty centuries.

Art is inseparable from Mary and reflects the high place she holds in global world history. In art she appears as she is seen through the eyes of faith.   

Her influence on art forever surpasses that of any other woman.  She is the most sublime female character whoever walked the face of the earth and who was ever depicted in visual art. 

The contribution that Mary has brought to art history has been immense and indisputable through the ages.  The works that depict Our Lady are like sermons and poems, lasting for centuries, reflecting truths of Biblical texts and aspects of salvation history. 

These works are part of a universal heritage of art through the ages that includes great masterpieces, works of outstanding artistry by acknowledged masters. 

All the works found through Catholic churches across the lands depict moments of high inspiration that touch the higher nature of man, striving to make permanent holy thoughts and divine realities. 

The faithful gather in parish churches large and small, decorated with icons, frescos and statues of the Mother of their Redeemer. 

Priests extoll the greatness of Mary and the lay faithful and religious alike find themselves beneficiaries of a long tradition as heirs of the art and its message – the kingdom of God is at hand. This message of the announcement of the kingdom accompanies the message of the art and is promised to all who can see with the ear of their heart. 

Mary’s role is key in the history of civilization.  She played no small part on the historical timeline where the quest of the old Graeco-Roman world of paganism met Christianity and was redeemed and transformed by the Gospel, experiencing a transmutation into the flowering of medieval Christianity. 

With the coming of Christ the structure of civil society was recast, with the dignity of the human person raised to the forefront, leaving no place for lack of morals or the degradation of women, putting an end to the age of cruel and oppressive despotism with a lack of individual human rights. 

Mary has been more than a symbol of beauty and holiness, she has been a force for great achievement.  The world was thus transformed, through her example and high ideals.  Christian morals, justice and charity flow from the personal example of Mary.

To be poor and humble, a woman, the Mother of a monotheistic God, a vessel of purity and love in the divine image – all this was a consummation that the pagan world could never have dreamed possible. 

The new social order that was ushered in with Christianity was purchased by the agonies of a long struggle over the centuries where the pre-Christian world was finally given a respite by the light and joyous victory brought by a new-found freedom created in the hearts of men. 

From the time the magnificence of this new world dawned on the minds of men, they commenced at first slowly, to develop a theology of Mary, revealing her majestic presence in salvation history.    

The oldest known depiction of Mary is seen in a fresco image in the Roman catacombs of Priscilla on Rome’s Via Salaria dating from about 150 AD.  This depiction is proof that artists were depicting the lineaments of Mary from an early time.    

The love, veneration and praise for Jesus through Mary is seen clearly in the image.  Our Lady is depicted with a halo and holding the infant babe in her arms.  Haltingly and timidly, Christian art was developing at that time, evidenced in this and other early images. 

The early images in the catacombs reflect what can best be described as a mixture of graffiti with other more serious images.  This reflects the tributes of praise and glorification that poured fourth from the hearts of the earliest Christians.

The epithet of “pagan” has no application to the Catholic communities that first produced these works of art depicting Our Lady. 

Christianity at that time was finding new expression in theology, philosophy, poetry, architecture, music and painting.  All of these are various forms of art.  Visual art included the early creation of icons, described as “windows” to heaven and symbols of inspired piety. 

All the arts were joining in a great chorus that developed into gradual and successive stages of art depicting Our Lady.  Each century built upon the previous centuries, and from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries they were blended into a triumphant crescendo of religious praise and adoration, with Mary in a prominent place next to Christ.

These centuries are remembered preeminently as the period of the high Middle Ages, the time when the European content saw the highest flowering of Christianity, a time when art flourished and Christ ruled in the arts as in society itself. 

To this day, love, veneration and praise for Christ the Son of Man implies also praise for his mother.  Next to her Son, she is the chief actor in the scandal of the cross and its triumph, in the tragedy and triumph of the Redemption. 

With Mary a new vision of beauty dawned on the world.  All nations of the world have laid tributes at her feet.  To the people through the centuries she is “Our Lady,” “Mother of God,” “Queen of Heaven,” and among other titles, “Mother Most Holy.”    

Medieval theologians found Mary prefigured in every part of the Old Testament.  The poetry of the Middle Ages rang forth with her praises, like that of the poet Dante lamenting an insufficiency to express her perfections:

“I saw the Virgin smile, whose rapture shot

Joy through the eyes of all that blessed throng:

And even did the words that I possess

Equal imagination, I should not

Dare, the attempt her faintest charms to express.” 

At the same time architecture attained its highest perfection in the cathedrals and churches built in her honor, and in their adornment with sculpture that recaptured ancient beauty.

Renaissance artists such as Fra Angelico, Lippi, Cimabue and Giotto depicted paintings of Mary that cause the very soul to cry out in jubilation.  The legend of Fra Angelico comes to mind where it is said that while he slept, angels worked on his images in glorifying Mary. 

The paintings of Fra Angelico, favorites of many, are on display at the Dominican convnet of San Marco in Florence, Italy where many countless pilgrims and tourists and art enthusiasts visit each year.  Historians have elevated his works to a spirituality which many have suggested art has never excelled, creations of such tremendous mystical fervor and love. 

The great Catholic artists of the centuries have worked for the greater glory of God, not for the glory of art.  The best Catholic artists of the Renaissance were governed by religious faith and fervor while art was seen as a vehicle to religious contemplation.

In the words of Ruskin, the English art critic and philosopher, speaking of the time of Raphael: “In early times art was employed for the display of religious facts, now religious facts were employed for the display of art.  The transition, though imperceptible, was consummate: it involved the entire destiny of painting.  It passed from the paths of life to the paths of death.”   

In proportion as faith has grown dim in the modern era, the light has left the colors of much modern art as fewer great Catholic artists exist.  Let us pray for a new renaissance that will revive and never forget the religious quality in original painted images of Our Lady that are both artistic and sacred.  Art is forever the handmaid of the Catholic religion and her liturgical praxis. 

Great art does not die but has a rebirth in future generations.  Even though our age is tuned into the electronic hum of the screen, there is hope.  Technology governs our lives; but not by technology alone does man live.  The technological world of today, like the world of science and progress in more recent centuries, has much to learn from Mary as a force superior to what is fleeting in this world.