Madonna Hodegetria (Madonna Hodigitria) by Enrico de Tedice

Enrico de Tedice [attrib.]

Madonna Hodegetria (Madonna Hodigitria), Mid 13th century, Tempera and gold on panel, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, 2006/C, Finsiel / Alinari / Art Resource, NY

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A New Way

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Timothy Verdon

This painting of the Pisan school shows Mary indicating the Christ Child with her right hand. She is thus a Madonna Hodegetria, a Madonna who indicates the ‘way’ (hē hodos) which Christ claims to be in his words: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me’ (John 14:6). He would pronounce those words the night before he was crucified, and the ‘way’ in question is thus related to his Passion and death.

A still clearer assertion that Christ’s human body is a ‘way’ also appears in the letter to the Hebrews, when the author states that the Saviour entered the heavenly sanctuary ‘by the new and living way which he opened for us … that is his flesh’ (Hebrews 10:20).

Our Madonna Hodegetria carries all this back to Jesus’s infancy, leaving no doubt that the ‘way’ Mary indicates in her Son is indeed his death. At the viewer’s right, just behind the Christ Child, are four Passion-related scenes to which the Virgin’s gesturing hand necessarily conducts our gaze (reading from top to bottom): The Kiss of JudasThe FlagellationThe Carrying of the Cross, and The Deposition. The entire panel thus illustrates the willingness to accept death that Christ had from infancy on, as reported in Hebrews 10:4–10. What is more, the artist shows the Child tracing a sign of the cross in benediction with his right hand, while in his left he holds a scroll, sign that he is the Word made flesh (John 1:14).

The fact that it is his mother who, pointing, reveals the purpose of Christ’s incarnation, reminds us that from his infancy she knew he was destined to be ‘a sign that is spoken against’ and that ‘a sword’ would ‘pierce’ her own soul as well (Luke 2:34–35).