St. Paul writes of the Church as Christ's bride whom he has saved and washed clean with the "laver of living water in the word" (Ephesians 5:26, referencing Exodus 30:18-19). Christian art follows this personification in always representing the Church as a woman, as in the 5th-century door panel at right.
Within this iconographic tradition there are two main image types. The first contemplates the Church as the bride from the Song of Solomon. The other juxtaposes the Church with what Christians considered her predecessor, the Synagogue.
THE CHURCH AS BRIDE OF CHRIST
Christian commentators on the Song of Solomon understood the bride allegorically as the Church. (See this page for an extended example in an illuminated manuscript.) The intimate language of the Song represented Christ's love for his bride and sometimes led to a fairly intimate iconography that portrayed the kisses and embraces of the bride and bridegroom.1
Another tradition in the art merged the Church and the Virgin Mary into a type known as Maria Ecclesia, as in the 13th-century apse mosaic at Santa Maria in Trastevere (above), where the woman wears a crown and sits enthroned alongside Christ, who lightly embraces her with his right arm. The embrace is explained by the text on the scroll in her hands: Leva eius sub capite meo et dextera illius amplesabitur me, "His left hand is under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me," from the Song of Solomon (2:6 and 8:3). This identifies the woman as the bride in the Song. At the same time, the book in Christ's hand links her to Mary. It uses the same words Christ speaks to Mary in the Golden Legend when she enters Heaven: Veni electa mea et ponam in te thronum meum, "Come, my chosen one, and I shall put you on my throne.2
The same composition appears in simpler form in the first picture on the right, a fresco in Untergreutschach, Austria. Considering the obscurity of the location, it seems likely that it is not the only image modeled on the Trastevere mosaic.
Bartal (95-97) presents three manuscript illuminations in which Song 2:6 is illustrated by a close embrace. They all appear to contemplate the beloved only as Ecclesia, not as the Virgin.
In a portrait of St. Barnabas in Rome a female figure points to the phrase magistra apostolorum in a book held open by St. Barnabas. Magistra is the feminine form of the word for "teacher," and apostolorum means "of the apostles." The use of this phrase suggests that the female figure could be Maria Ecclesia: see my study of the portrait.
THE CHURCH AND THE SYNAGOGUE
Another iconographical type juxtaposes a representation of Ecclesia with her predecessor, Synagoga, who is blind or blindfolded, as at right. When thus paired, Ecclesia is sometimes shown with a laver (referencing Ephesians 5:26 and Exodus 30:18-19), a crown, and a cross – as in this window in Germany and in this pulpit in Venice, where Synagoga wears Aaron's vestments and holds the tablets of the Law and a broken lance.
The displacement of Synagoga by Ecclesia is sometimes referenced in medieval art in the West. A stained glass window in Bourges Cathedral shows a crowned Ecclesia on the right collecting Christ's blood as a symbol of the sacraments while on the left a blindfolded Synagoga loses her crown and turns aside. In a Crucifixion image in Siena an elderly Synagoga is hustled out of the frame by one angel while another leads in the beautiful young Ecclesia.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-10-29.
Detail of the apse mosaic at Santa Maria in Trastevere: Christ and Maria Ecclesia enthroned. See the description page for a discussion of the entire apse and its symbolism.