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Enthroned Madonna and Child

Holy Family

Madonna and Child with Saints and Sacra Conversazione

Heavenly Visions

To Cite: Gretchen Hirschauer, "Madonna and Child," National Gallery of Art, last modified December 12, 2016,

In Depth: Madonna and Child

Gretchen Hirschauer, Associate Curator, Italian and Spanish Paintings


Raphael, The Alba Madonna, c. 1510, oil on panel transferred to canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection 1937.1.24

Raphael (artist) 
Marchigian, 1483 - 1520 
The Alba Madonna, c. 1510
oil on panel transferred to canvas
overall (diameter): 94.5 cm (37 3/16 in.)
framed: 139.7 x 135.9 x 14 cm (55 x 53 1/2 x 5 1/2 in.)
Andrew W. Mellon Collection 

Tender images of the Virgin Mary with her son are among the most beloved in Christian art. Even early images from about the 6th century AD depict her gently cradling or supporting a haloed child or infant on her lap. Devotion to Mary in her dual role as the human mother of Jesus and a divine entity reached a peak in the 14th to 16th centuries, creating great demand for depictions of the mother and child. The term Madonna is Italian for “my lady” and was conferred as a title of respect or high rank, but came to be synonymous with the mother of the holy child and also with the physical representation or manifestation of the two. Small works of art depicting this theme were generally objects of personal worship and prayer intended for intimate use in a private setting, usually a home or a small chapel. Larger and more expansive scenes were produced for altars in public churches, often commissioned by a family or guild as an expression of devotion and an outward display of wealth. Over the centuries different themes emerged, but always with the mother and child as central figures in the scene.

In this feature, the visual story of the Madonna and Child is broadly interpreted through the National Gallery of Art’s extensive collection of paintings, sculpture, and graphic arts. These works portray the full range of Madonnas, from Byzantine depictions of an elegant Queen of Heaven holding a miniature adult to later representations of a humble young woman seated directly on the ground with a cherubic child. Artists expanded their narratives and imaginative skills with stories of Christ’s birth in a cave or a stable surrounded by rough shepherds or richly-dressed magi and the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt. A renewed interest in the natural world from the 15th century onward led other artists to explore nature in greater and more realistic detail. Related themes, like the Holy Family (including enigmatic Joseph), the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints, and heavenly visions, are also discussed. Works of art in this feature range in date from the mid- to late 13th century to the 18th century, and while primarily Italian in origin, there are also Netherlandish, German, Dutch, and Spanish examples.

See works in the collection depicting the Madonna and Child here

Madonna of Humility

The Madonna of Humility theme appeared in Italian painting at about the same time that the plague, or Black Death, devastated Europe in 1348. Probably Sienese in origin, this new Madonna subject rapidly spread to neighboring Florence and from there throughout France, Germany, and Spain. The Virgin is seated directly on the ground or a pillow with the Christ child in her lap, emphasizing her humanity, almost as if she were a peasant woman and not an elegant Queen of Heaven. She humbles herself to submit to and accept divine will. 

Madonna of Humility images are characterized above all by intimacy, both of emotion and of physical touch. Almost always created as objects of personal devotion, the paintings were immediately and sympathetically understood by the viewer. The tragic future of the pair may be subtly apparent, but motherly love and tenderness are most important here. 

The Virgin seated on the ground likely follows the tradition of the nativity scene, where mother and child are often part of a larger, more elaborate composition, with angels, kings, or shepherds surrounding them in adoration (see Nativities and Adorations). The earliest depictions of the Madonna of Humility included celestial symbols—sun, moon, and stars—and the infant was usually seen nursing. The subject quickly evolved, as seen in Lorenzo Monaco’s panel depicting the child tugging at his mother’s veil (fig. 1), or in Mantegna’s great masterpiece showing the Virgin as an ordinary mother cradling her child, devoid of time or place (fig. 2). In some 15th-century paintings, the Madonna appears on a sumptuous brocaded cushion, or even on a bare floor. Raphael’s magnificent tondo of the early 16th century, The Alba Madonna (fig. 3), still maintains the intense emotional connection between the figures, but the bucolic landscape surrounding them and the complicated pyramidal composition have become nearly as important. The Madonna of Humility can also be related to the theme of the Madonna and Child in a Garden.

See works in the collection depicting the Madonna of Humility here.

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Madonna and Child in a Garden

The garden has always occupied a place of great importance in religious and secular thought and imagery. The Garden of Eden, or earthly paradise, described in the Old Testament book of Genesis included the tree of life, signifying the very beginnings of humankind, as well as the tree of knowledge, both good and bad, which led to man’s downfall. Medieval illuminated manuscripts are full of depictions of earthly paradise as a bountiful and luscious garden. These ideal terrestrial gardens also came to symbolize celestial or heavenly paradise. Flowering meadows (see Nativities and Adorations) could represent both the terrestrial and celestial realm.

Nearly every flower or plant depicted in these garden scenes could have some symbolic connotation, although they may be included simply for their beauty and decorative effect. The Virgin Mary came to be associated with many flowering plants, but in particular with the lily, violet, and rose; the rose was also sacred to the ancient pagan goddess Venus. The rosebush and its connection to Mary was an important element of the iconography of the medieval church. Domenico Veneziano placed his Madonna and Child in front of a flowering hedge, the red rose a symbol of martyrdom and love and the white rose associated with chastity (fig. 1). Particularly revered in the 12th-century writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and other theologians, Mary is called the “rose without thorns,” as she is untouched by original sin. This refers to the legend that roses had no thorns before the fall of man in Eden.

A renewed interest in the natural world in the 15th century led artists to explore and emulate nature in greater detail. The theme of the Madonna in an enclosed garden gave artists ample opportunity to display their skill at portraying flowers and fruit with increased realism, which they combined with a growing devotion to Marian themes. The poetic love passages to a bride in the Old Testament Song of Solomon suggest the imagery of the walled garden, “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse, a spring locked, a fountain sealed” (4:12). Mary, the bride of the Church, was referred to as the hortus conclusus, or closed garden, which suggested her virginity. Images of the Annunciation—the angel Gabriel’s revelation to Mary that she would bear the Son of God—also were often set in an ideal garden. Very high garden walls surrounded the Madonna and Child in northern European art (fig. 2) or they could be barely suggested, as in Dürer’s exquisite engraving (fig. 3), in which the pair sit on a turf bench or grassy mound shored up by wooden planks, like a Madonna of Humility. Other generic types of garden landscapes, such as Tura’s jewellike and expressive panel with stylized orange trees and white blossoms, were equally popular as objects of personal devotion (fig. 4).  

See works in the collection depicting the theme of Madonna and Child in a Garden here.

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Nativities and Adorations

The Nativity of Christ is one of the central themes in Western religious art. It celebrates the moment immediately after Jesus’s birth as described in the New Testament book of Luke, wherein the newborn child lies in a manger under the watchful gaze of Mary and Joseph. The brief account provided by Luke does not mention the ox and the ass so familiar to the story, but their presence is implied by the manger and they are mentioned in the Old Testament prophecies of Isaiah and later apocryphal gospels (early writings that were later excluded from the Bible). The earliest known Nativity scenes are found on 2nd- to 3rd-century Christian sarcophagi (stone burial caskets) and later mosaics, where much of the imagery is derived from pagan mythologies. Byzantine tradition located the birth in a grotto or cave (fig. 1), not a stable, with Mary lying on the ground. The cave may represent the passage from dark to light brought about by salvation or recall the womb from which life itself emerges. Duccio also shows several scenes happening at the same time: adoring angels, attentive animals, the annunciation to the shepherds, and midwives bathing the child fill the crowded panel.

The writings of the 14th-century mystic Saint Bridget of Sweden profoundly changed the iconography of the subject. In her Revelations, Bridget recounts her mystical vision of Christ’s birth: on her knees in prayer and meditation, Mary gives birth and the child lies nude on her cloak emanating light. The Nativity scene was transformed into one of adoration (figs. 2 and 3). Lorenzo Lotto’s figures kneel in fervent veneration before their son (fig. 4). Mary crosses her arms over her chest in a traditional greeting and gesture of respect. Joseph, almost an afterthought in many nativity scenes, now shares a place of importance with Mary, and adds to the domestic appeal of the panel. The crucifix on the wall and other unusual elements in the panel suggest a complex meaning, but at the same time the image can be appreciated for its simple tranquility.   

The humble shepherds were the first visitors to honor the newborn child, according to the book of Luke, but they are not commonly included in Nativities until the 13th or 14th centuries. Later, Giorgione’s tattered, kneeling shepherds became main characters. They infuse the divine scene with an element of humanity and draw the spectator into the event that takes place in a lyrical, serene Venetian landscape (fig. 5). While the theme of the Adoration of the Shepherds tends to focus on the spiritual expressed in human and familiar terms, the Adoration of the Magi returns the story to the realm of the elegant and grand, albeit pious, festival.  

The Adoration of the Magi, as recorded in the book of Matthew, illustrates the arrival in Bethlehem of “Magi from the East” who sought the newborn King of the Jews. The important and complex feast of the Epiphany, or Jesus’s first appearance to the pagan world, is celebrated on January 6. No further description of the wise men was given; their place of origin and their number is only speculation. That number was set at three in the apocryphal gospels, and they traditionally have been called kings or wise men. They have been depicted as from the three continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe, or they have symbolically taken on the appearance of the Three Ages of Man: youth, middle age, and old age. Sometimes they combine both customs. The theme became particularly popular in 15th-century Italy when the powerful Medici family in Florence adopted the festival as their own (figs. 6 and 7). Every five years, on the feast day, a courtly procession reenacting the long journey of the magi wound through the streets of Florence with the male members of the Medici family taking on key roles. Artists painted sumptuous fabrics, exotic animals, soldiers, servants, and fantastic architecture in an elegantly choreographed scene that often included arcane symbolism. These worldly depictions could also be extremely spiritual or pious and were full of meaning on many levels, both sacred and profane.  

See works in the collection depicting Nativities and Adorations here.

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The Flight into Egypt

Like most of the chronicles surrounding the birth of Christ, the story of Mary and Joseph’s journey across the Sinai desert into Egypt with their newborn son is told by Matthew (2:13–15) and was further elaborated in the apocryphal gospels. After the wise men, or magi, had departed Bethlehem, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to flee to Egypt to escape from jealous King Herod’s wrath, for Herod had ordered the massacre of all male children under the age of two (known as the Massacre of the Innocents).    

The flight story is not commonly illustrated until after the 10th century, and its popularity grew when imaginative details, including rare apocryphal episodes with dragons or brigands were added to the iconography.  Martin Schongauer’s engraving (fig. 1) is populated with exotic vegetation, lizards, and a parrot, and shows a date-palm tree bowing down with the help of five angels at the child’s command so that the hungry travelers can eat its fruit and enjoy its shade. Because the palm branch aided the family, it became forever linked with holy martyrs. 

In the early 15th century the flight subject was ideal material for artists’ new expression of nature and the interest in painting landscape, as seen in Carpaccio’s luminous depiction in the Venetian countryside and Mary’s luxurious, metallic brocade cloak in contrast to the soft, gray hide of the gentle donkey (fig. 2). 

A modification of the theme, called the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, wherein the family pauses on their journey, appeared in the late 14th century. The narrative tendency of the earlier account evolved into a more iconic rendition of mother and child. Gerard David’s beautiful scene is set in a tranquil Flemish landscape, and the mother and child seated on the ground evoke the Madonna of Humility type (fig. 3). While the donkey grazes, Joseph beats tree branches for nuts, a variation on the story of the bending palm. A stream miraculously emerges from the rocks at the lower right to satisfy the family’s thirst, another of the apocryphal legends. The vegetation in the foreground, plantain, mint, strawberry, fern, and violet, all have symbolic connotations, as do the bunch of grapes in Mary’s hand, which refer to Eucharistic wine.

In Maerten van Heemskerck’s depiction of the same tale (fig. 4), the identifying attributes of Joseph and the donkey are removed from center stage to become part of the backdrop. Indeed, the painting often was simply called a Madonna and Child. Again the emphasis is on the story’s symbolic, rather than its narrative aspect; Christ holds a butterfly, associated with the Resurrection, and sits awkwardly on a crystal globe with a cross on top, which alludes to his dominion over heaven and earth.

The holy family was believed to have stayed in Egypt for seven years, according to Jacobus de Voragine’s 13th-century text The Golden Legend. The story of their return from Egypt across the Red Sea was rarely illustrated until later centuries, when it once again became a narrative theme.

See works in the collection depicting the theme of The Flight into Egypt here.

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