Around the beginning of the fourteenth century painters in Italy began to show the human side of the Virgin Mother and Child.
It would not have been proper, perhaps not even thinkable, to depict the Virgin, paragon of modesty, smiling at the viewer. And the infant Christ had usually lowered His eyes or then looked squarely at the viewer with the stare of an idol.
A painter named Buoninsegna had seen some old Bizantine icons which showed the Infant Jesus turning toward His mother, and he came up with this:
The Baby actually grabs the Virgin’s veil—an action that must really have jolted the first viewers! And though both figures are sombre, they gaze at each other with an unmistakable and touching look of love. The icons had come to life!
Once other artists had seen this good idea of Buoninsegna’s, they pushed it farther and farther. Look at this Virgen Blanca now in the cathedral of Toledo, Spain.
The Virgin can’t hold back a really contagious smile while her Son cups her chin.
Soon someone had the idea to make the Baby curious about the viewer, as though surprised with his visit. He peers out from the warm sanctuary of His mom.
This is Rafael’s Virgin of the Chair, formerly one of the most famous paintings in the world. The scene is so natural and human that without the clue of St. John on the right and a few strands of gold light one might almost not identify it as a religious painting. The Virgin is now a proud mother who welcomes the viewer, and her Son looks out with shy and thoughtful interest from His idyll with mother.
A hundred years later the Spanish painter Murillo carries the mother-son fun even farther by having the Boy walking, bouncing, on His mother’s knee when the viewer catches them.
Unlike Rafael, who usually meant to reach the heart by way of the head, Murillo sugars things. The enormous-eyed Baby is less a lord than ever: in fact, He has almost become a little dickens.