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Ave Maria.. An artistic celebration of the Holy Mother

Updated on November 21, 2009

Ave Maria...

The artistic celebration of the many aspects of WOMAN continues now with an artistic celebration of The Virgin Mary throughout the ages.

Listen to a most beautiful rendition of Ave Maria while enjoying the artistic celebration of The Virgin Mary.

The Ancient Catacombs of Rome

The catacombs and the Mother of God.

We begin our journey into the artistic celebration of Mary deep within the catacombs of Ancient Rome. The oldest images of the Holy Mother are found preserved there, in the cemetery of Priscilla on the Via Salaria. This fresco, which can be dated back to the first half of the third century, depicts the Virgin with the Christ Child on her knees in front of a prophet (perhaps Balaam or Isaiah) who is pointing to a star to refer to the messianic prediction. In the catacombs other episodes with Our Lady are also represented such as the Adoration of the Magi and scenes from the Christmas crib.

Sacred Icons of Ancient Byzantium

Panaghia Hodegetria

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, The Orthodox Church of Constantinople, which enjoyed greater stability within the surviving Eastern Empire, was key in funding arts there and glorifying Christianity with the more abstract and symbolic nature of Byzantine art.

One of the most important genres of Byzantine art was the icon, an image of Christ, the Virgin, or a saint, used as an object of veneration in Orthodox churches and private homes alike. Icons were more religious than aesthetic in nature. Created through carefully maintained canons of representation, they were understood to manifest the unique "presence" of the figure depicted by means of a "likeness" to that figure.

The Hodegetria ("She who shows the way")

is the icon depicting the Theotokos (literal English translations include God-bearer and the one who gives birth to God; less literal translations include Mother of God) holding the Child Jesus on her side while pointing at Him as the source of salvation for mankind. The most venerated icon of the Hodegetria type, regarded as the original, was said to have been painted by Saint Luke. It was said to have been brought back from the Holy Land by Eudocia, the Empress of Theodosius II (408-50)and displayed in the Monastery of the Panaghia Hodegetria in Constantinople, which was built specially to contain it. The name of the icon, Panagia Hodegetria (She who shows the Way), is given through the legend which tells that nearby the church of the monastery was a source where the blind and all who suffered eye disorders came to be healed, since the Holy Virgin would have appeared to two blind people and guided them here where she restored their vision. The icon was double-sided, with the crucifixion of Jesus on the other side, and was "perhaps the most prominent cult object in Byzantium".

There are a number of images showing the icon in its shrine and in the course of being displayed publicly, which happened every Tuesday, and was one of the great sights of Constantinople for visitors. It was moved to the monastery of the Pantocrator, the base of the Venetian see, from 1204-1261, during the period of Frankish rule, and since none of the illustrations of the shrine at the Hodegetria monastery predate this interlude, the shrine may have been created after its return.

There are a number of accounts of the weekly display, the two most detailed by Spaniards: "Every Tuesday twenty men come to the church of Maria Hodegetria; they wear long red linen garments, covering up their heads like stalking clothes ... there is a great procession and the men clad in red go one by one up to the icon; the one with whom the icon is pleased is able to take it up as if it weighed almost nothing. He places it on his shoulder and they go chanting out of the church to a great square, where the bearer of the icon walks with it from one side to the other,going fifty times around the square. When he sets it down then others take it up in turn." Another account says the bearers staggered around the crowd, the icon seeming to lurch towards onlookers, who were then considered blessed by the Virgin. Clergy touched pieces of cotton-wool to the icon and handed them out to the crowd.

The icon appears to have disappeared during the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 when it was deposited at the Saint Saviour in Chora. It may have been cut into four pieces.

Salus Populi Romani, Protectress of the Roman People

This image developed, or became more widely used,

in the 10th century, after the period of iconoclasm in Byzantine art from an earlier type where the Virgin's right hand was on Christ's knee. An example of the former type is the Salus Populi Romani icon in Rome. The miraculous image, Protectress of the Roman People, is perhaps the best loved and honored Marian icon in Rome, Italy. It is located in the Cappella Paolina of Saint Mary Major Basilica in Rome, known to English-speaking pilgrims as Lady Chapel.

Many versions carry the inscription "Hodegetria" in the background and in the Byzantine context only these named versions were understood by their medieval audience as conscious copies of the original Hodegetria, created by St. Luke, that rested in the Hogedon monastery.

Theotokos of Vladimir, Treasure of Russia

From the Hodegetria developed the Eleousa, "Virgin of Tender Mercy", where Mary still indicates Christ, but he is nuzzling her cheek, which she slightly inclines towards him. One of the most famous versions is the Theotokos of Vladimir,

treasure of Russia, and one of the oldest icons of its type. The miraculous icon of the Mother of God of Vladimir is among the best known in the Western World. The icon can be recognized by the arm of the Child around the neck of the mother. The face of the Virgin that is looking towards us is full of warmth and human comprehension, but also with deep sadness.

The icon of the Virgin of Vladimir is known in Russia since 1131 when she was taken from Constantinople to Kiev. In 1155, prince Andrei Bogolioubski took off to the North to found a new capital. That was Vladimir. He took with him the icon from Kiev. He was captivated by its splendor. It was in that period that the icon started to work miracles and attracted large numbers of faithful. In 1395, the icon was transported to Moscow. Up to three times when threatened by an invasion from the East, Moscow was saved by a miraculous intervention involving the icon.

Our Lady of St. Theodore, The Black Virgin of Russia

Another famous version of this icon is the Fyodorovskaya Theotokos,

also known as Our Lady of St. Theodore and the Black Virgin of Russia, the patron icon of the Romanov family and one of the most venerated icons in the Upper Volga region. Her feast days are March 27 and August 29.

Since the Fyodorovskaya follows the same Byzantine "Tender Mercy" type as the Theotokos of Vladimir, pious legends declared it a copy of that famous image, allegedly executed by none other than Saint Luke. It is believed that, before the Mongol invasion of Rus, the icon was kept in a monastery near the town of Gorodets-on-the-Volga. After the Mongols sacked and burnt the town, the icon disappeared and was given up for lost.

Several months later, on 16 August 1239, Prince Vasily of Kostroma wandered out of his way while hunting in a forest. While trying to figure his way out of the thicket, he saw an icon concealed among fir branches. When he reached out to touch it, the icon mysteriously rose up in the air.

The frightened and awestruck prince informed the citizens of Kostroma about the miracle he had witnessed and returned with a crowd of people to the forest. They fell prostrate before the icon and prayed to the Theotokos. Then the icon was transported to the city and placed in the Assumption Cathedral. A conflagration destroyed the cathedral with its icons soon thereafter, but the Fyodorovskaya was found intact on the third day after the fire.

The people of Gorodets, situated considerably to the east of Kostroma, learned about the miracle. They recognized the newly-found icon as theirs and demanded it back. After a long litigation, the people of Kostroma had a copy of the icon painted and sent back to Gorodets.

Church legends differ as to why the icon was named after Saint Theodore Stratelates. One explanation is that, during Vasily's absence in the forest, several people claimed to have seen the apparition of St. Theodore walking the streets of Kostroma with an icon of the Theotokos in his hands.

The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland's holiest relic

The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, is Poland's holiest relic and one of the country's national symbols.

Although the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa

has been intimately tied with Poland for the past six hundred years, its history prior to its arrival is shrouded in numerous legends which trace the icon's origin back to St. Luke who, it is believed, painted it on a cypress table top from the house of the Holy Family.

One of the oldest documents from Jasna Gora states that the picture travelled from Jerusalem, via Constantinople and Belz, to finally reach Czestochowa in August 1382 by Wladyslaw Opolczyk, Duke of Opole.

The origins of the icon and the date of its composition are still hotly contested among scholars however. The difficulty in dating the icon stems from the fact that the original image was painted over after being badly damaged by Hussite raiders in 1430. Medieval restorers unfamiliar with the encaustic method found that the paints they applied to the damaged areas "simply sloughed off the image" according to the medieval chronicler Risinius, and their solution was to erase the original image and to repaint it on the original canvas, which was believed to be holy because of its legendary origin as a table top from the home of the Holy Family. The painting displays a traditional composition well-known in the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Virgin Mary is shown as the "Hodegetria" ("One Who Shows the Way"). In it the Virgin directs attention away from herself, gesturing with her right hand toward Jesus as the source of salvation. In turn, the child extends his right hand toward the viewer in blessing while holding a book of gospels in his left hand. The icon shows the Madonna in fleur de lys robes.

The Black Madonna is credited with miraculously saving the monastery of Jasna Gora (English: Bright Mount) from a 17th century Swedish invasion, The Deluge, which actually changed the course of the war. This event led King Jan Kazimierz to "crown" Our Lady of Czestochowa ("the Black Madonna") as Queen and Protector of Poland in the cathedral of Lwow on April 1, 1656.

Another legend concerning the Black Madonna of Czestochowa is that the presence of the holy painting saved its church from being destroyed in a fire, but not before the flames darkened the fleshtone pigments. The legend concerning the two scars on the Black Madonna's right cheek is that the Hussites stormed the Pauline monastery in 1430, plundering the sanctuary. Among the items stolen was the icon. After putting it in their wagon, the Hussites tried to get away but their horses refused to move. They threw the portrait down to the ground and one of the plunderers drew his sword upon the image and inflicted two deep strikes. When the robber tried to inflict a third strike, he fell to the ground and squirmed in agony until his death. Despite past attempts to repair these scars, they had always reappeared.

Another legend states that, as the robber struck the painting twice, the face of the Virgin Mary started to bleed; in a panic, the scared Hussites retreated and left the painting.

Because of the Black Madonna, Czestochowa is regarded as the most popular shrine in Poland, with many Polish Catholics making a pilgrimage there every year. Often, people will line up on the side of the road to hand provisions to the pilgrims as those who walk the distance to Czestochowa walk the entire day and have little means to get things for themselves.

" The Proto-Renaissance"

A transforming moment in Western art

We can trace the very beginnings of the Renaissance period back to around 1150 in northern Italy. Some texts, most notably Gardner's Art Through the Ages, refer to the years from 1200 to the early 15th century as the "Proto-Renaissance", while others lump this time frame in with the term "Early Renaissance". The first term seems more sensible, so we're borrowing its use here. Differentiations should be noted. The "Early" Renaissance - let alone the "Renaissance" on the whole - could not have occurred without these first years of increasingly bold explorations in art.

Painting, almost imperceptibly, began to shake the Medieval style in which compositions followed a rigid format. Yes, most paintings were for religious purposes and yes, painters still stuck halos around nearly every painted head, but - if one looks closely, it's evident that things were loosening up a bit, composition-wise. At times, it even seems that figures might - given the right circumstances - be capable of movement. This was a small but radical change indeed. If it seems a little timid to us now, bear in mind that there were some fairly horrible penalties involved if one angered the Church through heretical acts.

This exquisite Madonna and Child

by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Italian, Sienese, active ca. 1278-d. 1318, tempera and gold on wood) defines a transforming moment in Western art. Departing from the Byzantine notion of painting as a symbolic image of a divine being, Duccio, the founder of Sienese painting, endowed his figures with a new humanity, exploring the psychological relationship between Mother and Child.

The damage along the bottom of the original frame is from candles lit before the picture, which was used for private devotion.

The Early Renaissance - The Botticelli Madonnas

Sandro Botticelli (born Allesandro di Mariano Filipepi, Florence about 1447; died in the same city, 1510) enjoys, above all, a well-earned fame as a painter of the Madonna. In these pictures the fascination lies more in the expression of the Mother and Child and in the look on the faces of the half-grown boy-angels than in the unaffected simplicity of the pose and composition. Two of these pictures, circular in form (called tondo, round) have become very famous. Both are in Florence; one is the "Magnificat" and in the other the Child is holding a pomegranate.

The Child's expression is always sweet and winning, yet thoughtful as well, and at times the look is one of intense earnestness. The Mother in holy awe restrains her tenderness and seems to have a presentiment of future sorrow.

Madonna del Magnificat
Virgin and Child with Five Angels painted in 1480-81

Madonna della Melagrana
Virgin and Child with Six Angels painted in about 1487

Madonna del Libro
Virgin Teaching Child to Read painted 1480-81

Madonna della Loggia
Virgin and Child painted in about 1468

Madonna of the Rose Garden
Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist
painted about 1468

The High Renaissance and Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks (c. 1483-6) is a good place to start to define the qualities of the new style of the High Renaissance. Leonardo painted it in Milan, where he had moved from Florence.

Madonna of the Rocks
Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist
Louvre version painted 1483-86

The Virgin of the Rocks in its first version (1483-86) is the work that reveals Leonardo's painting at its purest. It depicts the apocryphal legend of the meeting in the wilderness between the young John the Baptist and Jesus returning home from Egypt. The secret of the picture's effect lies in Leonardo's use of every means at his disposal to emphasize the visionary nature of the scene: the soft colour tones (through sfumato), the dim light of the cave from which the figures emerge bathed in light, their quiet attitude, the meaningful gesture with which the angel (the only figure facing the viewer) points to John as the intercessor between the Son of God and humanity-all this combines, in a patterned and formal way, to create a moving and highly expressive work of art.

Lets talk first about the subject. Normally when we have seen Mary and Christ, Mary has been enthroned as the queen of heaven. Here, in contrast, we see Mary seated on the ground. This type of representation of Mary is referred to as the Madonna of Humility. Mary has her right arm around the Infant St. John the Baptist who is making a gesture of prayer to the Christ child. The Christ child in turn blesses St. John. Mary's left hand hovers protectively over the head of her son while an angel looks out and points to St. John. The figures are all located in a fabulous and mystical landscape with rivers that seem to lead nowhere and bizarre rock formations. In the foreground we see carefully observed and precisely rendered plants and flowers.

We immediately notice Mary's ideal beauty and the graceful way in which she moves -- both features identified as typical of the High Renaissance

No Halos

The last, but not least important thing we need to mention (and maybe some of you have already noticed it!) is that this is the first time that an Italian Renaissance artist has completely abandoned halos. Clearly the unreal, symbolic nature of the halo was antithetical to the realism of the Renaissance. It was, in a way, a necessary holdover from the Middle Ages: how else to indicate a figure's divinity?

The Raphael Madonnas

The first period: 1499-1504

Illustriously deemed "Prince of Painters, Raphael is one of the most famous Madonna painters. He painted so many that his biography as a painter can be retraced and illustrated thanks to those outstanding artistic representations of Our Lady.

Raphael Santi was born in Urbino/Umbria on April 6, 1483. The boy was taught by his father Giovanni Santi, an honest painter. Raphael was eleven when his father died. At age sixteen he left for Perugia. He was admitted into the school of Il Perugino, his true teacher and master. At nineteen Raphael was still a timid, somewhat mystically inclined young painter of provincial origin and habits. His first Madonnas were young, with pouting mouth, round face and veiled head. The posture was traditional and rigid, the form at times fuzzy. Already his exceptional qualities of simplicity, grace and harmony in color and composition could be noted.

The Solly Madonna

One of his first, the Solly Madonna is a very young Madonna, almost childlike, reading from a book. The face has not yet the oval shape of Florentine Madonnas. The painting exudes a certain austerity and simplicity. He emulated his master Il Perugino but already his own genius transpired.

La Madonna Solly
Painted in about 1500 by Raphael

The Connestabile Madonna

The Connestabile Madonna, considered to be one of the greatest gems of miniature paintings, was painted for Alfonso di Diamenti, a friend of Raphael's. The Virgin stands in open air reading, while the child touches and looks into the same book. Mary is dressed in traditional marian colors: red tunic and blue mantle with hood over her head. The child's playfulness reflects ease and security in his mother's arms. The pretty landscape in the background suggests the passage from winter to spring.

The painting was sold by Count Scipione Connestabile to the Empress of Russia in 1871.

The Connestabile Madonna
Painted in 1502-03 by Raphael
The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Madonna and Child with Book

In Madonna and Child with Book, the serenely balanced figures are described simply and naturally. Mary gazes lovingly at the Christ Child, cradled in her lap, who in turn looks up at her with trust and admiration. Her protective arm around him and her gentle offer of the prayer book provide reassurance and security. The book, framed by Mary and the Child's hands, occupies the center of the composition. Raphael renders the manuscript clearly and legibly. The page is open to the Nones or the 9th hour of Canonical Offices, the hour for meditation on Christ's crucifixion and death. Even at this tender moment of his infancy, Christ's future is clear.

Madonna and Child with Book
Painted 1502-03 by Raphael

The Raphael Madonnas

Second period: 1505-1509

The Madonna del Gran'Duca is the first picture painted in Florence. Raphael went there in 1504. The Madonna of the Gran'Duca is one of the most beautiful.

La Madonna del Gran'Duca
Painted 1504-05 by Raphael

The Virgin's features are calm and serene but radiant and almost translucent, contrasting with the chubby earthiness of the infant Jesus. "Although slightly and very simply painted, especially in the nude parts, this picture excels all Raphael's previous Madonnas in the charm of a profound feeling" (Kugler). Some authors see in the Gran'Duca Madonna a resemblance (and influence) of da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" ... smiling less mysteriously!

The name does not refer to the person who commissioned this Madonna but who owned it at one time. It is said to have belonged to Carlo Dolici (1616-1686) before it eventually came into the possession of Grand Duke Ferdinand III of Habsburg in 1799. The painting became his faithful companion; he carried it with him wherever he went. This is the reason why the picture is also called "Madonna del Viaggio" (of the journey).

La Madonna del Gran'Duca is in the Pitti Gallery in Florence.

The Cowper Madonna

The Virgin is seated in an open air setting; her posture and countenance are less aristocratic than those of the Gran'Duca Madonna.

Madonna of Cowper
Painted 1505 by Raphael

She holds the naked Child with her left hand; he rests one foot on his mother's right hand, and places his arms around her neck. There is a touch of sadness in both mother and child. In the distance is a church with a dome and campanile. The execution is simple and easy, and da Vinci's influence is detectable in the drawing of the hands.

This Madonna painting of 1505 was purchased by Lord Cowper around 1870 when he was British Ambassador to Florence. A copy exists in the Lombardi collection in Florence.

Madonna di Terranuova

Also called "Madonna coi bambini" (with the children) this painting was originally in the possession of the Duke of Terranuova.

Madonna di Terranuova
Painted 1505 by Raphael

The Virgin is represented seated in a rocky landscape with the child in her lap, who together with the Baptist, is holding a scroll. A third child is leaning on the Virgin's knee, gazing at the infant savior. The boy is probably intended to represent James the Less.

Art historians see in this Madonna the influence of Michelangelo's Madonna now in the Uffizi. The contrast between Mary and the background landscape is a masterpiece of pictorial arrangement.

It was purchased in 1854 by Frederick William IV of Prussia and is now in the Berlin Staatsmuseum.

The Raphael Madonnas

Third Period: 1509-1520

Madonna di Foligno

Painted in Rome in 1512, this painting was ordered by Sigismondo Conti of Foligno who was private secretary to Pope Julius II and who had the painting placed on the high altar of the Franciscan church in Ara Coeli, Rome. It was to be a votive offering to Mary for her protection against lightning or the fall of a meteor.

Madonna di Foligno
Painted 1512 by Raphael

The Madonna holding the Child is seated upon the clouds above the distant city of Foligno. She is surrounded by angels. Below her we have two groups of the saints: on the left St. John the Baptist and St. Francis, on the right St. Jerome and Sigismond Conti, the donor. St. Sigismond is the patron saint of the donor and also the saint to whom the Jeronimite convent near Cremona was dedicated. St. Jerome begs the protection of the Virgin for the donor, who kneels in front of him. Between the two groups stands a little cherub holding in his hands a tablet. According to art experts, this painting is particularly remarkable for "the deeper golden tint which was never apparent" in Raphael's earlier works.

Madonna della Sedia

This painting is named after the chair (sedia) in which the Madonna is sitting. Painted between 1510 and 1514, it is of Raphael's own hand - undisputedly.

Madonna della Sedia
Painted 1514 by Raphael

Considered by many the most popular and most widely disseminated of all Raphael madonnas, it was probably painted for Pope Leo X or one of the Medici.

The Virgin holds the Infant on her lap, the glances of both mother and child are directed to an undetermined group of onlookers. St. John, as is often the case in Raphael's Madonna paintings, stands in adoration to the right of Jesus and Mary.

A pretty legend is attached to this painting which tells the story of a hermit, the beautiful daughter of a wine-dresser and Raphael:

"Centuries ago, there dwelt among the Italian hills near Rome a venerable hermit, whom the people called Father Bernardo. During a terrible storm his life was saved by Mary, the beautiful daughter of a wine-dresser, and by an old oak-tree in whose branches he had taken refuge; so he prayed to God to distinguish them in some way. Years passed away, the hermit died, and the oak-tree was converted into casks for Mary's father. One day Mary was sitting by one of these casks playing with her children, the elder of whom ran towards her with a stick made into the shape of a cross. Raphael had long been seeking a model for a picture of the Virgin and Child; just then he passed by, and seeing the group, stopped and drew them on the smooth cover of the wine cask. This he took away with him, and on it painted the Madonna della Sedia. Thus was the blessing and desire of the old hermit realized, and Mary and the oak were distinguished for all time." [Mrs. Clement, "Christian Symbols and Stories of the Saints," pp. 213-4.]

Madonna di San Sisto

Better known under the name of "Sistine Madonna", it is the last Madonna painting painted by Raphael (1519). It was painted for the monastery of San Sisto in Piacenza, whence its name. Purchased by Augustus II of Saxony (1753), it was "abducted" by Napoleon but returned soon after and restored in 1827. It is now in the Dresden Gallery.

Madonna di San Sisto
Painted 1519 by Raphael

Mary with Child stands on a globe partially covered by clouds, her veil billowing in an imaginary draft coming from the left side of the painting. Draperies left and right of Mary give the impression of a theatrical setting. Mother and Child are framed in contrasting fashion by the older St. Sixtus (he bears the traits of Julius II, whereas the Virgin resembles the famous Fornarina) and Saint Barbara in the splendor of youth. Mary's expression is one of lofty dignity. Her eyes - like those of her son - reflect according to one commentator "an eternity of unutterable fondness." Legend says that the two little angels were in fact two little boys who climbed up the window of Raphaels's studio and there intently gazed at the artist while he painted.

The Pre-Raphaelite and Vintage Victorian Madonna and Child

We shall finish our celebration of The Madonna and Child in art with the Vintage Victorian Art of French Painter William Bouguereau.

Innocence (L'innocence)
Painted 1893 by William Adolphe Bouguereau

Virgin and Lamb [La Vierge L'agneau]
Painted 1903 By William Bouguereau

Madonna of The Roses
Painted 1903 by William Adolphe Bouguereau

Song of The Angels
Painted 1881 by William Bouguereau

Explore further.... check out these great books about the Virgin Mary!

Thank you so much for visiting my Artistic Celebration of the Virgin Mary! I would love to hear from you so do please sign my g

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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      THANK YOU, I recently had purchased a very old painting of the "Sistine Madonna" the women I got it from said her grandparents had received it from a church yrs ago. I could not find a signature & did not know the name or artist, after clickin on your site, I found it in a minute, this was a great help. It is beautiful painting in a beautiful frame & is very old, now that I know the name & artist of this piece of art I can proudly display this in my home.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Shared a link to this lens at my WordPress blog via a post titled "Madonna and Child in Art". (P.S. The word Christmas is misspelled.)

    • Vikk Simmons profile image

      'Vikk Simmons 

      6 years ago from Houston

      Beautiful images. This is one of my favorite songs.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Very excited to see the history through paintings of mama Mary. Love you Mama Mary n Baby Jesus

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Beautiful lens. I am a Roman Catholic and appreciate the art and history. But I would also like to say that Mary is not considered a goddess. She is a human being who accepted God's will in becoming the Mother of Jesus. Still it is a lovely, lovely lens.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      i love jesus and mother mary

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you for this blessed and inspiring series of Madonna classics.

    • lovemybob profile image


      10 years ago

      Great job compiling all of these masterpieces! You have been lensrolled to The Painting Group.

    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 

      10 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Finally found the Guestbook! This is a beautiful lens and I would love to have it in the Group, Goddess, ( /groups/goddess) High Five of course! And lensrolled to boot.


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