Theotokos, The God-Bearer, in Art

The Legend of the Luke Images

WEYDEN, Rogier van der  St Luke Drawing the Portrait of the Madonna  -  Oil on oak panel, 133 x 107 cm  Groeninge Museum, Bruges

WEYDEN, Rogier van der
St Luke Drawing the Portrait of the Madonna

Oil on oak panel, 133 x 107 cm
Groeninge Museum, Bruges

Legend states that Luke was an artist and that he painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary.  According to the legend: “after the Crucifixion, when Our Lady moved to the home of St.John, she took with her a few personal belongings–among which was a table built by the Redeemer in the workshop of St. Joseph.” When pious virgins of Jerusalem prevailed upon St. Luke to paint a portrait of the Mother of God, it was the top of this table that was used to memorialize her image. While applying his brush and paints, St. Luke listened carefully as the Mother of Jesus spoke of the life of her son, facts which the Evangelist later recorded in his Gospel. Legend also tells us that the painting remained in and around Jerusalem until it was discovered by St. Helena in the 4th century. Together with other sacred relics, the painting was transported to Constantinople where her son, Emperor Constantine the Great, erected a church for its enthronement.

Though not included in the canonical picture  of Mary’s life, the scene became increasingly popular as Saint Luke gained his own devotional following as the patron saint of artists in general, and more specifically as patron saint of the Guild of St. Luke, the most common name of local painters’ guilds. Luke’s ascendancy paralleled a rise in status of painters themselves.

The story goes that Mary infused the painting with her blessings and grace, turning it into a miracle-working icon that would carry her power across the centuries.

The earliest known version of this theme in Byzantine art is a 16th-century Russian icon depicting the painting of the Theotokos of Vladimir, which is a rival of the Salus Populi Romani  from St. Mary Major in Rome.  Both of which are below.

Theotokos of Vladimir, tempera on panel, 104 x 69 cm, painted about 1130 in Constantinople

Theotokos of Vladimir, tempera on panel, 104 x 69 cm, painted about 1130 in Constantinople

While there are churches all over the globe that claim to have a St. Luke painting of the Madonna, and these images have been revered for hundreds of years with  stories about miracles, healings, and deliverance from wars and disease.  In the Middle Ages, people made pilgrimages to visit these paintings which were just as venerated as the relics of any saint.

Venice claims not one but three icons that were supposedly painted by St. Luke. One is the Madonna Nikopeia in the Basilica di San Marco, the second is the Madonna de Pace icon in San Zanipolo, and the third is the Virgin Mesopanditissa icon on the high altar of Santa Maria della Salute.  All are displayed below.

 

Byzantine, 9th century  Icon of the Virgin Nikopeia at the Altar of the Madonna  Tempera and enamel on wood  S. Marco, Venice

Byzantine, 9th century
Icon of the Virgin Nikopeia at the Altar of the Madonna
Tempera and enamel on wood
S. Marco, Venice

Madonna della Pace, Venice, Italy. Icon brought from Constantinople to Venice in 1349, given by Paolo Morosini to Dominicans 1503; moved to Church of SS. Giovanni & Paolo (S. Zanipolo) after suppression of 1806. Dated to c1200.

Madonna della Pace, Venice, Italy. Icon brought from Constantinople to Venice in 1349, given by Paolo Morosini to Dominicans 1503; moved to Church of SS. Giovanni & Paolo (S. Zanipolo) after suppression of 1806. Dated to c1200.

“Mesopanditissa” Madonna, a 12th or 13th century Byzantine icon that was brought to Venice in 1669, after Candia (Herakleion) fell to the Ottoman Turks. The picture is kept in the main altar of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute (Holy Mary of the Health).

“Mesopanditissa” Madonna, a 12th or 13th century Byzantine icon that was brought to Venice in 1669, after Candia (Herakleion) fell to the Ottoman Turks. The picture is kept in the main altar of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute (Holy Mary of the Health), Venice.

The Guild of Saint Luke

This was the most common name for a city guild for painters and artists especially in the Low Countries.  Named for Luke the Evangelist and based upon his portraits of the Virgin Mary.

In addition to the iconic images above I have included in a slide show many artists who continued with the Lucan theme and legend.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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About Monsignor Mark Richard Lane

I am a Catholic Priest of the Diocese of Richmond. I am also a presenter in the Theology and Symbolism in Art from the art of the catacombs to modern art. My current research is on the duplicity of art in 19th Century America.
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