Artwork of the Month - December 2011
Artist: 19th century Italian School
Medium: Oil on canvas
Status: Permanent collection
Item No.: GMAG 5896
Images of the Virgin Mary in Art
The earliest known image of the Virgin Mary dates back to the 2nd century. It was another 300 years before Mary's enduring presence in Christian iconography was secured, when the Council of Ephesus gave her the title 'Mother of God'.
Images of the Virgin Mary were then regularly seen in Byzantine and medieval art. Later during the Renaissance her image continued to be represented, particularly as most art was commissioned by the Church.
The Story Before Christmas
Around Christmas we naturally think of images of Mary holding the newly born Jesus, along with depictions of the Nativity. However, this painting of Mary illustrates one of the most significant events leading up to Christmas. The Annunciation is the moment in the Bible when the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear God's son.
Although the Angel Gabriel is not shown, the presence of three putti indicates heavenly contact. The Virgin Mary is depicted reading a book on a lectern and it is this that most clearly represents the Annunciation. This image became popular during the 11th century, emphasizing Mary's spirituality. Initially it recounted how the Virgin was reading her psalter when the Angel Gabriel appeared, but later on this referred to Mary reading the prophesy:
And the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son . . .