The Virgin of Vladimir, a magnificent 12th century icon from Constantinople sent to Kiev. A painting that has been worshiped to death; probably all that is left of the original are the faces of the Mother and Child. The rest is later restorations.
The Donskaya Virgin by Theophanes the Greek, a variation on the Virgin of Vladimir by one of the few medieval Russian icon painters who was not ordained.
The Blue Virgin from one of the oldest surviving windows in Chartres Cathedral, from the end of the 12th century
The North Rose window of Chartres Cathedral given by Queen Blanche of Castille. The window is about Christ's first coming. The Virgin and Child sit in the center surrounded by the ancestors of Christ described in the opening of the Gospel of Matthew,and by prophets who foretold His coming.
Fra Angelico, The Linaioli Tabernacle
Fra Angelico, The Cortona Polyptych
Donatello, The Madonna of the Clouds
Luca della Robbia, The Madonna of the Apple
Jan Van Eyck, The Dresden Triptych
Jan Van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin. The artists of the Renaissance identified the Virgin Mary with the natural world, especially in this painting where Jan Van Eyck includes one of his most splendid landscapes in the background, a view of a city and surrounding countryside with distant mountains lit by the morning sunlight.
Jan Van Eyck, detail of the landscape from the Rolin Madonna. The painting is probably based on the Venite recited at the morning office in most books of hours at the time. As the Venite is a hymn to God the Creator, so is this painting as we view a sparkling morning landscape through the Trinitarian symbolism of three arches.
Rogier Van Der Weyden, center panel of the Columba Altarpiece
Rogier Van Der Weyden, detail from the Columba Altarpiece, to my mind, one of the finest Madonnas ever to come out of the Flemish painting tradition.
Botticelli, Madonna of the Pomegranite
Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat; Botticelli was a conservative reactionary who wanted to return to something like the romance and transcendence of earlier Pre-Renaissance painting. In an age when most artists used oil paints, Botticelli resolutely painted in tempera, by then a very old fashioned painting medium. Like all conservatives who want to return to the past, he ended up innovating. Mimicking the styles of the past would lead into the dead end of pastiche. So Botticelli created a very original and personal style.
Giovanni Bellini, a Renaissance Madonna in a beautiful landscape with echos of the old Byzantine icon tradition well known in Bellini's native Venice.
Giovanni Bellini, The Barbarigo Madonna; one of Bellini's best and least visited Madonnas in a church on the island of Murano near Venice.
Giovanni Bellini, detail from the Barbarigo Madonna, a splendid landscape.
Titian, Madonna and Child with Saint Catherine and John the Baptist; Titian's magnificent continuation of the natural poetry begun by Bellini.
Raphael, The Sistine Madonna; There's good reason why Raphael's Madonnas are such classics and so popular. He creates the impression that the Virgin and Child with 2 saints are descending from the realms of light to greet us. Raphael perfectly calibrates just the right amount of emotion, compositional harmony, and dynamism to create a perfectly gratifying image. This was the last Madonna Raphael painted entirely by his own hand. It was originally commissioned by Pope Julius II for the church of San Sisto in Piacenza. The Pope intended it to be a gift to Piacenza for the city's support for his military campaign to subdue the Papal States in Emilia Romagna. After the Pope's unexpected death, Raphael turned it into a memorial picture including Pope Julius' features on the figure of Saint Sixtus. Some historians argue that the wooden part that the adorable cherubini are leaning on is the Pope's coffin. Perhaps. St. Barbara on the right looks, not out at us, but down at the cherubs and the "coffin." At that time, St. Barbara was invoked at the time of death, along with the Virgin Mary. The parting curtain can be seen in a lot of Italian tomb art since the 13th century. It is as though the bed curtains part and the Virgin Mary and the host of Heaven arrive to greet the deceased. To my mind, it's a Christian version of a Japanese Buddhist raigo painting.
Correggio, Rest on the Flight Into Egypt with St, Francis
Nicholas Poussin, Holy Family on the Steps; Poussin's most magnificent variation on Raphael's work.
Rembrandt, Virgin and Child, etching; a Protestant interpretation of a traditionally Catholic subject
Giovanni Batista Tiepolo; one of Tiepolo's regal Rococo Madonnas
Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child, pastel; not a religious picture, but I believe it belongs here. Her work is in that long tradition of Madonnas that begins with the Renaissance, though here secularized and brought into the modern era. While Cassatt discarded the transcendence, she lost none of the tenderness inherent in the subject matter.
Henry Moore, Virgin and Child carved for St. Matthew's Church in Northampton in 1943; a 20th century attempt to return to some kind of suggestion of transcendence in an age where all the traditional language and imagery of religion are in doubt.
My favorite remarks on this subject come not from Dante or Saint Bernard, but from a scientist and author, a secularized Jew, Dr. Jacob Bronowski:
Every so often some visionary invents a new Utopia: Plato, Sir Thomas More, HG Wells. And always the idea is that the heroic image shall last, as Hitler said, for a thousand years. But the heroic images always look like the crude, dead, ancestral faces of the statues on Easter Island -- why, they even look like Mussolini! That is not the essence of the human personality, even in terms of biology. Biologically, a human being is changeable, sensitive, mutable, fitted to so many environments, and not static. The real vision of the human being is the child wonder, the Virgin and Child, The Holy Family.
When I was a boy in my teens, I used to walk on Saturday afternoons from the East End of London to the British Museum, in order to look at the single statue from the Easter Islands which somehow they had not got inside the Museum. So I am fond of these ancient ancestral faces. But in the end, all of them are not worth one child's dimpled face.
Happy Holidays to All.