For those who know the collection at J.R. Mooney Galleries of Fine Art, Diana Mendoza’s Madonna and Child icons are familiar. Her heavenly subject matter and old world techniques are beautiful and classic. The gallery’s latest acquisition, “Madonna Universal,” is an icon that is influenced by both the old Byzantine and Renaissance styles yet retains a modern view on the iconic mother and child relationship.
Mendoza’s painting technique includes heavy use of gold and silver leaf, symbolic colors choices and a solid background which is typical of icons from the Byzantine era. The gold leaf represents holiness and heavenly light and was used extensively during this time period. The colors worn by the Virgin Mother and Christ child were also used to symbolize holy attributes. Mary wears a predominantly blue robe with red cloth over her arms and a white veil. The baby Christ is swaddled in a white blanket. Gold leaf patterns cover both. In Byzantine icons blue symbolizes human life and red, divine life. White symbolized the uncreated light of God, which in this painting may be a premonition of the works of the Savior. The background of the painting is solid gold; this is also typical of the Byzantine icon style where there is no scene or narrative depicted in the painting. The halo is a series of gold leaf dots and markings. Surprisingly this intricate pattern does not get lost on the gold background but because of Mendoza’s technique appears embossed, as if the halo was imprinted by a heavenly seal.
“Madonna Universal” is an icon that blends the unique and familiar. It is familiar because it incorporates two styles of well-known painting and unique because it challenges the relationship of the Madonna to Child. Mendoza’s technique may be reminiscent of the Byzantine era, but her figures retain a Renaissance quality. They are rounded, fleshy beings with life like qualities and human facial expressions. Their relationship is natural, a moment captured from everyday life, which contrasts many icons of the past where the mother/child relationship is more rigid or regal. The Christ Child’s eyes in “Madonna Universal” are closed and there is a peaceful expression on His face while He sleeps. The Holy Mother quietly rests her chin gently near the head of the Child. Her eyes are almost closed, resting comfortably while she holds her baby. She is depicted as a nurturer, a care giver. She is smiling and thoughtful. With Mendoza’s background in education and the fact that she is a mother, there is little speculation as to where she found inspiration for the painting. What makes this Madonna universal is the way she holds the Child and the way He nestles her back. Any mother, or for that matter, anyone who’s ever loved a child and held them in their arms will feel the special energy of joy and love found in this painting. The combination of styles and the uniqueness of this piece is more greatly appreciated by reflecting upon the history of Madonna and Child icons.
Madonna and Child in early religious paintings are rare and weren’t popularized until the Byzantine era. Christian religious art wasn’t introduced until after the Edict of Milan, issued by the emperors Constantine I and Licinius in 313, which allowed for public Christian worship. Images of Mary were depicted more after 431 when she was officially recognized by the Church as the Mother of God. Early portrayals depicted her devout, childless, and praying and were first recorded in historical text in the 6th century. The Church went back and forth on its position concerning art and the portrayal of Holy beings. By the 7th century it shunned all non-religious human images with the exception of the Emperor and donor figures. A century later the opinion would change drastically as religious icons were challenged by Byzantine Imperial authority. This was due to a growing belief people had that the icons or other religious paintings were divinely created and that they were direct links to the saints themselves. The Church worried these paintings would become too powerful and that the people’s worship would center on them. The Church decided that showing religious figures was sinful. The art was banned and those creating or in possession of such work would be accused of idolatry. This was more widely enforced in the eastern portions of the empire and became known as Byzantine Iconoclasm. Also influential in Byzantine Iconoclasm was the similar Islamic prohibition against idolatrous images. This happened during the 7th and 8th centuries when the Islamic military regularly raided the empire. The icons were banned, reinstated and then banned again and it wasn’t until later in the Comnenian period (1081–1185) that they became popular again, partially due to the depletion of richer materials artists used at that time and also because a special screen for icons was introduced. Mary depicted with the Christ Child grew in popularity and became widespread around the 13th century. In these icons she was viewed as tender. Painters wanted to show her feminine qualities.
There were so many icons during this time period that they have been categorized. Encyclopedia Britannica describes these types of Madonna and Child icons: nikopoia (“bringer of victory”), where the Madonna and child sat on a throne and were seen as royalty; the hodēgētria (“she who points the way”), showing a standing Virgin holding the Child on her left arm; and the blacherniotissa (from the Church of the Blachernes, which contains the icon that is its prototype), which emphasizes her role as intercessor, showing her alone in a prayer posture, with the Child pictured in a medallion on her breast. The Virgin also appears in the less-frequently represented, more intimate types of the galaktotrophousa, in which she nurses the Child, and the glykophilousa, in which the Child caresses her cheek while she seems sadly to contemplate his coming Passion. As time passed and devotional images became more popular in the West, the themes became less rigid and took on different meanings. Mendoza’s icon falls closest to the glykophilousa category. Her Madonna caresses the Christ Child’s cheek; but unlike this type of icon, she does not appear sad. Instead she is calm, happy and warm. She does not turn away. In fact, she is in full embrace, caressing Him with total acceptance of His fate.
This Madonna is not afraid of what is to come or sad for the sacrifice her child will make. She shows no stress from the sacrifices she herself has already made. Instead she comforts Him, gives Him motherly love and protection, while she still can.
This is the hallmark of a mother.
By: Gina Martinez,
Art & Framing Consultant, J. R. Mooney Galleries- Boerne