Of Goddess Figures and Madonnas

Goddesses and Madonnas

The audience is for anyone who enjoys art (college level)

The purpose of this essay is to briefly inform on two of the types of uses of the female figure in art history

Goddesses, idols. Madonna’s, Venuses. Christian, Pagan. Religious. Two of the most popular uses of the female form in history. At first glance these two types of images appear to be very different. But in reality, they are probably more alike than people give them credit for. A picture of the Madonna is an image of the Biblical Virgin Mary and the infant Christ Child. Sometimes they are joined by John the Baptist or angels and saints. Goddess figures have been used almost more than Madonna’s have. The use of a woman as a goddess is much more versatile and offers many more opportunities for tweaking than Madonna’s. Goddess figures and Madonna’s are the two most easily recognizable forms of western art, and although they appear to be nearly opposites, they are closer than they appear.

Madonna’s are images, typically paintings or sculptures of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child as an infant. These “portraits” also worked a Madonna was the “regal mother”. She was the bearer of God while the infant on her lap—Jesus—is no mere infant but God in human form. It’s only later in the Renaissance that the Madonna gains the gentle maternal presence, rather than the regal presence she exudes here “Icons functioned as living images to instruct and inspire the worshiper. But the actual figure—be it Christ, Mary, a saint or an angel—was thought to reside in the image” (Janson 255).

(“The Icons of St. Catherine’s Monastery”).

Whether she is called “The Virgin” or “Madonna” she can be found in various modes. There’s the portrait Madonna, which is the upper half of both her and the Christ Child with an undefined background. Enthroned, which is like the “Virgin and Child Enthroned”, where she is sitting on a throne or dais and often surrounded by saints or angels. The Madonna “In the Sky” (otherwise known as “Madonna in Gloria”) where she is elevated above Earth’s surface and often in the sky surrounded by cherubs. The Pastoral Madonna, such as the “Madonna of the Meadows” or “Virgin of the Rocks” where the background is a landscape. The last is the Madonna of the home environment, which simply means the setting is inside a home.

How she is relating to her child is divided into four categories. “Madonna of Love” which is purely maternal, “Madonna in Adoration” where she is humble before her son, and “Madonna as Witness” where she is wearing honors for her proud position as the Saviors mother (Madonna. (art)).

(“Raphael Paintings.”)

In “Madonna of the Meadows” by Raphael the Madonna here is much warmer and more motherly than in “Virgin and Child Enthroned”. Not only is her posture more relaxed but her face is as well. The background is much less crowded, with the “Virgin and Child Enthroned” the background is crowded with Saints and Angels, but in “Madonna of the Meadows” “the rather desolate meadows only emphasize the isolated coziness of the unfolding interaction between the three figures, as Madonna’s figure protects the holy babies from the outer world, serving as a safety barrier” (Raphael: Madonna of the Meadow).

Da’ Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks” functions exactly like “Madonna of the Meadows” but stylistically in Da Vinci’s own way. Here the Madonna has a similar protective nature as in “Madonna of the Meadows.” The coziness of the scene and the pyramidal grouping makes the setting appear to almost be like a picnic. Mary is responsible for the closeness as “her left hand reading toward the Christ child and her right hand resting protectively on Johns shoulder. A melting mood of tenderness suffuses the entire composition” (Kleiner 256).

(“Madonna of the Rocks Da Vinci Louvre”).

The Mother of Jesus has always been an important figure in Christianity, which is where the image originated, specifically Catholics. Catholicism still has a very special relationship with the Holy Virgin. These paintings and most others done officially would have been done by Catholics. She has a place of honor that comes from being mother to Christ. She has her own prayer, and many still consider the nurturing feeling they have towards children as being part of the holy spirit within them. From the Byzantines to the artists of the Renaissance the Madonna has transformed from a regal and stiff idol to a warm and caring mother that women can relate to and show the rest of the world who is mother to humanity’s salvation, and by extension, mother to humanity.

Just as the Madonna once stood as an idol, so did many goddess figures. Starting as far back as the Venus of Willendorf was most likely a fertility idol. The Venus of Willendorf was carved around 25,000 BCE and is small enough to fit inside the palm of a hand. While the intended purpose of this sculpture isn’t known the detail and obvious care put into it suggests it was a fertility idol. (“Necropolis Now”).
More like the Byzantine Madonna’s the Aphrodite of Knidos stood as an icon. Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love and with the Aphrodite of Knidos Praxiteles carved out a portrait of the goddess while she was bathing with such beauty that there is a legend about a fisherman who locked himself with the statue overnight. While this sculpture is not an idol in the same way that the Venus of Willendorf is, but is in the fact that it’s purpose is to aid in the worship of the goddess.

(“Aphrodite of Knidos)”.

Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and “La Primavera” are the earliest and most famous examples of goddess images used in a Christian culture. The “Birth of Venus” was an incredibly powerful painting for According to Sister Wendy, “If we turn from “The Birth of Venus” to “Virgin and Child with Eight Angels” we are struck immediately by the resemblance—Venus and the Virgin are the same woman….Beauty in itself was holy, and that holy in itself was beautiful. His Virgin looks out the world from the same perfect face and with the same air of gentle melancholy” (Beckett57).
(“Botticelli Birth of Venus – Public Domain Clip Art Image @ Wpclipart.com”).
( “Sandro Botticelli Gallery Renaissance Wholesale Oil Painting Reproduction”).

La Primavera” is the “sequel” of sorts to “Birth of Venus” and holds a stronger story than the “Birth of Venus”

(“Botticelli, Sandro”).

Which was what surely the purpose. Aphrodite, standing in the middle turns away from Chloris and Zephryus and the violence of the rape that is happening. By turning away, she rejects the caving in to physical desire. Even if Flora, the goddess Chloris becomes when Zephryus apologizes for raping her, is present.

The Venus figure has been altered and abused. Titans “Venus of Urbino” was commissioned by Guidobaldo II. “The title (given to the painting later) elevates to the status of classical mythology what is actually a representation of an Italian woman in her bedchamber. Indeed no evidence suggests that Guidabaldo intended the commission as anything more than a female nude for his private enjoyment” (Kleiner 272). Even though this image is called a “Venus” that title is more an excuse to paint an image that is very clearly, for lack of a better word, pornography. The dog at the foot of the bed has long been a symbol of masculine virility. Her gaze is direct, while with other nudes with the “Venus” title her gaze is averted so she’s not staring the viewer down. Her hand, while covering herself, tends to draw more attention than avert attention. The Aphrodite of Knidos and Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” does depict the nude Venus modestly covering herself, willing the viewer to look away and not descend to voyeurism.
Goddess figures aren’t always used as moral, or in the case of the Venus of Urbino, immoral story tellers, but sometimes as motivation ones. The Statue of Liberty is a goddess figure. While she isn’t a specific goddess, she represents an ideal—liberty. She is something that immigrants look towards when they flee from oppression to the United States. This idea is also expressed in “Liberty Leading the People.”
( ((“Venetian Red Art Blog”).

It depicts the allegorical personification of Liberty, defiantly thrusting forth the French Republic’s tricolor banner as she urges the masses to fight on” (Kleiner 245). With this painting, unlike the Statue of Liberty, Liberty’s dress is falling, baring her chest to all the viewers to see. This brings up some of the things that define a goddess image.

The attributes of a goddess figure, when not referring to a goddess from another culture—like Aphrodite/Venus—are actually very basic. Liberty here is missing her nipples. Typically, a nude may be defined as a goddess figure if she is missing her nipples, navel, or is lacking in pubic hair or definition. This is not a hard and fast rule however, the Venus of Willendorf may not have been depicting a specific goddess if she indeed was a fertility idol these things are emphasized rather than omitted. Even though this is considered to be part of western art history, it comes from a culture very different than the one that inspired these attributes. The culture around the Venus of Willendorf valued fertility in a woman, rather than modesty and fidelity as the basis of western culture valued.

Goddesses and Madonna’s while they appear very different in context, are surprisingly similar. Both originate from ideology and cult objects, but by the time their popularity had diminished they had transformed dramatically from where they had begun. The Madonna had transformed with the Christian faith from a literal idol, in which they believed the spirit truly resided in the image, to a warm and loving portrait painting the Madonna as a mother to her child and of all Christians through being the mother of the Savior. The goddess image started out the same way, as direct idols for the Pagan gods and goddesses morphed into allegorical images that morphed into the Renaissance ideals telling Christian stories and selling their morals. Looking at it, wouldn’t the Madonna count as a goddess image, perhaps the two different categories will eventually be morphed into one.

Works Cited

“Aphrodite of Knidos.” Home Page. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.

Beckett, Wendy, and Patricia Wright. Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces. New York: DK Pub., 1999. Print.

“Botticelli Birth of Venus – Public Domain Clip Art Image @ Wpclipart.com.” WPClipart Is a Collection of High-quality Artwork and Photos Optimized for Use with Word Processors and Inkjet Printers. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.

“Botticelli, Sandro.” WebMuseum:. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.

“The Icons of St. Catherine’s Monastery In Egypt’s Sinai.” The Virgin and Child Enthroned. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.

Janson, H. W., and Anthony F. Janson. History of Art: The Western Tradition. 6th ed. Vol. 1. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2004. Print.

Kleiner, Fred S., and Helen Gardner. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2009. Print.

“Madonna (art).” – New World Encyclopedia. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.

“Madonna of the Rocks Da Vinci Louvre.” Famous Mathematicians Pictures Famous Mathematician Pictures Math Gifts. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.

“Necropolis Now.” : The Upper Palaeolithic… and Me. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.

“Raphael: Madonna of the Meadow.” ». Art Critique, 3 Dec. 2007. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.

“Raphael Paintings.” How to Draw a Cat, a Metaphor for Creativity and Art… –. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.

“Sandro Botticelli Gallery Renaissance Wholesale Oil Painting Reproduction.” Fine Arts Gallery Masterpiece Reproduction Oil Painting Wholesale Retail for Sale. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.

“Venetian Red Art Blog.” Liberty Leading the People «. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.



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