Nuggets from a Retreat on Marian Artwork

My annual retreat this year was via Zoom and presented by Father Terry Grachanin, an artist. The topic was Marian art through the ages. Some concepts were new to me, and I thought they might be new to you too. So in this post I will share a few of them. The retreat was in the context of beauty as an avenue to God, who is ultimate Beauty.

  • Early on Mary was depicted in a red robe symbolizing her humanity and a blue mantle to indicate that she was encompassed by divinity. Today in pictures she wears white to represent her purity. Besides this is how she was clothed in the Fatima and Lourdes apparitions.
  • The earliest extant image of Mary is in the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. She is nursing Baby Jesus and presumably Isaiah is next to her, pointing to a star overhead.
  • The only sculpture of Michelangelo not in Italy during his life is the Madonna of Bruges that resides in Belgium.
  • During World War II, the Nazis confiscated much religious art including the Madonna of Bruges. The movie The Monuments Men is an account of how a group recovered it and cultural items–altogether about five million pieces.
  • Michelangelo finished the Pieta when he was just 24 years old. He explained that although Mary must have been around fifty at the time of Christ’s death, he made her face youthful because purity supposedly made people look younger.
  • The Pieta symbolizes the Eucharist. Mary’s left hand is gesturing to us as though she is offering Jesus. Her right hand holds Jesus’s body through a cloth, the way the priest wraps his hand in cloth when blessing with the Blessed Sacrament.
  • After someone credited the Pieta to another artist, Michelangelo printed his name on Mary’s sash. Since it was an afterthought, the letters are squeezed together. This is his only signed work.
  • In the Sistine Chapel’s Final Judgment painting, Mary is against the side of Jesus looking at the redeemed. She is no longer an intercessor. Christ is portrayed as Apollo, the sun god.
  • In the Chapel’s depiction of the creation of man, the small boy with God’s finger on him stands for Jesus. Someone noted that the figure of God with the voluminous cape is in the shape of a brain. This is fitting because God brought forth everything by a word.
  • Although the Assumption of Mary was not defined as an article of faith until 1950, paintings dating back to early centuries testify that Catholics believed it, such as Titian’s from 1516.

A popular painting of Mary was originally a painting of an 11-year-old girl holding her brother close on a cold day in Venice. The artist, Ferruzzi, called it Madonnina, “Little Mother.” But people interpreted it as an image of Mary and Jesus, and it is now called “Madonna of the Streets.”

• What is your favorite depiction of Mary? Why?


  1. Vickey Milligan on August 2, 2020 at 11:07 pm

    Sister Kathleen,
    When Sr. LeRoy Finn retired she gave me her framed copy of “Madonna of the Streets.” It is once of my most cherished possessions.

    Much love to you and the Sisters,

    Vickey Yates Milligan

  2. Kathleen Glavich, SND on August 3, 2020 at 11:23 am

    Thank you, Vickey. I hope you are well and happy! Sr. LeRoy must have thought highly of you!

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