From Icon to Doll

Around the beginning of the fourteenth century painters in Italy began to show the human side of the Virgin Mother and Child.

It would not have been proper, perhaps not even thinkable, to depict the Virgin, paragon of modesty, smiling at the viewer. And the infant Christ had usually lowered His eyes or then looked squarely at the viewer with the stare of an idol.

A painter named Buoninsegna had seen some old Bizantine icons which showed the Infant Jesus turning toward His mother, and he came up with this:

The Virgin and Child by Duccio di Buoninsegna, c.1300, in the National Gallery of London

The Baby actually grabs the Virgin’s veil—an action that must really have jolted the first viewers! And though both figures are sombre, they gaze at each other with an unmistakable and touching look of love. The icons had come to life!

Once other artists had seen this good idea of Buoninsegna’s, they pushed it farther and farther. Look at this Virgen Blanca now in the cathedral of Toledo, Spain.

La Virgen Blanca, c. 1450, by an unknown artist.

The Virgin can’t hold back a really contagious smile while her Son cups her chin.

Soon someone had the idea to make the Baby curious about the viewer, as though surprised with his visit. He peers out from the warm sanctuary of His mom.

This is Rafael’s Virgin of the Chair, formerly one of the most famous paintings in the world. The scene is so natural and human that without the clue of St. John on the right and a few strands of gold light one might almost not identify it as a religious painting. The Virgin is now a proud mother who welcomes the viewer, and her Son looks out with shy and thoughtful interest from His idyll with mother.

A hundred years later the Spanish painter Murillo carries the mother-son fun even farther by having the Boy walking, bouncing, on His mother’s knee when the viewer catches them.

The Virgin and Child by Bartolomé Murillo, in the Prado Museum, Madrid

Unlike Rafael, who usually meant to reach the heart by way of the head, Murillo sugars things. The enormous-eyed Baby is less a lord than ever: in fact, He has almost become a little dickens.


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12 Responses to From Icon to Doll

  1. erikatakacs says:

    Of the four, I like the statue the most. It captures an intimate moment, and it looks real unlike the other ones. The unknown master sculptor even managed to give her that beautiful motherly smile that is reserved for babies only. Beautiful work. The painted parts are very subtle and tasteful as well.

    Rafael painted a beautiful mother and one strange looking baby. Reminds me of that Seinfeld episode about the ugly baby. well, his face is ok, but his body is monstrously disproportionate. Sorry, I can’t even look at him.

    I like Murillo’s version, he painted fabric and folds beautifully.

    And the winner is…Swallows. :) Very nice post, thanks.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Erika, thanks a lot. I like the Virgen Blanca too. You noticed the fine paint-job—her beautiful white robe with green piping. I trust the painting on those old Greek statues was more like this than like Brinkmann’s garish reconstructions.

    Rafael’s (and Michelangelo’s) babies are pretty monsters, I guess. I have to change a chip to be able to criticize them for a lack of fidelity to nature—I have always just seen them as great beautiful artifices, like Michelangelo’s women in the Medici Chapel. Sometimes I have wondered if Vasari was wrong and that Rafael did NOT profit from his study of Michelangelo’s figures. You wonder what this Baby’s arm would have been like (and Rafael’s Isaiah’s arm and leg) without Michelangelo’s model.

    Murillo kept from being too sweet in this picture, thank God. This is a big picture and the way both Virgin and Child look at you when you come across them in the Prado is unforgettable. What do you think of these colors of his? Maybe it is easy or easier to make a red redder or any color brighter if the background is black, but I think few painters have ever beaten these.

  3. wrjones says:

    Murillo’s piece is lovely. It is hard to imagine painting a squirming child. You need a good visual memory.

    I wonder who was the very first painter to move away from the ET fingers.

  4. rich says:

    Fine comparison.
    The byzantine icons in their rigidity always used to make an odd impression on me. But looking at this one here in contrast gives me a feeling for symbol and myth, which seem to fade into the background by the faithful realism, the realistic rendering of the others, as charming as they may be.

    Don’t know…just a fading impression…

  5. 100swallows says:

    rich: I guess we can’t go back anymore.

  6. rich says:

    True, Swallows,
    but I guess myths and symbols persist…

  7. Peggi Habets says:

    When I was in college and suffering through a very boring, 8 am art history class, we had to memorize slides of Cimabue and other Byzantine era artists. I thought they were awful to look at, but then again the teacher didn’t bother to put the art into context. I love seeing how the portraits developed through time. Rafael’s virgin has a wonderful expression, such pride.

  8. 100swallows says:

    Peggi: You know, I’m starting to wonder if the picture I took from the Web and posted here is by Rafael or is a copy. I knew those colors were much too bright but I thought they might help some readers like the picture more. But now when I went back to check out the Virgin’s proud look which you had pointed out, I realized that it is not exactly the same as the one in my Complete Paintings of Rafael–nor as other reproductions of the painting on the same IMAGES page of Google. What do you think?

  9. 100swallows says:

    Bill: That’s funny about the ET fingers. Remember that those early painters made pictures the way a cook follows a recipe. First you do this, then you do this, etc. No one looked at his own hands, I guess. They just tried to make their icon look like the venerated ones, ET fingers and all.

  10. Peggi Habets says:

    Hmmm. I think you’re right; it does look different. It almost looks like the image was “enhanced” in Photoshop. The contrast is greater for one thing. The halos and cross are lost, the cheeks have an ultra rosiness to them. The painterly detail is lost compared to this image:

  11. 100swallows says:

    Right, Peggi. I should have spent more time comparing the photos. Yours here looks more like the one in my book.

  12. erikatakacs says:

    Wow, what a difference. I’m taking back my comment about the baby. On Peggi’s he looks chubby but normal size and has a sweeter expression on his face. Sorry, Rafael!

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