Mother with child
10th Tiberius Auction
Rome, 3rd/4th century
Height 62 cm, width 43 cm, depth 20 cm
This is one of the earliest representations of a Madonna from the late Roman Empire. Already in Celtic portraits of the mother deity, an expression of fertility, but also in Egyptian representations of mother and child, for example in Isis and Osiris, the mother is shown sitting, with her child on her lap. These characteristics are also revealed in sculptures of Kybele, a mother deity especially known and revered in Anatolia. In the 5th century BCE, such representations also reached Athens.
Later, Kybele was incorporated as a deity in the Roman Empire and became known as Magna Mater. A new form of cultic worship for her was created by the oracle of the Sibyl in 205 BC, which recommended the summoning of the Magna Mater as an important ally in Rome’s second war against Carthage. As a newly conceived Trojan goddess, she became the ancestral mother of the Roman Empire. Through Roman hegemony, the cult of the Magna Mater spread throughout the Roman Empire. A 2nd-century CE statuette of Cybele from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (AC1992.152.37) can serve as a comparative example of the figure’s posture and sculptural execution. However, the libation bowl and lions were exchanged with Christian attributes.
Earliest Christian representations of this type, of Mary and the infant Jesus, can be found on sarcophagi from the 3rd century CE onwards. This example is already a monumental sculpture. A female figure is depicted seated; she wears a robe belted under her breast and a mantle that is curved around her shoulders and draped over her lap. The cloak is barely hewn, but the undergarment is shown in straight, doughy conspicuous folds. It falls in thick bulges over the figure’s shoes. The woman is holding an open book lying on her lap with her left hand, thus drawing the viewer’s attention to this attribute. Possibly this is the Holy Scripture. With her right hand she presses the naked child against her, who is balanced on her right knee and faces the viewers head-on. The mother’s affectionate gesture further emphasises the intimacy between mother and child.
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