Not Renaissance: Marian symbolism & the constancy of Virgil

March 23, 2011

 "If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development."

The 'rebirth' of Greco-Roman traditions is often the short form explanation of the Renaissance. This unfortunate shortcut does the study of the period a great disservice - glossing over centuries of important historical development.

With particular regard to sacred themes, and the depiction of the Virgin Mary, painters of the Southern and Northern Renaissance were the inheritors of a visual tradition spanning millennia. It is the intention on this post to provide a summary of an element of Marian iconography known as the Virgo Lactans, or Galaktrophousa in Greek - and trace its journey into the Renaissance. I will also relate a similar example mirrored in words more than images, the constancy of Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, best known to us as Virgil.

This panel from the San Bardi Altarpiece is now on display in Berlin

Virgo Lactans/Galaktrophousa is the depiction of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding, something present in Christian art from its earliest days, throughout the Middle Ages and right up to the Renaissance. In the example above we have the Madonna and Saints panel from the San Bardi Altarpiece, a stunning work by Botticelli completed c.1485. 

My study of this theme arose out of an observation of Botticelli's posing of figures that was suggested by classical sculpture. The most famous example of this is of course the Birth of Venus depicted as a Venus pudica(modest Venus).  Even the figure of Flora in Primavera seems to have been modelled on a classical statue, but the pose slightly altered. 

We have no firm evidence of which classical marbles Botticelli worked from, though there is a note from 14th Century writer Benvenuto Rambaldi describing classical marble figures in Florence during the 1370s.

It must be noted  here that the famous Venus de' Medici did not arrive in Florence until the 17th Century - hence can not be cited as a specific influence to Botticelli.

Botticelli also travelled to Rome in 1481, as part of a delegation sent by Lorenzo de' Medici to decorate the Sistine Walls. During this time, Botticelli may have observed more classical nudes. It is still a technique used by artists today, to practise the drawing of figures by sketching sculptures. Live models  were not always freely available, hence drawing from sculpture was an inexpensive yet effective way for artists in training to hone their skills. 

 Did Botticelli model his figures on classical sculpture? Here's a visual to help you decide!

When you first look at the San Bardi Altarpiece, it seems as if  Botticelli's Mary is in a pudica pose, mirroring that of his famous Venus. However, if we look closely, we see that she is actually exposing her left breast to feed the Christ child. This work is hence not actually a Venus pudica, but a remarkable example of a visual tradition spanning millennia - the Virgo Lactans(Suckling Virgin). 

It is unfortunate that writers of the past such as Vasari omitted discussion of  Coptic, Medieval and Byzantine influences on Renaissance depictions - it is a deeply fascinating topic that presents as many challenges and thrills as trying to link these early modern works to the pagan mysteries of Greece and Rome. 

Instead, we must also look to Constantinople, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and even the British Isles for inspiration. Excepting those with a special interest in Byzantine and Medieval studies, the great preoccupation with Renaissance studies seems to be with the Greco-Roman influence on European culture in the 15th Century and beyond. This in itself is amusing to contemplate, as so many of the remnants of classical literature that shaped the Renaissance survived because of Byzantine, Medieval European and Arab scholars dedicated to classical learning to enrich their understanding of the world, and of scripture.

Discussion of the Virgo Lactans is not without its controversy. In  the Catholic Church, the 1563 Council of Trent forbade the depiction of the Nursing Virgin due to the nudity suggested by the exposed breast. The 25th Decree of the Council famously stated:
"...every superstition shall be removed ... all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust... there be nothing seen that is disorderly, or that is unbecomingly or confusedly arranged, nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God."
The Virgo Lactans continued in Orthodox art - even to this day, but the image of the suckling Christ became a taboo in Italian art immediately after the Council of Trent. That being said, enterprising artists still found a way to depict the theme of charity and nurturing suggested by the act of breastfeeding - the most notable example being Caravaggio's Seven Acts of Mercy - where the figure of Pero is depicted feeding her father Cimon according to the tale of Roman Charity. For some period after the Council's ruling this depiction became an iconographical constant for nourishment and charity, supplanting that originally held by the Virgo Lactans motif.

Pero feeds Cimon in Caravaggio's Seven Acts.

Even before the advent of Christianity, the image of a suckling child was prevalent in artistic representations. Without venturing into the quagmire of Religious debate, anyone interested in tracking a visual theme through history must acknowledge the presence of this natural act in artwork. Of the myriad influences that shaped the depiction of Mary in the act of nurturing, the Egyptian Goddess Isis was the most likely precursor -with the myriad statues and images of her nurturing an infant Horus - a visual tradition that extended into Greco-Roman times, eventually transplanting to the story of Roman Charity described by Valerius Maximus in the 1st Century CE, but itself having antecedents in Greek and Etruscan mythology. 

 A Pompeii fresco depicting Roman Charity - 1st Century CE

The earliest known surviving Christian depiction of Mary in the act of feeding is to be found in the Catacombs  of Saint Priscilla in Rome - dated between the 2nd and 3rd Century CE. 

Below I have created a composite of images to visually track the Virgo Lactans motif over time and into the Renaissance. It is just a sampling, there are of course numerous examples in Byzantine and Coptic art which populated the Early Christian and Medieval era (click the preceding links for examples).
Is Giorgione's figure(bottom right) "unimaginable" as a suggestion of a Madonna? No.

Of particular interest to me was the relationship of this iconographical marker to Giorgione's Tempest. Debate surrounding this work seems to be untiring and endless. Among the most recent scholarship examining Tempest as a work with an overriding sacred theme is Frank DeStefano's paper interpreting the work as a depiction of The Rest during the Flight into Egypt. In this examination,  much attention is given to explain why a nude Madonna was not 'unimaginable' as previous commentators have described. Looking at Giorgone's female figure compared to its predecessors (as in the composite above), it is impossible to not be reminded of the Virgo Lactans motif and what it represents.

The mention of The Rest is not in the Gospels specifically, but there is an analogous passage in Revelations which has been used as the foundation for the myriad depictions of The Rest in art. It is here that the concept of nurturing is mentioned. 
"Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days."
In a 2008 article in Renaissance Studies- Giorgione's Tempesta - A Virgilian Pastoral by Rudolf Schier, it was argued that Giorgione's enigmatic work deliberately borrowed from well-known iconographical markers from antiquity and Christian sources. These carefully chosen symbols were arranged in a manner to promote familiarity, but also divergent thinking about the meaning of the painting - a deliberate ambiguity that the owner of the work used to revel in when presenting it to his guests. In this sense, Giorgione's figure represents an amalgam of the classical nude and the Virgo Lactans motif.

Despite Schier's suggestion of a Virgilian inspiration, his piece does not suggest that Tempest is a literal illustration of Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, but borrows symbolic elements from it simply because the Fourth Eclogue, like Tempest itself represents the fascinating historical counterbalance between Christian ideals and classical scholarship.

Illustration from the 5th Century Manuscript of Virgil's work held at the Vatican, the Vergilius Romanus

It is important to delineate Virgil from other Greco-Roman influences in Italian art and literature. Like the image of the suckling child, the writings of Virgil were ever present throughout the Early Christian era and on through the Middle Ages. There was no need to 'resurrect' Virgil from the mists of the past. The Vergilius Romanus, a 5th Century manuscript of Virgil's works owned by the Vatican attests to this.

Virgil came to be viewed as a pre-Christian prophet, with the Fourth Eclogue often being cited as a prediction of the arrival of Christ. This was demonstrated most clearly with Virgil being the 'honorable pagan' who guided Dante through Hell and Purgatory in the Commedia. Virgil also appeared in Medieval texts and sacred art works.

The 'messianic' segment of the Fourth Eclogue is what earned Virgil his Christian reverence:  
"Now the Virgin returns, and the rule of Saturn, now a new progeny is being sent from heaven. Chaste Lucina, be favourably disposed towards the child that is being born and under whom first the iron age shall end, and throughout the world the golden age shall arise..."

Detail from Hubert & Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece - the figure in the toga with the laurel crown is believed to signify Virgil. He is grouped among other non-Christian wise men, including Islamic scholar Averroes.
In conclusion, I hope I have managed to shed some light on an elements of Renaissance art that were not a 'rebirth' at all - but a continuation of long standing visual and written traditions.

For those embroiled in study or research, attempting to uncover meaning in Renaissance symbols - don't just narrow your search to Ancient Greece and Rome, Look to Coptic, Byzantine and Medieval European art and manuscripts - you may be pleasantly surprised! A great place to start is the Medieval Imaginations image database hosted by Cambridge University, and the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History hosted by the Metropolitan Museum, New York.


David Byron said...

Excellent overview, HN! This post actually helps to resolve a pedagogical problem for me, since I'm gathering scenes from 20th-century literature or film that depend for their intelligibility (or full appreciation) on the viewer's awareness of some iconographic lineage. I'll be pointing my students to this post as they consider how we make and use such connections.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Excellent post, H! Your juxtaposition of depictions of nursing mothers makes your point well. As I was reading, I kept waiting for you to bring the imagery back to the Cult of Isis, and I was not disappointed. I cannot look at any western image of the Virgin nursing without thinking of Isis and Horus. The appropriation of images from previous cultures/iconography seems to me an expression of the philosophical appropriation of beliefs/rituals in religion, often referred to as syncretism. Is there a similar term for this in art history?

David Byron said...

@Vicky We also call it 'syncretism'.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the comments! @David - I am pleased that this post will be useful for students - I was hoping for something that can serve to instruct as well be succinct and interesting!

@Vicky - I knew you would appreciate the Isis reference more than most! Some may see my placing her image next to depictions of Mary as anachronistic but I think it was important to show the visual progression.

syncretism is great! I think classicists and historians have a better grasp of it than some art historians - particularly those steeped in the more traditional approach to art history which squared everything off into periods and movements and noted differences rather than similarities .

From my interaction with the newer breed of art historians, I think this historical awareness is on the rise. Of course, the amount of journal articles or even blog posts that dare venture outside of discussing the Renaissance in relation to Greco-Roman tradition, or its influence on 19th Century Neo-classicism are still relatively small - hopefully this piece will redress that imblanace somewhat!

One text which I can recommend which is an inspiring work of syncretism is Francis Haskell's History and Its Images. It's officially out of print, but can still be tracked down via Amazon etc. I hope to do a review of it one day - I think it should be a mainstay of any art historical study, rather than some of the texts that are currently used.


Judy said...

Excellent evolution of a motif, N!

And a great reminder to resist the temptation to look only in the usual places for artistic precedents. I would have been all to quick to cite the Botticelli as a Venus Pudica rather than Virgo Lactans...duh..

Alberti's Window said...

Fantastic post, H! What great research! I also like your connection with Isis and Horus.

I know that you are moving this discussion away from Greek influences, but the Venus pudica/Virgo Lactans similarity reminds me of Neoplatonism. Some scholars argue that Botticelli's representations of Venus (specifically his "Birth of Venus" or "Primavera") also reference the Virgin (since both women embody divine love). It seems like the San Bardi altarpiece could align with this same argument, except in this case a depiction of the Virgin references Venus.

Dr. F said...


You did a very nice job of illustrating and discussing the Madonna lactans. At the RSA conference in Venice last year I believe that there were at least two panels on the subject.

You have come a long way since we first discussed the Tempesta last Fall. Now you can see the Madonna and her Child in the painting.

As for Schier's paper your followers can use your link to read his paper and see the images he uses to back up his case. I stand by my original opinion. Among my many criticisms I will only say here that he does not explain why his poet-shepherds vision should be of a nude woman. Ten months after giving birth, she certainly would have had some time to put on some clothes.

Finally, here is what Schier says about the viewer's response to the Tempest. "Viewers of the Tempesta are disoriented and forced into an ambiguous response, vacillating between pagan impressions and religious reminiscences." Not one of the commentators I have read from Marcantonio Michiel in 1530 to Enrico dal Pozzolo in his Padua catalog have had such a response. I have stood in front of the painting as viewers paused to examine it with a mixture of awe and wonder.

Thanks again for citing my paper in your beautiful post.


Judy said...

Good point, Monica, about Botticelli and Neoplatonism. It was a very big influence upon him and others but as you say that brings us back again to the Classical world.

David Byron said...


Perhaps you're being too hard on traditional art historians. I think many (esp. those with a taste for Warburg) often saw the continuities as well as the discontinuities.

On the issue of syncretism, one rollicking read from those quarters is The Survival of the Pagan Gods.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comments!

@Frank - I think I need to clarify - I do not see an unequivocal depiction of a Madonna. If Giorgione had intended this, he would have executed it as such. I see a deliberate suggestion of it, but also obscured by the semi nudity of the figure, which is an obvious departure from traditional depictions of the Madonna.

Why scholars have had no difficulty labeling works by van Eyck and Bosch as deliberate "Mystery Paintings" and then gone on to try give Tempest a literal meaning is the most puzzling of all.

Of the 200+ interpretations that exist, each of them are divergent in some way. What better statistical proof is required as to the prevalence of an enduring ambiguity!

Each viewer brings something of themselves to their reading. Michiel sees an unclothed woman and man holding a staff as a "Gypsy and a soldier." This suits the perceptions of an Italian writer from that era.

Those with classical training see Greco-Roman figures, others more attuned to Catholic/Christian traditions see Biblical figures, whereas those with a rationalist approach(myself included) see a deliberate attempt at obfuscation!

It is this responsive psychological element of the work that has not been adequately explored, as its scope lies beyond art history. In many ways Tempest is like the art history equivalent of the Rorschach Test.

I think it is a remarkable step forward that Schier, as an established art history scholar has even ventured to suggest that Giorgione has succeeded in confounding us in a very controlled manner, rather than just insisting on a Virgilian or Marian solution.

Any reading that does not have this flexibility is going to fall short unless it provides some spectacular documentary evidence or antecedent work to the contrary explaining the artists intentions.

@M/Judy - Cheers for the comments! I was trying to make it through a Botticelli post without mentioning Neoplatonism! It is overbearingly taught, that quite often its the only thing that sticks in a students mind.

I definitely had this experience in my university exposure to art history. It was only due to a study of comparative religion and the precursors of Renaissance literature, that looking beyond the 15th century became easier.

The Neoplatonic element is of course there, but is only a part of a rich historical tapestry.

@David - Thanks for the suggested reference! In the grand scheme of things, the Warburg scholars count as modern, and were less dismissive of Coptic, Byzantine and Medieval antecedents. It's the originators of the Renaissance mythos that need to, and now are being viewed with a level headedness that was previously lacking!


Dr. F said...


Readers interested in my criticism of the Virgilian interpretation of the Tempest can view my post on Rudolf Schier in my blog, "Giorgione et al."

I do not want to continue the discussion here since your post was mainly about the sources of Renaissance art.

Just a word about the Council of Trent. In the 40 years before the Council's decree on Art, countless paintings and statues of the Madonna were being destroyed all over Europe by reformers. The Council's decree can be seen not just as prudery but as a response to this puritanical fanaticism.

Nevertheless, the decrees did not prevent Caravaggio, Rubens, and the great Spanish masters from producing great works of art.


Judy said...

@H. Guilty as charged! As a grad student using Hartt I was encouraged by my teachers to follow the Neoplatonic aspects of Michaelangelo's (and others') art.
Old habits die hard!

What I love about art/history is that meaning is so mutable as new connections are made by the community of scholars.

More recently I have found Neoplatonism a good way to understand the influence of Emmanuel Swedenborg on 19th C. artists.

Unknown said...

@Frank - That's an interesting observation about the Council's ruling - though looking at the Baroque architecture that ensued in Europe, many have argued that the extravagance and lasciviousness once reserved for frescoes and private paintings made its way into the very stone itself!

For those interested in reading Frank's review of the Schier article please click below:

Giorgione: 'Virgilian' Tempest

@Judy - I dont think it's an understatement to say that Neoplatonism had a more profound exclusive effect on the 19thC Century. In the 15th Century at least, it was still bouncing around amidst other ideas. I liken it to the nostalgia the current generation has about the 1960s.

In many respects, it was the writers of the 19th Century that gave us the prevalent flavour of the Renaissance. William Roscoe is perhaps the most famous example of this - his famous Life of Lorenzo de' Medici was wildly popular, though was a work written entirely from secondhand accounts. Roscoe himself never visited Florence.

Even I can attest to the Florence I found last year not aligning with the idealised version my mind had created after over 18 years of studying it.

I'd only recommend students of Renaissance History venture near Roscoe after reading Christopher Hibbert's amazing 'The House of Medici' first.

Kind Regards

P. M. Doolan said...

I am interested in your comment "it was the writers of the 19th century that gave us the prevalent flavour of the Renaissance". Perhaps you are leaning towards my thesis that the entire concept was the invention of the 19th century Swiss Professor Burckhardt?

Unknown said...

Greetings PM Doolan - I would not go as far as saying the "entire" concept was developed by these later writers. Whilst the French derived moniker we have today indeed came from these European writers, the concept of the classical rebirth was being noted as early as Vasari - with his using of an equivalent Italian term in 'Lives of The Artists'.

Much attention must also be paid to the dismissiveness of Petrarch to the achievements of the Middle Ages. These sentiments are mirrored in a slew of writers, from Vasari to Voltaire and extending forward to Roscoe and Gibbon.

The advent of the printing press, the translation and increased dissemination of classical texts by Renaissance writers made it appear as if Cicero and Plato were resurrected from the annals of History, where instead they were being re-presented in a new medium to a greater audience, beyond the confines of the great monastic libraries.

In this sense, the advent of printing press was a great democratising factor, not unlike what we are seeing with the information revolution brought on by the internet(on a global scale).

It is simply too convenient to blame any one person or movement for the historiography of eras past - as with anything (and I hope I demonstrated in the post above) there was an accumulated, gradual development that led to the development of a general academic consensus - this is the "prevalent flavour" I mentioned.

It is fascinating to recall, even earlier on writers were questioning the lucidity of these accounts. My favourite example would have to Goethe's realisation of the beauty of Gothic architecture - something which his education had initially conditioned him to reject as archaic and ugly.

Kind Regards

Judy said...

@H,certainly the Victorian re-discovery/definition of the Renaissance by Ruskin, Pater, and Berenson is still with us and certainly with many of the 20th Century art historians.
It is still a HUGE topic amongst Victorian scholars...witness several excellent books ("Victorian and Edwardian Responses to the Italian Renaissance" is one of the best)on the subject and the exhibitions on the Pre-Raphaelites and Italy in the past few years.
(Though some of those are also taking into consideration how the PRs influenced 19th C. Italian art which lets us view the PRs through the other end of the lense.)
Following "my Victorians" to Italy(the De Morgans)has been great fun.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the references Judy. Some similarly themed posts on Ruskin and the Renaissance influence on Victorian art was presented at art history today. If you haven't done so yet, I definitely recommend checking them out!

I do plan on brushing on the subject myself in the not too distant future.

Kind Regards

Judy said...

@H...The current Rome exhibit is "Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne Jones and the Myth of Italy in Victorian England" (its title alone signals the way in which the Victorians mythologized Italy and its artists.). Last year in Ravenna and Oxford was "The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy" and several years ago at the Uffizi it was an oddly translated but good exhibit called "Of Queen's Garden: the Myth of Florence in the Pre-Raphaelite Milieu and in American Culture" where again MYTH is emphasized. Another good source book on the topic is Hilary Fraser's "The Victorians and Renaissance Italy".

Yes, I heartily agree, David has done some brilliant posts on this subject.

Benjamin (Ben) said...

Very interesting and useful post, H!

Parmigianino's "Madonna of the Long Neck" provides a nice example of an artist moving from a literal Virgo Lactans (in the studies) to a strong allusion to the theme (in the final work). Cleverly, this still allows the viewer to imagine the act of (recently completed?) breast feeding, without actually having to depict it.

Unknown said...

Thank you Ben! Waat a fascinating parallel. Believe it or not, I was just reading Marcia Hall's 'The Sacred Image in the age of art' and that work is lavishly illustrated right at the start!

It must be clarified, Parmigianino has two works that share a similar moniker - one is the Madonna of San Zaccaria, and the other is the Madonna with the Long Neck

Clicking each of those above links will take you to detailed images of those works at the Google Art project.


Benjamin (Ben) said...

Thanks for the clarification and the links. And to add to the confusion, in many sources the Madonna of San Zaccaria, which is the work I had in mind, is also referred to the as the Madonna of (or with) the Long Neck!

Unknown said...

That's right Ben - in the Marcia Hall book, published only very recently - she refers to the San Zaccaria version also as 'of the long neck'

I think it inherited its name from the other work simply because it visually appears she has a long neck!


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