The Virgin Mary in Art


The Virgin Mary has been portrayed in art since the dawn of the Christian era. According to orthodox tradition, the Virgin Mary herself blessed the first portraits made of her by St. Luke and conferred on them the power to save whoever venerated them [1]. It is beautiful to think that the Virgin Mary herself may have established and blessed the profound link between artwork, devotion, and salvific efficacy. Tradition holds that St. Luke wrote four icons of the Virgin Mary after Pentecost [2], and that these icons afterwards served as prototypes for Christian iconographers.




Marian Art and “The Enigma of Beauty”

Dostoevsky spoke about the link between salvation and beauty, particularly about how the beauty of a work of art can lead one to lose one’s faith or, on the other hand, gain it [3]. This salvific power is at the heart of the question of art. Dostoyevsky reflects on the “enigma of beauty” by asking whether beauty saves or is in need of being saved?

The Representation of the Virgin Mary

Since the beginning, there has been a conflict regarding the representation of the divine in Christian art, due to the prohibition of graven images in the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Ex 20:3-5). However, the Church very quickly understood that making images of Christ, of the Virgin Mary, and of the saints does not constitute an act of disobedience to this commandment, because the prohibition in the Decalogue concerns idolatry, that is, adoration of images which have been given a divine status [4]. The Church sees a fundamental distinction between adoration (latria), reserved for God the Creator alone, and veneration (dulia), directed to the saints and angels, creatures who accompany us on the road, presenting our prayers to God and helping us to come to God. Veneration suitable for the Virgin Mary is “hyperdulia”, because this veneration surpasses that due to the angels and saints.

The Virgin Mary, the New Eve

Experiencing the salvific power of beauty through Marian art can provide the beginning of an answer to the enigma of beauty. The Virgin Mary, the New Eve, is the only creature in whom truth, beauty, and goodness coincide. Preserved from the stain of Original Sin, Mary never lived the rupture between truth, ethics (the good), and aesthetics (the beautiful) [5], a rupture which leads to such temptations as aestheticism, i.e. searching for beauty apart from any ethical question. The figure of the Virgin Mary – perfectly true, beautiful, pure, and good – cannot but touch and inspire artists. She is a model of virtue and beauty, and artists highlight different virtues of the Virgin Mary in their works, according to their particular era and spiritual sensibilities. There thus arise various types of images of the Virgin Mary, such as the Virgin of humility, of wisdom, of prayer, etc.

Moreover, the link uniting Christ and the Virgin Mary is at the heart of Marian artistic representation. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “All the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well.”[6]

Thus, representing the Virgin Mary is simply another way of honoring the incarnation of Christ and the divine motherhood of Mary through countless types of images: Madonna and Child, figuring the infancy of Christ and the role of Mary, with some representations focusing particularly on her tenderness; images of the suffering Virgin participating in the Passion of Christ, such as the Virgin pierced by seven swords or a Pieta; glorious Virgins, such as coronation images; the Virgin mercifully interceding for man; etc.

Artistic Experience and Religious Experience

The Church encourages artists and has developed what Pope Benedict XVI names a “friendship”[7] with artists and the arts. The work of Christian art is not simply illustration, but truly a “re-presentation” in the strict sense of the word, something which makes present to us what is veiled, hidden, and belongs to the order of mystery. It is from this distance, in a presence made from absence, that the artistic experience of the supernatural comes alive. Artistic and religious experience can thus meet in contemplation, delivering us from tangible reality and opening us to what is beyond.

The Universality of Marian Art

To speak of Marian art exhaustively is an impossible task, since the Virgin Mary has been celebrated in all art forms throughout the world: in architecture, sculpture, visual arts (painting, drawing, etc.), mosaics, stained glass, music, sacred and secular literature, theater, dance, and even cinema.

The Development of Marian Art

The representations of the Virgin Mary have been influenced by many factors: the ways in which the Bible describes the Virgin Mary in the New Testament or prefigures her in the Old Testament [8], the progressive development of Marian dogmas, the freer development of Christian art owed to the peace of Constantine, the institution of Christianity as the state religion in the Roman empire at the end of the 4th century, the subsequent expansion of Christianity and development of devotional sites, the entire history of the Church, the relations between the Church and artists, [9] etc. The development of Marian devotion also brought about many works of art linked to Marian apparitions [10], to the particular artistic sensibilities of the era, to the relations among artists themselves, to places of Marian devotion, etc. All these factors together gave rise to so many types of representations, and innumerable works, that it is impossible ever to exhaust their richness and variety.

Let us enter into the world of Marian art…

[1] To read about the four Marian icons attributed to St. Luke, see Aleteïa

[2] See the icons of the Virgin Mary, in the Marian Encyclopedia

[3] In The Idiot, Dostoevsky has the prince Myshkin speak about the link between beauty and salvation (bk 3, ch. 5). In another passage, the prince recounts how Dostoyevsky himself had been forcibly struck by the painting “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” by Hans Holbein the Younger, a work showing Christ’s dead body with a realism so strong it seems almost to mock the idea of the Resurrection. A work of art can thus make lead to loss of faith, and also to gaining it.

[4] About the veneration of images in the Marian Encyclopedia, see

[5] See Genesis 3:6: “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes.”

[6] CCC 1161:

[7] Meeting with artists. Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI

[8] About the Virgin Mary in literature, see in the Marian Encyclopedia

[9] Meeting with artists. Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI

[10] Dictionary of Apparitions of the Virgin Mary, published by Rene Laurentin in 2007, gathers over 2,400 Marian apparitions, of which 15 are officially recognized by the Church.



To know more


To know more

About the relationship between the Church and art

-Letter to artists by Pope Saint John Paul II

-Address to artists by Pope Benedict XVI

About Marian dogmas, in the Marian Encyclopedia

About the dispute over images and the Second Council of Nicaea, see the Marian Encyclopedia 



Organisation of the section


The presentation of Marian art highlights several important points. It provides a brief study of the history of Marian iconography, as well as how the development of Marian doctrine gave rise to various types and styles of Marian representation. The presentation of Marian art also shows several special subjects of iconography which are linked to the life of the Virgin Mary and which allow for a universal artistic approach, joining together many arts. Finally, the study focuses on several artistic techniques, including architecture, icons, music, literature, film, and even mysterious images not made by human hands, or acheiropoieta.