Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the most beloved subject of Christian art for several centuries. Beginning in the Middle Ages, she became the central link between heaven and earth, her faith, purity and sacrifice making her the most powerful intercessor as the Mother of God.
Little is known historically about this woman, which made her an almost blank canvas upon which artists could interpret her. They followed the doctrines of their times and adapted Mary to reflect them. Marian art became a genre unto itself. The Renaissance was the richest period for it and the greatest artists of that era brought all their skills to bear in honoring her.
She became the Madonna, "my lady" in Italian. In thousands of portraits, we see her serenely receiving the news of the immaculate conception from an angel; grieving after the crucifixion, and her glorious ascension to heavenly enthronement.
And, of course, we see portraits of Mary as a young mother with her infant son. Millions of Christians around the world celebrate Christmas today as the day on which she became a mother, the most revered in history.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota has a trove of Madonna and Child paintings in its permanent collection and, with the help of Virginia Brilliant, the Ringling's associate curator of European art, we chose a few of them to commemorate Christmas.
Art history has claimed numerous works of Mary as aesthetic masterpieces. We should remember, though, that the primary purpose of all of them was spiritual. They conformed to codified beliefs in the Catholic Church about Mary while providing an emotional context for the church's teachings.
Stylistically, we see obvious differences in each. The difference in content may not be as obvious, but they are equally reflective of the time and place in which they were created. In all of them, the common factor is Mary as both singular and universal.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.