The Presentation in the Temple: The Iconography

February 2
The event pictured above is referred to sometimes as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and sometimes as the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The "purification" of a woman after childbirth is detailed in Exodus 12. It requires a gift to the Temple of a lamb and a dove, or a pair of doves if the parents cannot afford a lamb. Mary and Joseph are always shown bringing two doves, usually in a basket as above. In the York Plays Mary laments having no lamb to offer, but Joseph says, "Our baby Jesus…is our lamb, Mary.… He is the lamb of God, I say, who all our sins shall take away" (Play 17:257-64). This reply alludes to John the Baptist's recognition of Jesus in John 1:29, "Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world" and to the coming sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. In the visual arts of the later Middle Ages, it is expressed by placing the child on an altar, as above and in this example.

SIMEON AND ANNA

Presentation images always include an old man named Simeon who had been "waiting for the consolation of Israel" and had been told by the Holy Spirit "that he should not see death, before he had seen the Christ of the Lord" (Luke 2:25-26). Simeon represents all the faithful (viz. the Glossa Ordinaria, V, 717-18). In medieval mystery plays he bespeaks the desires of the just for God's redemption.1 Similarly, earlier Presentation images express the longing of God and man for each other through the gestures of Simeon and the baby (example), although later works like the picture above may prefer a more naturalistic effect with the baby reaching back to the mother and away from the scary stranger.

Until the 14th century Simeon always received the child with hands covered by his mantle (example) or by a separate cloth (example). This tradition arose from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (3rd or 4th century), which said that when Simeon saw the child he "took him up into his cloak and kissed his feet." It continued in the West even into the 16th century (example). But it was not mentioned in the Golden Legend, so we start to see uncovered hands in the West in the 14th century, as in the picture above and this example. In the 15th and especially the 16th, the child himself may be half- or fully naked.

An aged prophetess named Anna is also present in Luke's account and is in many Presentation images. The mystery plays make her a representative of mankind's longings as well, but in the images she usually just stands to the side.

THE FULFILMENT OF PROPHECY

Medieval commentators saw the Presentation event as the fulfilment of prophecies in scripture, and a lengthy passage in the Chester Purification play has Simeon and Anna studying the scriptures together.2 The reliefs at Orvieto Cathedral have Simeon reading a book before the Presentation occurs, and a book is on the altar in a 13th-century Presentation image in Rome.

CANDLEMAS

Simeon calls the child "a light to the revelation of the Gentiles" and tells Mary, "thy own soul a sword shall pierce." These remarks have a lasting impact on liturgy and iconography in the West. The comment about the sword leads to a subset of the Sorrowful Mother type in which Mary's breast is pierced by a sword (example). The comment about light to the Gentiles led to the celebration of the feast of Candlemas. On February 2, 40 days after Christmas, the faithful bring candles to the church to be blessed and lighted. Medieval and later images of the Purification / Presentation normally include candles to refer to the feast and to the belief that Christ is indeed the light to the Gentiles (Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Candlemas"). In Latin countries, La Candelaria is the name both for Candlemas and for a santo of the Virgin and Child that is processed on that day.

THE SETTING AND THE DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Luke says Simeon greeted the child after going "into the Temple." Western medieval images follow suit by putting the figures within a room-like area (example). But earlier works show the action as if outdoors (example).

The number of persons in Presentation images can be as few as just Mary, the baby and Simeon (and maybe Joseph and Anna), or it can include a whole throng of bystanders, which in later medieval works may include a young woman with uncovered hair carrying the basket of doves (example). The latter could possibly be one of the virgins the priests assigned as Mary's companions in the apocryphal gospels.3

Sometimes people confuse the Presentation in the Temple with the Circumcision, which occurred on the 8th day of the child's life. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (¶15) says, "when the infant had received parhithomus, that is, circumcision, they offered for him a pair of turtle-doves." And this fresco in Santo Spirito, Rome, has a mitred priest attending to the naked Christ Child as if it were a Circumcision image, yet it also includes attendants with candles and the bareheaded young woman with the basket of doves.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-12-07.

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SHOWN ABOVE

Detail from the New Testament frescoes at Pomposa Abbey (early 14th century). See the description page for details.

NOTES

1 York Play #17:87-164, Chester Play #11:1-24.

2 See for example see Nicholas of Lyra's interpretation of Luke 2:25, In Jerusalem as "In a solemn and sacred place, for in that place were both the divine cult and the study of the Law and the Prophets.… At that time it was the common opinion of the learned that the coming of Christ was imminent, according to the signs given to the patriarchs and prophets" (Glossa Ordinaria, V, 717-18). Bede (ibid.) also remarks, on the Holy Ghost's promise to Simeon, that "just as he [the Christ] was presaged to the faithful from all ages, so his arrival was predicted to all the just." For the Chester passage see Deimling, The Chester Plays, I, 206-209 (Play #11:25-104).

3 The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, ¶8. The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, ¶8.

OTHER IMAGES

The altar is di­vided be­tween the two halves of this marble Pre­sen­ta­tion group from the late 14th cen­tury. The candle held by the woman at left alludes to "Candle­mas," a late al­ter­na­tive name for the Feast of the Puri­fi­ca­tion of the Blessed Vir­gin, Feb­ru­ary 2. See the de­scrip­tion page.

Like Western Pre­sen­ta­tion images of the same era, this 15th-century manu­script illus­tra­tion from Ar­me­nia uses an altar to allude to the sac­ri­fice for which the Christ Child was born. – See the de­scrip­tion page.

In this statue from a Fran­cis­can mona­stery, the child is re­pre­sent­ed as com­plete­ly na­ked. See the de­scrip­tion page.

NAMES

  • The Presentation event is also known as the Hypopanti and as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both names also apply to the feast celebrated on February 2. That feast is also sometimes called Candlemas.

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