says, Madonna is a picture of the Virgin Mary
, when she is not depicted as participating in the events of the Bible
. Thus, a nativity scene
is not a madonna picture, although they are often mistakenly referred as such.
First madonna portraits were painted on the walls of the Roman catacombs during the first century AD. These portrayed a praying Virgin, with her hands raised and palms facing upwards. It was not until 100 years later that pictures of the Virgin with the babe Jesus on her arms started to emerge.
In the year 431 AD St. Mary was finally declared the real mother of Jesus - before that, it was debated whether Jesus had any human ancestry at all, a view which in effect reduced Mary to the status of a mere container for the godly embryo. After the decision, pictures of the Virgin became increasingly popular, even on secular buildings.
During the following centuries, Byzantine artists developed several types of Madonna pictures, which spread into the west through the Russian icon art. Each Byzantine madonna had her own characteristic: there was the gently kissing madonna, madonna suckling Jesus, the pathfinder madonna and several others. Often, Mary was portrayed as sitting on a throne, clothed in blue robes, with the child on her knee. During the Middle Ages, this seated madonna became the model of feminine beauty, an epitome of heavenly virtues.
After the strict formality of the Middle Ages, gothic art brought forth a change in the way the Virgin was depicted. Instead of majestic, strictly formal figures, painters and sculptors started to prefer images of soft gentleness. Madonna started to smile, even stand up. She became much more accessible to mere humans - instead of a queen of heavens, she was now a caring, even a grieving mother.
During the baroque period, madonna was again shrouded in mysticism. Painters often placed her among angels or groups of grim-looking saints. A new type of apocalyptic madonna was created: Saint Mary standing on top of the moon, clothed by the sun. As a matter of fact, this was the last new type of madonna to be created - even today, pictures of the Virgin follow the thousand-year-old Byzantine patterns.