Neither scripture nor Catholic dogma says anything about Mary being crowned upon her arrival in Heaven, yet this has been a popular theme in the art for more than eight centuries. The idea seems to have developed from early medieval commentaries on the Assumption, some of which describe the heavenly host's joyous welcome of "the Queen of our race" whom Christ "gladly placed on a throne at his side." Mary's queenship was also affirmed in an antiphon in the Office of Lauds for Assumption Day: "Today the Virgin Mary ascends to Heaven; rejoice, for she reigns with Christ forever."1
These literary sources led first to an image type popular in the 13th century in which Mary and Christ sit enthroned side by side, wearing crowns and flanked by angels. The earliest known sculpture of this type is the upper register of a tympanum in the Cathedral of Senlis (about 1170). The lower register depicts the Dormition and Assumption. This composition is repeated almost exactly in a tympanum at Chartres (1194-1260) and invites comparison with the apse mosaic in Santa Maria in Trastevere.
These works would more properly be called "Enthronements" rather than "Coronations," because in them Mary already has her crown. Indeed, there is still no mention of a coronation in the Golden Legend's extensive account of Mary's reception into Heaven in 1260. But true Coronation images begin to show up in the 13th century and eventually become the standard. As far as I know, the earliest example is the tympanum of the Portal of the Virgin (1210s-1220s) at Notre Dame de Paris, in which an angel reaches down from above the Virgin to place the crown on her head. The angel also does the crowning in an ivory from about 50 years later, but by the end of the century the typical Coronation shows Christ himself placing the crown on Mary's head as the two sit enthroned and flanked by angels. This is the pattern in the mosaic at the top of this page and in most of the ensuing centuries.
A less common pattern has Mary crowned by the Trinity. In some images she is seated between the Son and the Father, who together place the crown on her head while the Holy Spirit hovers just above (example). A Spanish relief from 1200 appears to include an antecedent of this type. In an unusual Spanish example from the 18th century, the Trinity is pictured as three identical men, one of whom has just placed the crown on Mary's head. Other variants may have Mary crowned by the Father alone (as in this image and a Botticelli in the Uffizi Gallery) or by Christ and the Holy Spirit without the Father, as in the first and second pictures at right. In this example the Father expresses a paternal blessing by standing behind Christ and Mary with his hands on their shoulders.
THE HAND GESTURES
In the earlier examples cited on this page it is common for Mary to express humility by holding her hands forward, palms out. This usage fades away in the 15th century, replaced by the "praying hands" gesture or the crossing of the arms over her breast, which are both about equal in frequency.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-09, 2016-11-15, 2018-01-14.
The apse mosaic at Santa Maria Maggiore (circa 1290) typifies the most common way of picturing the Coronation of the Virgin. See the description page for an analysis of its relation to the Offices for the Feast of the Assumption.
RELEVANT MEDIEVAL TEXTS