The Presentation in the Temple: The Iconography

February 2
The event pictured above is called the Hypapante by the Eastern churches. In the West it is referred to sometimes as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and sometimes as the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.

The western names refer to the two Jewish rituals that Mary and Joseph observe in Luke's gospel. The first is the ritual of a woman's "purification" after childbirth, which is detailed in Leviticus 12:2-8. For forty days after the birth, the mother is considered blood-impure. On the fortieth day she brings to the Temple a lamb and a dove, or two doves if she cannot afford a lamb. The priest offers these in the Temple and thus she is "purified." The other ritual is set forth in Exodus 13:2, 12-13. A firstborn son is to be dedicated to God and then "ransomed" with some unspecified offering. Luke 2:22 conflates these two rituals: "And after the days of her purification, according to the law of Moses, were accomplished, they carried him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord."

In the images of this conflated event, Mary and Joseph bring to the Temple both the two doves for Mary's purification and their son for the dedication and ransoming. In many late medieval images the child has been placed on an altar, as above and in this example. This keeps the viewer in mind that the child is indeed Jesus, the sacrifical "lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29) through his redemptive sacrifice on the Cross. In a sermon on the Presentation, Bernard of Clairvaux urges Mary, "Offer your son, sacred Virgin, and present to the Lord the blessed fruit of your womb. Offer the sacred victim (hostia), pleasing to God, that all of us may be reconciled to him. He is sure to accept this new oblation, this precious victim." And in the York play of the Presentation, when Mary laments having no lamb to offer, Joseph says, "Our baby Jesus…is our lamb, Mary.… He is the lamb of God, I say, who all our sins shall take away."1

SIMEON AND ANNA

Presentation images almost always include Simeon, a man who according to Luke's gospel 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). Although Luke says only that he was "a man," the images consistently follow apocryphal accounts that represent him as an aged priest.2

In medieval mystery plays Simeon bespeaks the longings of the just for God's redemption.3 Some images make this longing reciprocal through the gestures of Simeon and the baby. In this mosaic in Sicily, the two reach their arms toward each other across a wide distance punctuated by a small image of a ciborium. The Ugljan Triptych in Zadar also puts the two figures on either side of a ciborium, their arms reaching toward each other.4 In contrast, however some later works such as 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. 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.5 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 / CANDELARIA

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 santo typically wears a crown and has the Christ Child in her arms and a candle or other symbolic object in one hand. Sometimes the child also wears a crown.

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.6

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, 2020-06-22.

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Exodus 13:2, 12-13  Sanctify unto me every firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel, as well of men as of beasts: for they are all mine.…
Thou shalt set apart all that openeth the womb for the Lord, and all that is first brought forth of thy cattle: whatsoever thou shalt have of the male sex, thou shalt consecrate to the Lord. The firstborn of an ass thou shalt change for a sheep: and if thou do not redeem it, thou shalt kill it. And every firstborn of men thou shalt redeem with a price.
Leviticus 12:2b-8   If a woman having received seed shall bear a man child, she shall be unclean seven days, according to the days of the separation of her flowers. And on the eighth day the infant shall be circumcised: But she shall remain three and thirty days in the blood of her purification. She shall touch no holy thing, neither shall she enter into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification be fulfilled.… And when the days of her purification are expired… she shall bring to the door of the tabernacle of the testimony, a lamb of a year old for a holocaust, and a young pigeon or a turtle for sin, and shall deliver them to the priest: Who shall offer them before the Lord, and shall pray for her, and so she shall be cleansed.… [And if] she is not able to offer a lamb, she shall take two turtles, or two young pigeons.

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

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.

MORE IMAGES

DATES

  • The feast day celebrating the Presentation is on February 2. That day is sometimes called Candlemas.

RELEVANT TEXTS

NOTES

1 Patrologia Latina, CLXXXIII, 370 (my translation). York Plays, 257-64.

2 Chapter 24 of The Protevangelium of James says Simeon was the priest who replaced Zechariah after the latter's execution by Herod. The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, ¶6, says Simeon was "old," and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, chapter 15, has him "a hundred and twelve years old."

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

4 Petricioli, 66. The Presentation is pictured on the second panel of the left wing of the triptych. Venetian or Zadarian painter, tempera on wood, beginning of the 14th century. In the Zadar Regional Museum, Zadar, Croatia.

5 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).

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

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