If you imagine a museum gallery filled with Renaissance art, do you see a room of religious paintings and sculpture? Very likely. From the early fifteenth century, humanistic influences prompted such new subjects as portraits, mythological scenes, and lyrical poesie. Most works of art, however, continued to depict religious themes. This is true of painting as well as sculpture, and public and private commissions. Although surviving records are imperfect and woefully incomplete, a sample of just over two thousand works having identifiable subjects that were inventoried between 1420 and 1539 showed that 87 percent had religious themes (67 percent of the remainder were portraits).1 The numbers also point to an increased interest in images of the Virgin and Child (Mary with the infant Jesus) over those of saints or even episodes from the life of Christ.
Images, mostly paintings, of the Virgin and Child are the focus of this essay. The first section examines their early history, beginning with icons that came to Italy from the Byzantine East. We consider the sources and impact of their enormous religious authority. The miraculous origin of many of the images, together with their miracle-working power, helped ensure the important place of religious images in the West. Moreover, their physical form as painted panels influenced the greater use of that technique in Western painting. The following sections look at images of the Virgin and Child created up to the early decades of the sixteenth century in Venice and Florence, respectively, and the different artistic traditions of the two cities reflected in them. We explore the ways the images functioned in public and private devotions and how icons were transformed into more intimate kinds of devotional objects. Finally, we glance briefly ahead, to indications that the venerable half-length Madonna would yield to new types of religious scenes in succeeding years and that the authority of religious imagery, indeed all imagery, would shift toward a new locus: the artist and his artistry.