A Brief History of Mary in Art

Mary is referred to directly in 10 chapters in the Gospels and ‘speaks’ only 5 times. However, she is 2nd only to Jesus in Christian art.

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Since we are approaching the Christmas season, we will begin to see a lot of nativities. Therefore, for my fifth entry, I would like to give my readers a brief history of the use of images of Mary in art. Mary is a strong part of the Catholic tradition, but in Protestant traditions, Mary is hardly thought about until the Christmas season approaches. The following will be a brief history on the subject of Mary in Christian art.


According to legend, St. Luke painted 3 images of Christ’s mother during his lifetime. None have survived. In reality, he probably didn’t paint any pictures because the first easel painting wasn’t introduced until the 4th century with the first religious icons.  Yet Luke has been considered the patron saint of artists since the earliest of times.  

Mary is referred to directly in 10 chapters in the Gospels and ‘speaks’ only 5 times. However, she is 2nd only to Jesus in Christian art. In St. Paul’s epistles, she is mentioned only once. After the death of Jesus, severe persecution set in, and Mary and her new son/caretaker St. John fled to Ephesus where she lived the remainder of her days. Some scholars believe that Luke, the author of Luke and Acts, was a frequent visitor to Mary. 

Some theologians suggest that the reason Luke’s Gospel is so sympathetic to women and is the only Gospel that has the full nativity story is because Mary related the events to him. Also, Luke is the only Gentile author in the Bible and lacked some of the male bias that most Jews of that day had. How else would Luke, who didn’t walk with Christ as a disciple, have known all these details?

The transformation of Mary from an absent presence in Scripture to an active presence in sacred art is linked to the ‘cult’ of Mary which emerged in the 5th century. By the 4th century, the Eastern Church venerated Mary as ‘Theotokos,’ which means “Mother of God,” but the Latin Church resisted the inclusion of Marian devotion into the liturgy. But by the end of the 4th century, plagued by heresies that denied the doctrines of the incarnation (God made flesh) and redemption and plagued by popular pagan goddess cults that continued to resist a male-centered Monotheism, the Latin Church turned to the Gospel of Luke to authenticate the doctrine of the incarnation.

Risking what might be taken as worshiping pagan mother goddesses, an Ecumenical Council of eastern and western churches met at Ephesus in 431 A.D. and ‘officially’ proclaimed Mary as ‘Theotokos.’ Thus began a long debate about her nature and her place in Christian theology.

During the reign of Justinian in the 6th century, the shrine of Isis, a pagan goddess, was converted into a church. In hymns of praise, Mary assumed both the attributes and the titles of pagan mother goddesses to whom worshipers had long prayed for divine intervention. Mary was hailed as ‘Star of the Sun’ (one of Isis’s names) and as ‘Queen of Heaven’ (one of Juno’s names).

Following the Eastern (Greek Orthodox) tradition, the Latin Church began evoking Mary as a mediator before God. According to Scriptures, however, Jesus is the only Mediator between God and man, and the tension created by Mary’s new role as mediator was zealously challenged by the Protestant reformers.

The Latin Medieval Church read the Old Testament allegorically, reinterpreting the Song of Solomon and certain Psalms as foreshadowings of Mary. The Gospels and Book of Acts, especially the ‘Magnificat’ of Luke (1:46-55) and Revelation 12:1, exalted Mary’s wisdom and compassion, thus leading to her importance as a mediator and her heavenly office as ‘Mother of the Church’ and of the new Jerusalem.

Then, during the Middle Ages, Jesus started being viewed as the ‘Divine Boogeyman’ because He had the authority to put people into hell. Priests emphasized this aspect of Christ as the Divine Judge to control their parishioners through fear. So the populace began to look for the ‘soft side’ of God, and they found that in Mary. It seemed safer to go to Christ’s mother than to go to Christ the Judge, so a strong emphasis was placed upon Mary as their mediator.

Another theological aspect of Mary was that Mary was considered the new ‘Ark of the Covenant.’ God’s presence in the Old Testament dwelt in a box called the Ark of the Covenant. Mary became the new Ark because her body carried the ‘presence’ in the form of Jesus. Hence, another reason to worship and reverence her.


The conquest and colonization of the new world brought the cult of Mary to the Americas. The rule of the Spanish conquistadors required the native people to accept and profess Catholicism. Devotion to Mary had a long history in Spain, and the substitution of Mary for popular native earth goddesses in Latin America was taken with zeal. The attributes of the pagan earth goddesses were assimilated into the person of the Virgin Mary.

Spanish missionaries attributed the Christian virtues of mercy, compassion, and reconciliation to Mary, not to the alien male Christian God. This not only made conversion easier, but it also provided a model of how the conquered should relate to their conquerors. There is strong evidence that Mary may have been accepted readily because traditional devotion to familiar earth goddesses could simply be transferred.

The earliest images of the Virgin Mary in Latin America were carved stone figures set within an arc, which associated Mary with mother goddesses of the mountains. Peruvian artists in Cuzco, the site of the Incan Temple of the Sun, painted statuesque, mountain-shaped representations of the Virgin. Festooned with feathers, flowers, and jewels, symbols associated with Incan religion, the Virgins of Cuzco are rooted in their picture space, rising out of their firmly anchored and gilded skirts, radiantly poised and immovable.

The Black Madonnas of Europe have a long history also, which may have begun with the cult of Cybele, an ancient goddess native to Asia Minor. Cybele, the Mountain Mother, was worshiped in both Greece and Rome, and aspects of her cult may have been incorporated into early Christianity, thus reflecting the continued association of the Virgin Mary with ancient pagan earth goddesses.

Colors and symbols associated with Mary

BLUE: Divinity and heaven, spiritual love, truth, fidelity, and constancy. This is usually the color of Mary’s mantle.  Blue was also used because it was the most expensive color in the ancient world which was made from crushed lapis lazuli, one of the most expensive precious stones at that time.

WHITE: Purity, joy, faith, and glory.

RED: Often used on Mary’s robe; Humanity, divine love, and suffering.

BROWN, RED, GRAY OR BLACK GARMENTS: Suffering and sorrow during the passion and death of her Son.

GREEN: Immortality (through suffering comes immortality); Hope, regeneration, fertility, victory, and peace.

PURPLE AND VIOLET: Sorrow and penitence and also love and truth as well as royalty.

GOLD: God, divinity, marriage, and fidelity.

Other Marian symbols

MIRROR: Mary’s nature as a reflection of God.

CRESCENT MOON: Links Mary to Song of Solomon 6:10.

SERPENT AND APPLE: Links Mary to the new Eve who reverses the original Eve’s sin.

PALM BRANCH: Triumph over death, victory.

CLOSED BOOK: Mary’s virginity; OPEN BOOK: Her wisdom.


LILY: Flower of the Annunciation.

UNICORN: Her virginity. Only a virgin could capture a unicorn.

SINGLE STAR: Mary’s virginity, which is undiminished like a star whose light illuminates the darkness without losing its brightness.

3 STARS: Purity at birth and her perpetual virginity.

12 STARS: The woman of the Apocalypse (Rev. 12:1); Symbolizes her freedom from sin and her immaculate conception.

CEDAR OF LEBANON: Mary’s beauty and dignity.

ROSE: This is the mystical rose, a rose with no thorns (without sin).

PEACOCK: Immortality.

SEATED IN NATIVITIES: Painlessness of the birth of Christ.

RECLINING IN NATIVITIES: Prefigures Christ’s sacrificial death.

KNEELING IN NATIVITIES: Her devotion to Christ.

There are other symbols, but this is a starter list.

I hope you have enjoyed this little sojourn into Marian symbolism and history. There is, of course, much more to explore, but this was only intended as an introduction to a very interesting subject.

Featured and In-Text Image Painted by Gary Wilson

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About the Author

Now living in Simpsonville, South Carolina, Gary Wilson has been working as a professional artist since 1969. After receiving his B.F.A. from Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an M.F.A. from Michigan State University, Mr. Wilson taught as an Associate Professor of Art at Monroe Community College from 1971 until 2016, where his course load included Ceramics, Drawing, Art History, Art Appreciation and Creativity. With the help of his wife, Linda, Gary has participated in art festivals for over 45 years during the summer months and was also represented by galleries as well as hosting a large Christmas show in his home every year. Besides those responsibilities, Mr. Wilson was active as an elder in his church in Monroe, Michigan and he and his wife worked regularly with young adult ministries. Gary has won many awards over the years including “Best of Shows”, “First Places”, “People’s Choice Awards”, and countless others. His work has been installed in hospitals, churches, nursing homes, funeral homes and universities, including Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. With over 45 years of teaching experience, Mr. Wilson has developed a number of presentations related to clay, art history and creativity with spiritual insights into each. He has done workshops for many colleges, universities, artist groups and churches. His familiarity with art history and in particular the symbolism of Christian art give him an unusual perspective into the purposes of art. His presentation documenting his search for a style of his own is particularly appreciated by aspiring artists who are searching also for their style. Having developed a college course in creativity which he has taught for over 40 years, he is able to communicate to others how to take the mystery out of the creative process. Gary sums up his artistic purpose this way: “In recent years I feel that the role of my art is changing. I believe that the purpose of my art is to be ministerial, to bring healing and hope into a world that desperately needs both. My prayer is that God will touch all those who ‘pass by’ and take the time to engage in the art and that a blessing will come with the encounter.