|The Virgin and Child
The earliest known Virgin and Child is a 3rd-century wall painting in the Catacomb of Priscilla (at left). It sets the pattern for future images of this kind, in that the composition explicitly leads our attention toward a meditative encounter with Christ. Facing us, the prophet on the left points to the star above Mary, who looks down at her son, who turns from his mother to look us straight in the eye.
Another catacomb image from the following century also encourages this experience of face-to-face intimacy, and Virgin and Child images continue to engage the viewer in this immediate way for more than a millenium. They function not to represent a scene from history but to bring God and man together in a mutual regard.
In eastern art this function is served by setting the Virgin frontally before us and having her long fingers do the pointing (example). This pattern, the "Virgin Hodegetria," was imitated in the widely popular western image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. A similar type is the Salus Populi Romani, in which the Virgin's hands rest protectively on the child's lap instead of pointing to him, although even here the composition draws the eye to the child.
In high medieval and Renaissance art the Virgin and Child image will often use props to encourage meditative response. In one tradition a goldfinch will perch on Mary's hand, "pointing" to the child's divinity by way of a folk story that the red marking on the bird came from Christ's blood on the day of the Crucifixion (example). In another, the bird is a swallow, the folk lore this time being that swallows bury themselves in the ground in winter and "rise again" in spring. In Caravaggio's Madonna of Loreto, the pilgrims in their ragged clothing invite the viewer to consider his or her own poverty of spirit.
Globe-like objects in the baby's hand, symbolizing the sphere of the Earth, are another way to guide the mind toward the mystery of Almighty God's being incarnate in this little child (example). In the Wakefield Second Shepherds' Play, the object is a tennis ball offered by one of the shepherds. In Botticelli's Madonna of the Pomegranate the fruit of the title is especially significant because of its famously red juice, pointing forward to the blood that Christ will shed. Sometimes the fruit will be a cluster of grapes, pointing to the same blood by way of Eucharistic allusion (example).
A sculpture tradition, the Throne of Wisdom, has the child on the Virgin's lap with a volume of scripture on his own, inviting a variety of topics of contemplation. This gives rise to the further genre of the Virgin Enthroned.
In the Gothic era another sculptural type has a standing Virgin, life size or a little less, holding the child in her arms (example). Often placed at a column in the nave close to the sanctuary, such sculptures seem to have been intended more for cult than for meditation.
A sub-genre that becomes important after the medieval period brings the child John the Baptist into the composition, sometimes with his parents and others (example). Closely related in spirit and composition are images of the mystical marriage of St. Catherine of Alexandria.
The "Virgin Lactans" was another sub-genre, in which the child suckles at his mother's naked breast (example). This sub-genre was specifically permitted in Molanus' influential De historia sacrarum imaginum et picturarum (1570), but grudgingly and in the context of an otherwise strong condemnation of any nakedness in sacred images.1 Thereafter artists apparently chose the better part of valor, and the Virgin Lactans fades from view.
At left, Virgin and Child from the Catacomb of Priscilla
Santa Maria della Scala
Images of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine of Alexandria
Center of a Sacra Conversazione by Veronese, 1540-43
Paired with a Man of Sorrows in a 14th-century portable altar