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