The Life of the Virgin, showing narrative scenes from the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a common subject for pictorial cycles in Christian art, often complementing, or forming part of, a cycle on the Life of Christ. In both cases the number of scenes shown varies greatly with the space available. Works may be in any medium: frescoed church walls and series of old master prints have many of the fullest cycles, but panel painting, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, stone sculptures and ivory carvings have many examples.
The Life of the Virgin sometimes merges into a cycle of the Life of Christ, sometimes includes scenes from the Passion of Christ, but often jumps from the childhood of Christ to the Death of the Virgin. The Finding in the Temple, the last episode in the childhood of Christ, often ends the cycle.
Important examples whose scenes are listed in the table below, include those in the Tornabuoni Chapel by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop between 1485 and 1490, the Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto, completed about 1305, and the Maestà by Duccio completed in 1308. The important and extended Late Byzantine mosaic cycle of the Chora Church (early 14th century; see Gallery) shows some differences between East and West—the First seven steps of the Virgin were celebrated by an Orthodox feast day—but the 16 scenes taken to reach a point before the Visitation are similar to the 15 taken in Giotto’s near-contemporary cycle. When the Chora cycle resumes, it has become part of the Life of Christ beginning with his Incarnation, as has Giotto’s and many Western examples. The Giotto cycle is very full at 26 scenes, but in a small ivory only two scenes may be shown. The commonest pair in such a case is the Annunciation and the Nativity of Jesus, although there were times when the Coronation of the Virgin might displace one of these.
The Tornabuoni Chapel cycle has nine scenes (described more fully at that article). In this case, as very often, other scenes, such as the Visitation, including Mary are contained in the complementary cycle of the Life of St John the Baptist on the walls. A Life of Christ has many more scenes that overlap with the Life of Mary, as the Scrovegni Chapel demonstrates. Albrecht Dürer produced a highly popular and influential series of 19 scenes in woodcut.