Medieval “Throne of Wisdom” (Virgin Mary) at Cloisters Museum

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Introduction

A figure is a central object of worship in several religions (for example, images of the Virgin and Child call to mind Egyptian representations of Isis nursing her son Horus). The history of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, depends on the texts of the Gospels. Embellishments to her legend seem to have taken form in the fifth century in Syria. The life of the mother of Christ was exceptional: she was born free of original sin, through the Immaculate Conception; she was taken to heaven after her and, just as Saint Thomas doubted Christ’s Resurrection, so he doubted Mary’s Assumption. Theologians established a parallel between Christ’s Passion and the Virgin’s compassion: while he suffered physically on the cross, she was crucified in spirit. The Council of Ephesus in 431 sanctioned the cult of the Virgin as Mother of God; the dissemination of images of the Virgin and Child, which came to embody church doctrine, soon followed.

THE IDENTIFICATION OF CHRIST WITH WISDOM ITSELF IS BASED ON TYPOLOGICAL READING OF THE PORTRAITS OF WISDOM IN PROVERBS 8:1-9:6 AND IN ECCLESIASTICUS 24 (WHICH SPEAKS OF THE “THRONE” OF WISDOM AT VERSE 7 AND VERSE 34.)  (See. THE THRONE OF WISDOM)

Types of the Virgin Mary in Medieval Representation

Most types of the image, such as the twelfth-century “Throne of Wisdom” from central France, in which the Christ Child is presented frontally as the sum of divine wisdom, seem to have originated in Byzantium (Virgin and Child in Majesty, 16.32.194). Byzantine models became widely distributed in Western Europe by the seventh century. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw an extraordinary growth of the cult of the Virgin in Western Europe, in part inspired by the writings of theologians such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), who identified her as the bride of the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. The Virgin was worshipped as the Bride of Christ, Personification of the Church, Queen of Heaven, and Intercessor for the salvation of humankind. This movement found its grandest expression in the French cathedrals, which are often dedicated to “Our Lady,” and many cities, such as Siena, placed themselves under her protection.

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