The Transformation of Mary


Many of the small mausoleums in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery have a window in the rear part of the tomb—often made of stained glass. Many of these windows are hand painted works of art, most often depicting religious figures. Two such windows depict the Virgin Mary but they are very different in nature. These two windows shown in this blogpost illustrate the evolution of Mary as Queen of Heaven to Mary as Mother.

Recently an art exhibition of paintings of the Virgin Mary displayed over 60 works Italian art, depicting Mary that explained the transformation of Mary in the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. An article in the December 11th issue of the Economist reviewed an art exhibition titled, “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea”, that opened at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. All of the paintings were of the Mary, Mother of Jesus, who until the 18th Century was the most painted woman in the art world.

Part of the article focused on the evolution of Mary as Queen of Heaven to the approachable Mary as Mother, the same difference found in the two stained glass windows.


According to the article, the “Pre-Renaissance Mary is represented as queenly: ennobled, enthroned, surrounded by angels and engulfed in celestial light.” The stained glass window from the Riviere Family tomb shows Mary as the Queen of Heaven, with a bright halo surrounding her head. She stiffly holds haloed baby Jesus, who is standing on a starred representation of the world—Kind of Kings, Lord of Heaven and Earth. This is a majestic, unapproachable depiction of Mary.

The second window from the Demonneanx Family tomb depicts a very different Virgin Mary. Here she is wearing the ordinary clothing leaning back and holding Jesus on her lap in what is almost a foretelling of the pieta.


According to the art historian writing for the Economist, it was “in the late Middle Ages she becomes more approachable, appearing more often in the garb of an unassuming peasant. The humanist conception of Mary gained further traction in the Renaissance: she is less empress of heaven, more mother—sewing, nursing and playing with the infant Jesus. It is a representation that is crucial to the doctrine of Jesus’s “authentic humanity”: Mary is his link to human nature and earthly experience. Engaged in these quintessentially female activities, she also provides the archetype of Christian womanhood”.

There is another difference in these two depictions. In the first Mary looks down, a show of her humility. In the second, Mary looks directly at the viewer. In the exhibit, there are few examples of Mary gazing directly at the viewer. “Her eyes are invariably downcast, suggesting solemnity, a soul turned inward, and the tragic foreknowledge of her son’s fate”. There was also a notion that a woman’s direct gaze was impure.


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3 Responses to The Transformation of Mary


    Fascinating…you wrote a wonderful background piece. Stain glass windows have quite a history of their own also!

  2. Sarah McKinzie says:

    Douglas, I read almost everyone of your fascinating blogs! I find this one very timely – knowing that Mary is watching over and rocking the little babies in heaven that departed this world from us this week. Curious – who is now the most painted woman in the art world since the 18th century?

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