The Iconography of the Virgin Mary
PART ONE: BIRTH, YOUTH, MARRIAGE
In the legends Mary's parents are known as Anne and Joachim. They had been living apart, but an angel reunited them in Jerusalem and Mary was conceived. In Catholic doctrine this was an "immaculate conception," free from the taint of Original Sin. See my pages on St. Joachim and the Immaculate Conception for the full details.
and compare a
Nativity of Christ
from the same century).
even emphasizes the visual parallels between the two births by setting them on either side of an image of the enthroned Virgin.
But a number of features keep the two Nativities fairly easy to distinguish from one another. First, Mary is born in a real bed in a structure that is emphatically a private home rather than a stable or cave (example). In the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew Joachim is a shepherd who gives most of his produce to the poor and the godly, with the result that "the Lord multiplied to him his herds, so that there was no man like him in the people of Israel." In the images his wealth is often expressed by sumptuous surroundings and serving maids. In the 17th and 18th centuries the number of servants and others in attendance swells to a veritable mob (example).
Food is another difference. Only in the Birth of Mary images does one find servants bringing the new mother something to eat: a bowl of soup in Dipre's painting (before 1531), a whole chicken in Nebbia's façade at Orvieto Cathedral (1350-90), and in the apse mosaic at Santa Maria in Trastevere (1291) a huge spread with a chicken, a jug of wine, flatbread, fruit slices, and a knife. In Pietro da Cortona's version1 a young serving girl proffers a basket of eggs, an appropriate symbol of fecundity for a woman heretofore barren.
Beginning in the Renaissance, some images place Anne farther into the background and put the baby into the arms of a youthful and vigorous attendant (example). Pietro Mara's 1635 version not only puts Anne remarkably far in the background but renders her alone in grisaille (Petricioli, 121). In some cases in the 17th and 18th centuries the attendant is a young wet nurse rather than the traditional midwife, as in this example from 1674.
Some 16th- and 17th-century images include St. Joachim as an incidental figure. In the 18th, with a greater emphasis on domesticity, he becomes more important. In this fresco, for example, he stands solidly behind mother and child, in the manner of 20th-century family portraits. And in this homely image, he sits beside the bed in the foreground, Anne holds the child, and instead of midwives we see servants warming the bedclothes.
The Eastern churches have observed a feast day commemorating Mary's presentation from the sixth century until the present time. Orthodox images of the event may include a procession of virgins headed by Mary (Cartlidge and Elliott, 31, 37). In the West a feast of the Virgin's presentation was in the universal calendar only from 1476 until the reforms of the Council of Trent. Consequently, images of the event are less common in the West than images of other milestones in Mary's life (Hood, 128).
The images are easy enough to identify. The child is made to look somewhat older than three and is always ascending a flight of stairs to the Temple, sometimes with her arms crossed in a gesture of humility (example). Her parents stand at the foot of the stairs, and the High Priest stands at the top. The priest may be arrayed like Aaron in a breastplate and hornlike "holy crown," as in this example and the painting shown above. But sometimes he will be made to look more like a bishop and the Temple more like a Christian church with a tabernacle (example). This reflects the tradition that Mary is the antitype of the Ark of the Covenant. As Gregory Thaumaturgus put it in the 3rd century, "the holy Virgin is in truth an ark, wrought with gold both within and without."
In the literary sources it is important that the number of steps in the stairway be fifteen, the same as the number of the "Gradual Psalms." But the artists hardly ever follow this cue. Even in the large canvas shown above it seems just too difficult to squeeze in all fifteen. (Nicolas Dipres, however, solved the problem by arranging the seven lowest steps in a circle.) teaches Mary to read. In these Mary usually appears to be a child of anywhere from eight to fifteen years old. See my page on St. Anne. this episode in the Arena Chapel series, and in portraits of St. Joseph the rod is his attribute.
The literary sources pass quickly over what one of them calls "the usual ceremonies of betrothal," but in the art the marriage of the Virgin is a common subject. In this episode Joseph usually holds his flowering rod, with or without dove, and there may or may not be a ring. The high priest is sometimes dressed in the artist's idea of what such an official would have worn in Mary's time (example), and sometimes in the garb of a contemporary bishop (example). In most images the witnesses to the ceremony are numerous (example). The Gospel of Nicodemus (II, 4) names twelve, although I have not seen any with exactly that number.
After the betrothal but before the marriage came the question of Mary's pregnancy. In both the Protevangelium of James (chapter 16) and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (chapter 12) the couple are summoned to explain themselves to the high priest, who is incredulous and orders them to drink "the water of drinking of the Lord," which supposedly would cause a sign to appear on their faces if they were lying. No such sign appears, so they are exonerated. This episode is illustrated in a 6th century ivory in the Louvre.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-11-17, 2016-12-13, 2018-05-13.
Titian, The Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple, 1534-38. See the description page for a discussion of this painting.
MORE IMAGES: BIRTH OF MARY
MORE IMAGES: OTHER
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