When I’ve given presentations on the art of the Annunciation, the painting that is most universally admired is the version by the African American artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner (b.1859-1937). People appreciate it perhaps because of its realism, the beauty of its warm golden light, and the humanity and humility with which Tanner portrayed the teenaged Mary.

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

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The Holy Family


Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast
of Passover,
and when he was twelve years old,
they went up according to festival custom.
After they had completed its days, as they were returning,
the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem,
but his parents did not know it.
Thinking that he was in the caravan,
they journeyed for a day
and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,
but not finding him,
they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.
After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting in the midst of the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions,
and all who heard him were astounded
at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him,
they were astonished,
and his mother said to him,
“Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
And he said to them,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor
before God and man.

Luke 2:41-52

Disputation with the Doctors, Duccio do Buoninsegna,

Disputation with the Doctors, Duccio do Buoninsegna, 1308-1311, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena


Duccio’s known works are on wood panel, painted in egg tempera and embellished with gold leaf. Different from his contemporaries and artists before him, Duccio was a master of tempera and managed to conquer the medium with delicacy and precision. Duccio’s style was similar to Byzantine art in some ways, with its gold backgrounds and familiar religious scenes but also different and more experimental. His paintings are warm with color, and inviting. His pieces held a high level of beauty with delicate details, sometimes inlaid with jewels and almost ornamental fabrics. Duccio was also noted for his complex organization of space. Characters were organized specifically and purposefully. In his Rucellai Madonna c. 1285 the viewer can see all of these qualities at play. Duccio began to break down the sharp lines of Byzantine art, and soften the figures. He used modeling (playing with light and dark colors) to reveal the figures underneath the heavy drapery; hands, faces, and feet became more rounded and three-dimensional.

Duccio was also one of the first painters to put figures in architectural settings. He began to explore and investigate depth and space. He also had a refined attention to emotion, not seen in other painters at this time. The characters interact tenderly, and softly with each other, it is no longer Christ and the Virgin, it is mother and child. With this he flirts with naturalism but his paintings are still awe inspiring. Duccio’s figures seem to be out of this world and heavenly; existing elsewhere with beautiful colors, soft hair, gracefulness and draped in textures not available to mere humans. His influence can be seen in the work of many other painters, including Simone Martini and the brothers Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti.


For a meditation on this reading and a lovely prayer by Pope Francis, please visit Integrated Catholic Life.

All Saints Day

After this I had a vision of a great multitude,
which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,
wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne,
and from the Lamb.”

All the angels stood around the throne
and around the elders and the four living creatures.
They prostrated themselves before the throne,
worshiped God, and exclaimed:

“Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving,
honor, power, and might
be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Revelation 7:9-12

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of All Saints, instituted to honor all the saints, known and unknown. It owes its origin in the Western Church to the dedication of the Roman Pantheon in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the martyrs by Pope Saint Boniface IV in 609, the anniversary of which was celebrated at Rome on 13 May. Pope Saint Gregory III consecrated a chapel in the Vatican basilica in honor of All Saints, designating 1 November as their feast. Pope Gregory IV extended its observance to the whole Church. It has a vigil and octave, and is a holy day of obligation; the eve is popularly celebrated as Halloween.

The early Renaissance artist, Fra Angelico, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and whose name means “Angelic Friar,” is described by Vasari in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects as having “a rare and perfect talent.”



 Last Judgment, Fra Angelico, c. 1431, Tempera on panel, 105 x 210 cm, Museo di San Marco, Florence

Last Judgment, Fra Angelico, c. 1431, Tempera on panel, 105 x 210 cm, Museo di San Marco, Florence

From Web Gallery of Art:

“Elevated in the deep azure sky and surrounded by concentric rings of cherubim and angels, Christ sits on a glowing bank of clouds as he judges the world. He is flanked by the interceding figures of John the Baptist and the Virgin. Rows of saints and prophets, identified by their distinctive attributes, varied expressions and brilliantly coloured mantles, sit suspended on clouds in the heavens. A long row of tombs leads to the distant horizon, bisecting the valley below. To the right of Christ, the Blessed kneel in adoration, their faces radiant with the love of God, as angels dance in a circle in the verdant vegetation of Paradise. Golden rays of light stream through the open gates of the City of God and illuminate the white gowns of the Blessed seeking entry. To Christ’s left, demons with pitchforks drive the agonized Damned into the mouth of a mountainous Hell. The ghastly torments that await them are portrayed within its flaming circles, where naked sinners, some strangled with snakes, suffer for their transgressions.

The abundance of figures (270 in all), nuanced evocation of their emotions, descending perspective of the row of tombs and ascending landscape reveal a mastery of narrative and space that was unprecedented in Angelico’s small-scale works.”

Detail of Saints in Heaven from The Last Judgment by Fra Angelico

Detail of Saints in Heaven from Last Judgment by Fra Angelico


At his Angelus audience on November 1, 2013, Pope Francis said that the feast of All Saints is a reminder “that the end of our earthly existence is not death, but rather paradise!”

The Pope reminded the crowd in St. Peter’s Square that the saints “are not supermen, nor were they born perfect. They are like us.” What distinguishes the saints, he said, is that “when they knew God’s love, they followed him with all their heart, without conditions or hypocrisy.”

“The saints never hated,” the Pope continued. “Hate does not come from God, but from the devil! And the Saints distanced themselves from the devil.”

Returning to his central theme, the Pope emphasized that sanctity is not an unattainable goal. “All of us, in baptism, receive the inheritance of being able to become saints. Saintliness is a vocation for all.”

The Kingdom of Heaven, the Pope said, “is for those who do not base their security in material things, but rather in the love of God.” Jesus shows this path to sanctity in the beatitudes, he said, and the witness of the saints teaches us to “trust in the Lord, because the Lord never disappoints.”



Madonna Lactans

While Jesus was speaking,
a woman from the crowd called out and said to him,
“Blessed is the womb that carried you
and the breasts at which you nursed.”
He replied, “Rather, blessed are those
who hear the word of God and observe it.”

Luke 11:27-28

The image of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus is known as Madonna Lactans, from the Latin words for milk and suckle; the lesser known Greek term is Galactotrofousa. This depiction was used in some of the earliest Christian art and may have been partially inspired from abundant Ancient Egyptian images of the goddess Isis nursing Horus, such as this one.

Isis Suckling Horus, bronze statuette, 1070–656 B.C., Egypt, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Isis Suckling Horus, bronze statuette, 1070–656 B.C., Egypt, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although possibly based in pagan images of deity, the image of Jesus nursing at his mother’s breast emphasizes his humanity while at the same time pointing to the exalted role of Mary as the Mother of God. For Catholics, this reveals the fleshly importance of the incarnation of the Son of God. Just as Christ receives his earthly sustenance from the body of his mother Mary, so we receive our spiritual sustenance from his body and blood in the Eucharist. The Virgin’s milk signifies the blood of Christ on the cross and in the Eucharist. For more on this idea, read this article.

Do a google search and you’ll see hundreds of images of the Madonna Lactans, but today I’ve chosen just a few of my favorites.  The first image is the earliest one known from the Catacomb of Priscilla and dates to about the 3rd century. Although fragmentary, you can still clearly see the iconography that would remain fairly constant for this devotional image, with the infant Jesus turning to look out at the viewer while suckling from Mary.

Mary nursing Jesus, ca. 3rd c., Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome

Mary nursing Jesus, ca. 3rd c., Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome

Our next image is a mosaic from the facade of Santa Maria Trastevere in Rome, a marvelous church in which I spent quite a bit of time one hot summer while staying at the American Academy on the nearby Janiculum Hill. This Byzantine-style image shows the breastfeeding Mary enthroned, with Virgins bringing offerings from either side.

Madonna Lactans Enthroned, mosaic, 1290-1310, Santa Maria Trastevere, Rome

Madonna Lactans Enthroned, mosaic, 1290-1310, Santa Maria Trastevere, Rome


Jan Van Eyck is another favorite of mine. Once again we see the nursing Mary enthroned. Be sure to click on the image to see the enlarged version, where you can examine Van Eyck’s splendid fabrics and details more closely.

Lucca Madonna, Jan van Eyck, 1436, Oil on panel, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt

Lucca Madonna, Jan van Eyck, 1437, Oil on panel, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt

From the museum website:

“The Lucca Madonna served her unknown patron as a medium of private devotion. The painting cleverly takes the viewer right into the depicted room, making him part of the affectionately rendered intimate situation. This impression is created by the special manner in which the artist has configured the space: like the walls on either side and the vaulted ceiling, the tile floor and the carpet appear to continue into the viewer’s side of the picture’s surface. The effect is heightened by the suggestive painterly description of the various materials and surfaces – the skin, hair, fabric, carpet, walls, glass, water, metal, tiles and wood.

However natural in appearance, the scene is also full of symbolic references. The fruit in the Christ child’s hand, for example, alludes to the Fall of Man, the consequences of which are overcome through the incarnation of God. The throne with its lion decorations symbolizes not only the judgement seat of the proverbially just king Solomon, an ancestor to Christ, but also the Last Judgement. Already famous far and wide during his lifetime, Jan van Eyck – court painter to the dukes of Burgundy – died in 1441. He had painted the “Lucca Madonna” just a few years earlier, a work whose mastery and consistency of concept and execution we still find captivating to this day. Incidentally, the name by which the painting is known goes back to one of its previous owners: in the nineteenth century it was in the possession of the Duke of Lucca in Tuscany.”

The next painting seems so bizarre to me, I simply had to include it. One wonders whether the artist had ever seen an actual breast or if they had plastic surgery secrets in 15th Century France! Seriously though, I love how the painted whiteness of the skin makes Mary and Jesus appear like marble statues and contrasts so beautifully with the red and blue angels. Note how Fouquet has painted some glossy areas on the angels as if they are reflecting the light shining from the luminous mother and divine child.

Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, Jean Fouquet, 1452, oil on panel, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium

Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, Jean Fouquet, 1452, oil on panel, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium

This is what the museum says about this rather surreal image:

“This painting is the jewel in the crown of the Royal Museum’s collection. Although it has a strikingly modern feel, it was produced by French court painter Jean Fouquet as long ago as 1452. It was commissioned by Etienne Chevalier, treasurer to the French King Charles VII. The Virgin Mary is depicted here as the Queen of Heaven, with the infant Jesus on her lap. The blue and red angels behind her richly decorated throne contrast strongly with the paleness of Mary and her child.
It is believed that Agnes Sorel, the mistress of Charles VII, modelled for the Virgin. She is dressed according to the fashion of the day. Her cloak and depilated hair line emphasise her eminence. The laced waist accentuates her bared breast and gives the composition an almost erotic quality. However, this was certainly not Fouquet’s intention when he produced the painting several centuries ago. It was quite simply a rendering of the Virgo Lactans, or the lactating virgin. She was supposed to highlight the worldly status of Jesus by showing that he, like all other children, was breastfed by his mother. The colours of the angels are most likely not coincidental. The three blue cherubs are believed to represent purity and air, while the six red seraphs are thought to symbolise love and fire. On closer scrutiny, it appears that just one group of angels actually touches Mary’s throne.”


I could find no other information about this adorable ivory figurine. Here we see Jesus as a toddler, eagerly standing on Mary’s lap and suckling for all he’s worth! Though his head isn’t turned towards us, note the little foot at an unnatural angle, indicating that he is, indeed, conscious of us.

Virgo Lactans, Anonymous French sculptor, ivory figurine

Virgo Lactans, Anonymous French sculptor, ivory figurine


The image of the Madonna Lactans remained popular until the Council of Trent discouraged any depictions of nudity in the sixteenth century. Interestingly, this concern about nudity may have been prompted by the creation of the printing press. In a 2012 article, author David Gibson writes:

“With the advent of movable type, historians say, came the ability to mass-market pornography, which promoted the sexualization of women’s bodies in the popular imagination. What’s more, the printing press enabled the wider circulation of anatomical drawings for medical purposes, which in turn contributed to the demystification of the body. Both undermined traditional views of the body as a reflection of the divine. 

The other major consequence of this new technology, of course, was the mass-marketing of the Bible and the rise of a Protestantism that encouraged a focus on the text of the Scriptures and discouraged the use of images and “Catholic” practices like devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints.

The cultural shift was so great that even Catholics soon came to regard the breast as an “inappropriate” image for churches. Instead, the sacrifice of the cross – the suffering Jesus – became the dominant motif of Christianity while the Nativity was sanitized into a Hallmark card.”


There are quite a few other images of the nursing Mary and Jesus at this link, or if you google “Madonna Lactans” you can find your favorites.



Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary

The traditions of the birth and life of the Virgin Mary are derived from the Apocryphal Gospel known as the Protoevangelium of James, written about AD145. In the artworks presented on this page, we see the scene of Mary’s birth by her mother Anne. In the Catholic Church, the Feast of the birth or nativity of Mary is celebrated on September 8. This feast is exactly nine months after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, which commemorates the teaching that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin, though in the normal biological manner.

Birth of the Virgin, Giotto di Bondone, 1304-1306, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy

Birth of the Virgin, Giotto di Bondone, 1304-1306, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy

Giotto di Bondone painted a series of frescoes in the Arena Chapel at Padua, Italy that are considered among the world’s greatest masterpieces. Giotto was among the first artists to break away from the flat, static style of Byzantine and medieval painting  to create innovative works with realistic settings that are early attempts at spatial perspective. This makes him the father of Renaissance art. In this image of the birth of Mary, we can see how he has used an architectural structure to create the illusion of three dimensional space. The heavenly golden background of Byzantine works has been replaced with a blue that suggests the actual sky. The figures show an attempt at modeling and roundness, and especially in the women sitting in the foreground, we can see that there are bodies beneath the clothing. Giotto shows us at least two separate moments from the story, since we see the haloed infant Mary being handed to her mother Anne and also being cared for by the women in the foreground.


Nativity of Mary by the Master of the Life of the Virgin, circa 1460, Munich

Nativity of Mary by the Master of the Life of the Virgin, circa 1460, Munich

The Master of the Life of the Virgin, whose identity is disputed, painted a series of eight scenes from the life of Mary including this nativity setting. In it, we see a large bed bedecked with a red coverlet and set beneath an elaborate woven canopy. The newborn infant Mary is being handed to her mother Anne by the attending women. This Northern Renaissance painting shows the brilliant colors, attention to fabrics and surfaces, and delicacy of the figures that we would expect. It also seems to show the influence of the northern masters, Rogier Van der Weyden and Deiric Bouts.


Life of the Virgin: 4. The Birth of the Virgin, Albrecht Dürer, 1503 Woodcut, Munich

Life of the Virgin: 4. The Birth of the Virgin, Albrecht Dürer, 1503
Woodcut, Munich

The German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer created a series of 20 woodcuts depicting the Life of the Virgin, which he published in 1511 in book form with poetry by the Benedictine monk Benedictus Chelidonius. We look into the scene of Mary’s birth through an archway, seen at the top of the image. An angel above swings an incense censor, letting us know that we are viewing the sacred. But the crowded scene below seems anything but sacred, and we have to search for the infant Mary and attempt to make some sense of the disorder. St. Anne lays in the bed exhausted from her labor as the attendants offer her food and beverage. The gaggle of woman are all involved in some sort of task that attends midwifery or the relaxation afterwards, and after a search we can see Mary being bathed in the right foreground. This scene is homely and ordinary, and only the angel above lets us know that heaven is breaking into earth.


Birth of the Virgin 1661, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Louvre, Paris

Birth of the Virgin by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1661, Louvre, Paris

Murillo, the last of the great painters of Spain’s Golden Age, depicts the religious scene with great tenderness. The baroque treatment in this work shows the influence of the Flemish school and Velázquez on Murillo after his trip to Madrid, a turning point in his career.


The birth of Mary is a day of hope and joy that reminds us of the nativity of Jesus. It is through this infant girl that our salvation will be born.

Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.