World's Great Madonnas

A collection of historical images of the Madonna assembled by Martha Nation

An American folk hymn says,

"Go, tell it on the Mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere,
Go, tell it on the Mountain
That Jesus Christ is born."

(The thumbnail images on this page contain details of the images. Click on one for the full image)
Found Madonna Image of the Week

(archive of past images)

Christmas - as a story - centers on a woman, a man and a baby. It is a simple story which can be read early by children or told to them by parents, grandparents and church school teachers.

But, the implications of that story are rooted in an extraordinary event. There were visitations by angels and the journey of sheperds and wise men.

The Annunciation

Luke 1: 26, 27, 30, 31
"And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee named Nazareth. To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary... And the angel said unto her Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus."
[van Eyck Madonna] The Annunciation , c.1425/1430, Jan van Eyck (1385?-1440, Flemish), transferred from wood to canvas / Andrew W. Mellon Collection, copyright 1984, Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Birth

Luke 2: 1, 3-7
"Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled ... And Joseph went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, to enrol himself with Mary, being great with child. And it came to pass, while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son, and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."
[Giotto Madonna]Madonna and Child - Giotto (1266?-1337, Florentine)

Madonna and Child - Anonymous (13th to 15th Century)
"He came all so still
To his Mother's bower,
As dew in Aprille
That falleth on the flower ..."
[Anonymous Madonna]
[Lippi Madonna] Madonna and Child - Fra Filippo Lippi - When Hitler in 1937 was selling Old Masters to get foreign exchange, Samuel Kress was able to buy this picture from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, thus bringing to America one of the world's great masterpieces. It was probably painted about 1430 for a tribunal in Florence.

The Madonna of Humility - Fra Angelico (1387-1455, Italian), Mellon collection, Washington, D. C. [Angelico Madonna]
[Angelico Madonna] Madonna and Angels Fra Angelico (1387-1455, Italian), New York Gallery

Madonna and Child 1480, Giovanni Bellini (1430?-1516, Venetian) [Bellini Madonna]
[Memling Madonna] Madonna and Child, by the German-born Hans Memling (c1430-94?, German), who removed to Bruges and became one of the outstanding fifteenth-century masters of Flemish art. The Art Institute of Chicago

Madonna of the Chair - Raphael (1483-1520, Italian) [Raphael Madonna]

It is claimed that this is the most widely copied picture in the world.

It has been in Florence, Italy, since 1539, except for a short time when it was in Paris.

The painting was executed on wood. An interesting legend about the picture relates that a hermit, fond of an oak tree in which he took refuge from a storm, prayed that both the tree and Mary, a vine-dresser's daughter who ministered to him following the incident, would be remembered by the world.

Years later, Raphael saw Mary sitting with her child upon her lap and the older child playing nearby with a stick made into a cross. Raphael, impressed, picked up a cask and began to sketch. The cask head was part of the old oak tree which had been felled and made into casks.

The painting is 28 inches in diameter and is one of the few Raphael madonnas done entirely by him. Most of his Madonnas were of his design, but the final workmanship was carried out by pupils under his guidance.

[Raphael Madonna] The Alba Madonna by Raphael was once owned by the Ducal House of Alba in Madrid. Painted about 1508, it was bought by Czar Nicholas I in 1836 and hung in the Hermitage Gallery. Mellon got it in 1931 for $1,166,400.
In the Royal Gallery in Dresden, Germany are many treasures among them Raphael's Masterpiece "The Sistine Madonna". It was originally painted for a church in Italy but now it occupies a room by itself in the gallery. It casts a spell on the beholder. Voices in this room are seldom raised above a whisper. Those who come to admire stay to worship. [Raphael Madonna]
[Raphael Madonna] The Small Cowper Madonna by Raphael, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., (Widener Collection)
Madonna of the Grand Duke by Raphael. The placid, yet pensive expression of Mary's face recalls the Madonnas of that other and older master, Botticelli. The original is at the Palazzo Pitti, in Florence. [Raphael Madonna]
[Smolensk Madonna] [Mosaic Madonna] The Virgin of Smolensk This icon, showing the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus in her left arm and pointing to Him with her right hand, is called a "Pointer of the Way." In Greek Orthodox tradition, which the Russians inherited, not only was the placement of figures important but there were also rules about line and color - noses were made thinner and mouths smaller, for instance, to emphasize their spiritual nature. Icons are not "graven images" - the Orthodox Church forbids any semblance of idol worship. Instead, they are, as the eighth-century saint John of Damascus said, "open books to remind us of God." Madonna and Child - Mosaic - Russia
Fountain of Life - Hans Holbein the Elder (1465?-1524, German), Basel, Switzerland [Holbein Madonna]
[Durer Madonna] Birth of Christ - Albrecht Durer (1471-1528, German)
Mary with Child, Mary Magdalene and Donor - Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533, Dutch) [Leyden Madonna]
[Altdorfer Madonna] Birth of Mary - Albrecht Altdorfer (c1480-1538, German) - (Angels) Dutch school
X-RAYED TINTORETTO - As a matter of routine, whenever it acquires a painting by a master, the National Gallery has it X-rayed to see if anything has been painted over or altered. What the X-ray exposed on Booth's Tintoretto (1518-94, Venetian) proved it to be even lovelier than its owner had supposed: Before X-ray this Madonna and Child had a plain, uniform background. In this condition it had hung for years in Ralph Booth's home. After X-ray, which showed that someone had painted over original background, art experts removed dull overpainting, revealing cherubs and stars. [Tintoretto Madonna]
[El Greco Madonna] The Virgin With Saints by El Greco (1548-1614). He was born in Crete but moved to Toledo, Spain. Very practical, he would paint any number of pictures to sell.
The Holy Family with Saint Anne - Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678, Flemish) from the Detroit Institute of Art [Jordaens Madonna]
[Madonna with grapes] The Virgin with the Grapes - Pierre Mignard (1610-1695, French) He reproduced the features of his wife in his Madonna subjects. This painting hangs in the Louvre in Paris.
Madonna of the Arbor - Dagnan-Bouveret

[Dagnan Madonna]
[Murillo Madonna] Spanish Artist - Murillo's Madonna is a mirror of his times (1617-1682). He lends a touch of intimacy to the religious theme.
Christmas Morn - Will Hicok Low (1853-1932) American painter, who broke away from the traditional Italian and Dutch Masters. Located in the Smithsonian, Washington D. C. Notice Cross in window, shepherds and star. [Low Madonna]

The Shepherds

Luke 2: 8, 16
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night... And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger."
[Luini Madonna] The Nativity - Luini - In the early 1500's the wealthy Italian Maestri family of Milan built a private chapel for which they wanted a special altarpiece. They finally gave the commission to their local artist, Bernardino Luini, who painted them this picture. Four centuries later Samuel Kress purchased it from Lord Duveen.
Adoration of the Shepherds from the great bronze doors of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine

[St. John Madonna]
[Shepherds Madonna] Shepherds - Stained glass
Adoration of the Shepherds Jambor [Jambor Madonna]
[Cossiers Madonna] The Adoration of the Shepherds Jan Cossiers (Dutch School: 1600-1671)
Adoration of the Shepherds - Murillo (1617-82, Spanish) - Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts, Inc.

[Murillo Madonna]
[Ki-Chang Madonna] Glory to God Artist: Ki-Chang Kim
Have you ever tried to listen to a painting? Try listening to this picture. The kneeling shepherds are greeting the child with a silent gesture of honor. The animals, too, seem quiet, as they gaze with curiosity at the baby in their manger. Mary and Joseph appear speechless, as if the Christ child's very presence were speaking and notheing more need be said. Only the one shepherd, holding his staff, may be speaking. Perhaps he has whispered, "Look!"

The delicate colors and gentle lines used by Ki-Chang Kim add to the sense of quiet created by this picture. The styles of Asian art, in music, drama, poetry, and painting, often convey an invitation to silence or deepended attention. What an important message the Asian tradition has: Silence reveals grace.

The Wise Men

Matthew tells us that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, three wise men came to Jerusalem and later to Bethlehem seeking this new born king. We also know that they were guided by a wonderful new star that appeared in the sky.

We do not know just what countries they may have come from, probably small kingdoms on the other side of the great desert which separated their homes from the place where Jesus was born; but we do know that they came from the east, doubtless mounted on picturesque camels, whose padded hoofs could easily withstand the burning heat of desert lands.

Botticelli's (1444?-1510, Italian) " Adoration of the Magi" in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., is one of America's great treasures. And if it had not been for the late Andrew Mellon it might still belong to the Soviet Union. [Botticelli Madonna]
The picture was probably painted in connection with Botticelli's trip to Rome in 1481-2, where he had been summoned by the Pope to help decorate the Sistine Chapel. The painting may have been commissioned by Cardinal della Rovere, who later became Pope and who commissioned Michelangelo to complete the decoration of the Sistine Chapel.

We know that the painting remained in the possession of "an illustrious Roman family" until the 18th century, when it was bought by the engraver Peralli and taken to France. In 1808, it was acquired in Paris by Czar Alexander I of Russia for the Imperial Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. There it remained until 1932, when it was acquired by Mellon.

[Bosch Madonna] Adoration of the Magi by Dutch painter Bosch (1450?-1516, Dutch) of the 15th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Shows a preoccupation with scenes from his native country. See the dog, quiet in the presence of the Christ Child.

The Flight Into Egypt

Maththew 2: 13-15
"And when [the wise men] were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt; and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son. "
The Flight Into Egypt - Fra Angelico (1387-1455, Italian) - Museum of San Marco, Florence. The Virgin's face has been changed very delicately by the experience of motherhood. The daylight falling on Joseph's robe markedly differs from the golden radiance that came from the child in the Nativity. Here the Renaissance interest in nature and the world about man is apparent in the attention paid to landscape. [Angelico Madonna]
[Patinir Madonna] The Flight Into Egypt - Joachim Patinir
The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt - Gerard David from the National Gallery of Art, Mellon Collection

[David Madonna]
[Plockhorst Madonna] Repose in Egypt B. Plockhorst


Centuries ago there was a song in the air, a star in the sky, a mother's deep prayer, and a baby's low cry; and on that night as the stars shone in silent splendor a new type of song floated down from the sky sung by an angelic host:
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth Peace, Good-will to men."
That occasion has been the inspiration for all the lovely carols and hymns which we sing at Christmas. It is also the theme of the World's Great Madonnas.

Dear Lord, Thank you for the gift of your Son. Amen.

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