I asked one of my favorite artists, Heather Sleightholm of Audrey Eclectic, to share about Marian tradition in Christian art during this month of May, month of Our Lady. I think you’ll love her beautiful post.–Haley
During my first semester in college, I had the crazed idea to take an art history class at 8:30 in the morning. I would stumble out of my dorm room, sometimes still wearing the shower shoes I had forgotten to take off, and head bleary eyed across campus to learn about the art of the ancient world.
Strangely enough, this class is one of the ones I remember most fondly, despite the early hour, because it sparked my interest in old world art—how history and faith intermingle in a stunning image—something that is so important to me as an artist today.
Some of the art that made the biggest impression on me was Christian art— from ancient to baroque. It was fascinating that these same stories could be painted continuously as they captured the imagination of generation after generation, and yet they still remained engaging and relevant.
It’s amazing to me to think about how the Christian story has been told and retold through the centuries as its importance and inspiration hasn’t waned. In fact, many days I am inspired to pick up my own paint brush and add my own ideas to this vast library of art— although I am obviously no DaVinci, Raphael or Chagall.
For many artists enamored by the Christian subject, Mary— Our Lady, The Blessed Virgin, Theotokos— tends to be a fascinating central figure. She, like Jesus, leads most of her life in the most important parts of the New Testament. The annunciation, the nativity, the miracle working, the crucifixion, the resurrection. Mary is there, from the literal moment of the beginning of the story of Christ.
We first meet Mary in iconography and religious icons in depictions of The Annunciation. This scene finds young Mary approached by the Angel Gabriel with a message from God asking her to become the earthly mother of Christ.
These scenes are usually fascinating to observe as they can tell as much about the era it was painted in as it does about the actual Bible story. Is Mary submissive, happy, hesitant? Is she dark haired or fair? Is the setting in an intimate every day space, or in an almost other-worldy structure?
Not too long ago, a friend of mine who is a deacon in the Orthodox Church relayed to me the Orthodox view of the Annunciation, which really opened up some pieces of art for me.
In that tradition, Mary is not surprised by the presence of Gabriel. In fact, she sees him in the Temple throughout her girlhood, keeping watch, if you will. So when Gabriel approaches her with his message, it is not his presence she reacts to, but the magnitude of his question.
And although the Annunciation has been painted in a number of settings, I have a soft spot for the tradition that Mary is approached while she weaves a tapestry for the Temple. As a fiber art lover, I totally love this. Mary would have had many every day skills of a woman of her place and time, but I love the idea of Mary being crafty!
This concept of the temple tapestry also threads back into the story later because, as legend goes, this is the very tapestry that rips in the Temple when Christ dies on the Cross.
From the Annunciation we usually skip forward to the scenes of the Nativity, of the Holy Family together in the stable (or cave, as many paintings will depict and which is probably more historically accurate for the time and place) and paintings of Mary with the infant Jesus.
Throughout the centuries many aspects of Mary change—hair color, dress, even location; but some things remain eternal. Mary is present and focused. And she is fully embracing what is unfolding in her life.
Which is amazing when you think about it; she is a young woman far from home, who’s made an arduous and very long journey, goes into labor and is forced to give birth in the crudest of settings.
Yet she is often seen lovingly staring at her child, as if they were the only two souls present in that moment, or gazing out with regal peace at the viewer. No matter what, Mary is a woman who, while perhaps not in control, is at peace with what is happening around her. She is strong, protective, wise beyond her years. These elements of her personality and character shine through the ages in a way that is both awe inspiring and comforting. She seems super human, yet you know she is human.
Perhaps most poignant of all Marian art is art created at the end of her son’s life. No parent ever wants to see their child pass before they do. And to see your precious little one (because they will always be your precious little one, no matter if they’re a 33-year-old bearded man) killed in such a brutal way would be beyond heartbreaking. Yet, we do not see Mary waver.
Instead, we see images such as the Pieta, with Mary holding the broken body of her son with grim fortitude. Her face is mournful, but there is still peace. She is sad and her heart is broken, but she has the wisdom to know this is not the end of the story.
She is also remarkably young looking in this final act, as she is in most Christian art. This is because artist tended to give her constant youth as a symbol of her purity.
Of course there are other very important artistic elements and symbols that have come to be associated with Mary and icons in general, that are usually easy to pick out if you know to look for them.
Elements as basic as color have significant meaning, especially in icons. You will notice that Mary is often painted in shades of red and blue. Red is a reference to her humanity; to earthiness, to blood. Blue is a sign of purity, of the heavenly, of her divine connection to God and His Son.
Other elements, especially flowers—such as the Lily, Rose, Iris, fleur-de-lys, and Pansy—are all symbols, in various ways, of purity and virginity.
Fruit symbols such as pears can symbolize the fruit of her womb (except the apple, of course, which is usually a throw-back to Eve and Mary being the ‘new Eve’) and almonds are used to symbolize divine favor.
Stars are another favorite symbol of Mary, and have helped create many beloved names for her such as “Stella Maris” (Star of the Sea), “Stella Jacobi” (the Star of Jacob), “Stella Matutina”,(the Morning Star) and “Stella non Erratica,” (the Fixed Star.)
Sometimes, 12 stars are painted around the Madonna as a symbol of the Twelve Apostles.
Of course, as artists often do, changes will be made. Mary will go through many incarnations as an artist tries to translate her from the web of their own imagination and faith into a piece of art. Mary may be blond and blue eyed; she might be Asian or Hispanic. I’ve even painted Mary in a thicket of snow covered pine branches holding baby Jesus in a homespun quilt.
She has such a transcendent quality about her, that she can be painted in thousands of ways, yet still remain wholly herself. That’s pretty amazing to think about!
No matter the changes or fashion of the era, Mary is timeless. And her strength of character and serene fortitude is something that countless artists, myself included, have tried to capture with our brushes or chisels or hands for more than a millennia. Over time, our art will fall into the past or be forgotten entirely. But I have a feeling that Mary….she will always endure.
Heather Sleightholm is painter and art lover from ‘where the wind comes sweeping down the plains.’ She lives and in a 99 year old house with her husband, two children, and assortment of animals in northeastern Oklahoma. When she’s not painting or wrangling children, she enjoys reading, knitting, and visiting interesting and quirky destinations. Heather is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and a member of The Episcopal Church.