Madonna and Child: Iconography and Byzantine Art

The image of the Madonna and child has been held in high esteem for many centuries. It has been present throughout the history of the church, and depicted in many ways by countless artists. The Madonna and Child image is among several common images used as icons. Christianity has utilized iconology to enhance worship and teach lessons of the Biblical stories.  The church was accused of idol worship and was required to defend the reasons for images they used.  Despite the accusations the icons had to overcome, the art always managed to re-appear. Icons were initially designed in the byzantine style. It originated from ancient styles, but acquired influence from the Middle East as well. Byzantine art has been adopted in icons and carried throughout Europe to be used in Churches across the country.

Iconography is defined as an art representing or illustrating ideas or concepts by pictures, figures, and images. Iconographies are a collection of images of a particular religious tradition. The icons used in Christianity are Holy images of that faith. Some of the oldest images have been found in simplistic, basic forms in catacombs, gravesites and other places of ancient Christian worship. Often included in the paintings were the cross, fish, lamb, shepherd, and other symbols that represented Jesus Christ.

The use of icons was popular by the fifth century and presented in various media, including paintings, mosaics, and frescoes. The church did not originally have any issue with the presentation of images of the Lord and His saints. The art was used as just another medium with which to praise Jesus and teach about God, not unlike music and poetry. Icons were present in churches, homes, and public buildings.

The Orthodox church used the presence of icons to teach other believers about God in order to help them better understand Christ, His parables, and the stories surrounding Him. This was so that one could walk into an Orthodox church and have the Bible stories laid out on the walls for anyone to see. There were icons included of the Old and New Testament, so that the mostly illiterate people in the Christian faith could be taught by the events and individuals depicted in the art. An example is by the artist Niccolo di Ser Sozzo Tegliacci, who painted a Madonna and Child that would remind the onlooker of the miracle of the Virgin mother and the humble origins of the savior who existed in the world as a human.

Icons were also very commonly used as assistance to prayer and meditation.  They held the people’s focus to prevent the mind from wandering or straying and to maintain attention on prayer. The images served as a visual reminder of Jesus Christ as savior, and the significant acts and events associated with His life. Other icons acted as a reminder of God’s constant presence each person’s life and the entire world as well.

With the individual’s focus during worship on these various images, some Christians began to renounce the use of icons, seeing it as idolatrous. Many icons were destroyed, and their destruction was followed by persecution of people discovered in possession of any. Despite this, many still secretly kept the icons. The Church defended the presence of the icon images because of their use in liturgical and didactic purposes. Their argument was that if God became man in the human person of Jesus Christ, then His image could be illustrated. To claim that His image cannot be created is to imply that Jesus was not completely human. Due to the church believing in Jesus Christ as both fully human and fully God, it is heretical to claim otherwise . With this, they argued that Jesus might be depicted along with His Holy Mother and saints.

Christians do not worship the painted wood with the image on it . They simply respect the person whose image is represented. People admire what the individual stood for and find inspiration in how they lived and died. This differs from the idol worship of pagans because they believe the deity exists in the stone or wood. Orthodox Christians never claimed this and believe the icons are only images of the person depicted. The image itself has no power, but the person shown does.  By the end of the eighth century, the use of icons was restored.

Byzantine art jumpstarted the use of images of Jesus, Madonna and Child, the saints, and other inspirational people.  The style of art was produced in the eastern Roman Empire, from the sixth century towards the end of Constantinople’s existence in 1453. This style originated from he classical heritage of ancient Greece, with the exception that the ancient Greek art for the gods was replaced by Christian ethic and values. The purpose of classical art was to glorify man, but the purpose of Byzantine art is the glorification of God and Son.

There were effects of this change of Christian morals in art. The nude figure was banished, and clothing was sometimes painted over previously nude images, such as in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. Instead, reminders of the roots in Judaism replaced the prior preoccupation with the human body. Figures of God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints and martyrs of Christian tradition were the nearly singular focus of Byzantine art.

A good representation of a piece with various figures is in 1337, Gaddi created the Cappella Maggiore for the Santa Croce in Florence. It had eight frescoes that started with the Angel Michael presenting Seth a branch from the tree of knowledge and ended with Emperor Heraclus carrying the cross into Jerusalem.  Saints and Popes surrounded the Madonna and Child in the center of the chapel.  Byzantine icons were “sermons in form and color”. The icons were to bring forth veneration, which is respect or awe inspired by the dignity, wisdom dedication, or talent of a person. In the art, there was a decrease of desire for the figures to look naturalistic. The realistic portraits replacement with idealized images of Christ, saints, and martyrs became the norm in Byzantine art.

Sculpture was rarely used in the Byzantine world, with the intention of using artistic skill as a service to the one true belief instead of devoting art to the creation of pagan idols or to support personal vanity and sensual pleasure like the ancients commonly did.  This method of making few sculptures was to deter from supporting personal vanity and sensual pleasure like the ancients frequently promoted. Byzantine artists wanted to form an image of the deep inner or spiritual nature of the person depicted. With this intention, the simplification and stylization was justified. Early Christian art focused on basic, dynamic lines and areas of color instead of precise form. Facial features were standard on all figures, and bodily shapes looked flattened with simple, swirling lines of clothing that draped. The images were disembodied and the human figure was depicted with simple lines and brilliant color. The composition was usually a direct frontal pose with the standard Byzantine facial type of dominant eyes and a penetrating stare. The typical background had figures suspended in space. A great example of a piece of art that reflects these styles is the Rucellai Madonna, by artist Duccio da Buoninseqna. The Madonna has the typical large eyes, though she is from a later period and has a slightly arched poise with her head tilted away. Her cloak hangs over her body they way Byzantine art usually did, making figures formless. The angels in the background seem to be floating and kneeling in space with no depth and distance. The wood is also embellished with gold paint.

Characteristics of Byzantine art emerged from times as far back as the Roman Empire in the 4th century, when eastern influences began gaining popularity in replacing classical traditions. The Eastern influence really integrated with the traditional art when Constantinople was founded in 324. The city opened a new Christian scene on the eastern half of the empire along with the artistic styles already existing.

The Justinian age was through the fifth and sixth century. He was the last emperor and devoted his time and power to reconquering Italy, North Africa and Spain.  He ruled with imperial absolutism that founded the Byzantine state. This involved the imposition of Christian views on all aspects of people’s lives by law, which was very significant for the spread of Christianity. An  image of Madonna and Child that was uncovered, intact,  in the fourth century Basilica under St. Clements. The image is believed to originally be a painting of Emperor Justinian’s wife, Theodora, during 533-535 as one of the gifts from the Emperor while Pope John II was head of the church. Around three centuries later Theodora and her two ladies in waiting were revised into Madonna and Child with St. Catherine and St. Euphemia.

There was a decline of Byzantine art with the rise of Islam, due to the Islam religion viewing the image of the human form as blasphemous. Emperor Leo III, in 730, banned the use of Jesus, Mary and the saints. This was part of the iconoclastic period, which was on and off from around 726 until 842. Imperial legislation prevented the production and use of figural images, which included icons. While these restraints were in effect, the cross became the most accepted decoration inside the Byzantine churches. Icons in areas like Byzantium, Constantinople, and Nicea were plastered over or completely destroyed. Few of the icons from this early Byzantine era came through the iconoclastic period intact.  The restrictions on the icons were lifted, and the Macedonian Renaissance followed that period in the ninth and tenth centuries, during which the empire improved with an increase in art, architecture, and churches.

A few things occurred during these middle and late Byzantine periods. Each saint began having a distinct portrait type, and scenes from the saint’s life were detailed in the background or around the edges of the icon in the center. Also, miniature mosaics began to be more common, and precious metals were added along with the sculpted covers. The quality of art from ancient times was preserved because of a lot of the gold and silversmith work. The Byzantine artists developed in mosaics and icon painting and improved architectural structures to be grander in size and style, such as the Hagia Sophia.

Byzantine religious art spread throughout Europe by trade and conquest to Italy and Sicily. Once in those countries,  the Byzantine art integrated with the regional art through the twelfth century to become an important influence in Italian Renaissance art. At the same time, Byzantine art was widely used in Eastern Europe, especially in Russia, and became deeply imbedded in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Byzantine art is just one of the many styles icons exhibited. Icons have been present in the church for worship, in order to remind Christians of Biblical stories, and to tell of Christ’s life. They also provide something to focus on when worshiping and praying in hopes of avoiding distractions. The Madonna and Child is one of the main icons used in churches both then as well as now, and though her image has altered through the centuries, she comes from ancient Byzantine origins. The Byzantine style was influenced by its area and location in the world, and the city of Constantinople allowed the arts of the Middle East to filter through and take root in the traditional artwork it reached.

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