Maria Regina or Mary the Queen is a term usually used to designate a specific type of Marian representation which was one of the most widespread images in the early medieval painting of Rome. The main peculiarity of Maria Regina imagery lies in the fact that neither the pose nor compositional scheme determine the iconographical identity but the royal garment and rich imperial headdress. The Virgin is represented as a Queen, which is conveyed through her vestments that reproduce, down to the smallest detail, the official attire of a Byzantine Empress: the dark purple dalmatic, the lavishly ornate maniakion, the bright crimson shoes, and most of all the crown of the stephanos type equal to the rank of the emperor’s stemma.
The popularity of this representation in the Western world, especially in Rome, and the fact that it is almost unknown in Byzantine art gave reason to regard the Maria Regina as a specific Western variant of Marian imagery, which emerged and became widespread in Rome under the strong papal influence. However, this assumption is contested by the fact that the earliest existing images of Maria Regina do not imitate but directly quote official representations of the Byzantine Empresses and Emperors. This finds ample proof in numerous imperial images that were widespread at the time and today survive in the San Vitale mosaics, fragments of full length statues, ivory, metal weights and coins. Hitherto links between the formation of the Maria Regina representative iconography and the development of official portraiture of Byzantine empresses weren’t carefully studied or explained.
Direct borrowing of the iconography from the imperial cult, with its utterly un-Christian essence, brought in its wake the transfer of semantic and hierarchic accents from secular iconography to the Marian. Thus, the image of Maria Regina deliberately used the symbolism and dramatic emotional impact intrinsic in the official iconography. The turn to the Byzantine imperial iconography may serve as a strong indication to Constantinople – the place where the official portraiture of the potentate took shape – as a center where Maria Regina type most probably originated.
The ambiguity of the position of Maria Regina imagery between Rome and Constantinople was recently emphasized by the discovery of the mosaic representation in the oratory of the Roman Amphitheatre in Dürres (formerly Dyrrachium). Standing figure of the Virgin in rich imperial robes holding crowned sphere and precious cross on a long staff was initially mistaken for imperial portrait. Situated on via Egnatia on the way in between two capitals of the Eastern and Western worlds this highly elaborated image reveals the spread and wide use of the Early Byzantine imperial iconography that was able to cross the geographical borders, social and political limits and to promote the development of intercultural relations.