Madonna and Child on a Curved Throne
This panel is probably the oldest painting in the National Gallery in Washington; it is called the "Mellon Madonna" after its donor. The painting is the type of Madonna known as the Virgin Hodegetria (She who points the way), of which there are almost countless versions in Byzantine art. The original prototype was a miracle-working icon of the Virgin in Constantinople, and its prototype in turn traced its heritage to a portrait of the Virgin supposedly painted from life by St. Luke. Thus it was considered to be a true image, to be copied as precisely as possible, and, as such, it conferred apostolic sanction on the making of holy images.
While the type allowed for certain variations, it was generally a half- or full-length depiction of the Madonna with the Child on her left arm, pointing to him with her right, as if to indicate the way to salvation. In these images, the Child looks like a miniature adult in the pose of a philosopher, holding a book or scroll (he is the Word). He raises his right hand in blessing or possibly proclamation. Usually the Virgin is dressed in dark reds and blues picked out with gold. Her Son wears brighter colors, and, since gold represents the uncreated light breaking through, with considerably more gilding.
By the tenth century, the conventional representation of the Virgin's face had crystallized: long oval face, large almond eyes, thin arching nose, small mouth, and dark shading along the right cheek and upper eye sockets. To her right and left often appeared sceptered angels in roundels.
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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.
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