Sorrowful Mother or Our Lady of Sorrows

Mother Dolorosa o Nuestra Señora de los Dolores

Feast day: September 15       

Essay by Jillian Franzen

The Blessed Virgin Mary is often represented in many different capacities including as the Mother of God. Originally there were the Seven Joys of Mary; the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity of Our Lord, the Adoration of the Magi, the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple, the Appearance of the Risen Christ to his Mother, and the Assumption and Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven. There was a general awareness of emotional stress of the Passion in the early fifteenth century and Our Lady of Sorrows was a way of expressing that emotion and was meant to be a counterpart to the popular devotion to the Seven Joys. The Seven Sorrows include the Prophecy of Holy Simeon (St. Luke 2:34, 35), the Flight into Egypt (St. Matthew 2:13,14), the Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple (St. Luke 2:43-45), the Meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way to the Cross, the Crucifixion, the Descending of the Body of Jesus from the Cross, and the Burial of Jesus. The image of the Sorrowful Mother is frequently depicted as half-length wearing a dark blue shawl decorated with gold stars over layers of her white veil and pink tunic (fig. 1). Mary’s face is peaceful with a tilted head and the hands clasped in grief in front of her chest. There are rays of light and more stars emerging out from behind her head and shoulders. The stars, usually 12 of them, represent her 12 perfections and also the graces and privileges received from her.

The two bottom corners of this composition are decorated with curvilinear golden lines. She can also be shown alongside the Instruments of the Passion of Christ such as the nails, the pillar, the ladder, the rooster and lantern, and a lance and sword (fig. 2). Probably the most distinctive detail that marks Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows is the dagger piercing her breast from her left side, representative of the first sorrow. Most of the retablos in NMSU’s collection show her with one dagger, but it is not uncommon for her to be depicted with seven daggers representing all seven sorrows at the scene of the crucifixion while holding a crown of thorns (fig. 3).

Our Lady of Sorrows’ original feast day was set in the fifteenth century as the Friday of Passion week while the September 15th feast day became widely accepted in the nineteenth century. She is said to be especially concerned with women and children and is called upon often by women in times of grief.

Figure 1. Our Lady of Sorrows / Nuestra Señora de los Dolores

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 14 x 10”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1966.1.42.

Figure 2. Our Lady of Sorrows / Nuestra Señora de los Dolores

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 13¾ x 10″. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1965.4.5.

Donor: Dr. and Mrs. Andrew M. Babey.

Figure 3. Our Lady of Sorrows / Nuestra Señora de los Dolores

Anonymous, Mexico. 1873.

Oil on tin. 14 x 10″. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1965.2.79.

Donor: Mr. Fran E. Tolland.


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Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

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Zarur, Elizabeth N. C. and Charles Muir Lovell, ed. Art and Faith in Mexico: The Nineteenth- Century Retablo Tradition. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.