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Symbols and Attributes of the Virgin Mary

( Originally Published 1895 )



That which the genius of the greatest of painters only once expressed, we must not look to find in his predecessors, who saw only partial glimpses of the union of the divine and human in the feminine form; still less in his degenerate successors, who never beheld it at all.

The difficulty of fully expressing this complex ideal, and the allegorical spirit of the time, first suggested the expedient of placing round the figure of the glorified Virgin certain accessory symbols, which should assist the artist to express, and the observer to comprehend, what seemed beyond the power of Art to portray, — a language of metaphor then understood, and which we also must understand if we would seize the complete theological idea intended to be conveyed.

I shall begin with those symbols which are borrowed from the Litanies of the Virgin, and from certain texts of the Canticles, in all ages of the Church applied to her : symbols which, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, frequently accompany those representations which set forth her Glorification or Predestination ; and, in the seventeenth, are introduced into the "Immaculate Conception."

1. The Sun and the Moon. "Electa ut Sol, pulchra ut Luna," is one of the texts of the Canticles applied to Mary ; and also in a passage of the Revelation, "A woman clothed with the sun, having the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars." Hence the radiance of the sun above her head, and the crescent moon beneath her feet. From inevitable association the crescent moon suggests the idea of the perpetual chastity ; but in this sense it would be a pagan rather than a Christian attribute.

2. The STAR. This attribute, often embroidered in front of the veil of the Virgin, or on the right shoulder of her blue mantle, has become almost as a badge from which several well-known pictures derive their title, "La Madonna della Stella." It is, in the first place, an attribute alluding to the most beautiful and expressive of her many titles : " Stella Maris," Star of the Sea, which is one interpretation of her Jewish name, Miriam ; but she is also " Stella Jacobi," the Star of Jacob ; " Stella Matutina," the Morning Star ; " Stella non Erratica," the Fixed Star. When, instead of the single star on her veil or mantle, she has the crown of twelve stars, the allusion is to the text of the Apocalypse already quoted, and the number of stars is in allusion to the number of the Apostles.'

3. The LILY. " I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys" (Cant. ii. 1, 2). As the general emblem of purity, the lily is introduced into the Annunciation, where it ought to be without stamens : and in the enthroned Madonnas it is frequently placed in the hands of attendant angels, more particularly in the Florentine Madonnas ; the lily, as the emblem of their patroness, being chosen by the citizens as the device of the city. For the same reason it became that of the French monarchy. Thorns are sometimes interlaced with the lily, to express the " Lilium inter Spinas" (Cant. ii. 2).



4. The Rose. She is the rose of Sharon, as well as the lily of the valley ; and as an emblem of love and beauty, the rose is especially dedicated to her. The plantation or garden of roses is often introduced ; sometimes it forms the back-ground of the picture. There is a most beautiful example in a Madonna by Cesare di Sesto (Brera, Milan) ; and another, " the Madonna of the Rose Bush," by Martin Schoen. (Cathedral, Colmar.)

5. The INCLOSED GARDEN (Hortus conclusus) is an image borrowed, like many others, from the Song of Solomon (Cant. iv. 12). I have seen this inclosed garden very significantly placed in the background of the Annunciation, and in pictures of the Immaculate Conception. Sometimes the in-closure is formed of a treillage or hedge of roses, as in a beautiful Virgin by Francia. (Munich Gallery.) Sometimes it is merely formed of stakes or palisades, as in some of the prints by Albert Dürer.

The WELL always full ; the FOUNTAIN forever sealed ; the TOWER of David ; the TEMPLE of Solomon : the CITY of David (Civitas sancta) (Cant. iv. 4, 12, 15) ; all these are attributes borrowed from the Canticles, and are introduced into pictures and stained glass.

6. The PORTA CLAUSA, the Closed Gate, is another metaphor, taken from the prophecy of Ezekiel (xliv. 2).

7. The CEDAR of Lebanon (Cedrus exaltata, " exalted as a cedar in Lebanon "), because of its height, its incorruptible substance, its perfume, and the healing virtues attributed to it in the East, expresses the greatness, the beauty, the goodness of Mary.

The victorious PALM, the Plantain " far spreading," and the Cypress pointing to heaven, are also emblems of the Virgin.

The OLIVE, as a sign of peace, hope, and abundance, is also a fitting emblem of the graces of Mary.

8. The STEM of Jesse (Is. xi. 1), figured as a green branch entwined with flowers, is also very significant.

9. The MIRROR (Specula sine maculâ) is a metaphor borrowed from the Book of Wisdom (vii. 25). We meet with it in some of the late pictures of the Immaculate Conception.

10. The SEALED Book is also a symbol often placed in the hands of the Virgin in a mystical Annunciation, and sufficiently significant. The allusion is to the text, " In that book were all my members written ; " and also to the text in Isaiah (xxix. 11, 12), in which he describes the vision of the book that was sealed, and could be read neither by the learned nor the unlearned.

11. " The Bush which burned and was not consumed " is introduced, with a mystical significance, into an Annunciation by Titian.

Besides these symbols, which have a mystic and sacred significance, and are applicable to the Virgin only, certain attributes and accessories are introduced into pictures of the Madonna and Child, which are capable of a more general interpretation.

1. The GLOBE, as the emblem of sovereignty, was very early placed in the hand of the divine Child. When the globe is under the feet of the Madonna and encircled by a serpent, as in some later pictures, it figures our Redemption ; her triumph over a fallen world — fallen through sin.

2. The SERPENT is the general emblem of Sin or Satan ; but under the feet of the Virgin it has a peculiar significance. She has generally her foot on the head of the reptile. " SHE shall bruise thy head," as it is interpreted in the Roman Catholic Church.

3. The APPLE, which of all the attributes is the most common, signifies the fall of man, which made Redemption necessary. It is sometimes placed in the hands of the Child ; but when in the hand of the Mother, she is then designated as the second Eve.

4. The POMEGRANATE, with the seeds displayed, was the ancient emblem of hope, and more particularly of religious hope. It is often placed in the hands of the Child, who sometimes presents it to his Mother.

Other fruits and flowers, always beautiful accessories, are frequently introduced, according to the taste of the artist. But fruits in a general sense signified "the fruits of the Spirit — joy, peace, love ; " and flowers were consecrated to the Virgin : hence we yet see them placed before her as offerings.

5. EARS OF WHEAT in the hand of the Infant (as in a lovely little Madonna by Ludovico Caracci, Lansdowne Collection) figured the bread in the Eucharist, and GRAPES the wine. There was another exactly similar in the collection of Mr. Rogers.

6. The Book. In the hand of the Infant Christ, the book is the Gospel in a general sense, or it is the Book of Wisdom. In the hand of the Madonna, it may have one of two meanings. When open, or when she has her finger between the leaves, or when the Child is turning over the pages, then it is the Book. of Wisdom, and is always supposed to be open at the seventh chapter. When the book is clasped or sealed, it is a mystical symbol of the Virgin herself, as I have already explained.

7. The DOVE, as the received emblem of the Holy Spirit, is properly placed above, as hovering over the Virgin. There is an exception to this rule in a very interesting picture in the Louvre, where the Holy Dove (with the nimbus) is placed at the feet of the Child. This is so unusual, and so contrary to all the received proprieties of religious Art, that I think the nimbus may have been added afterwards.

The seven doves round the head of the Virgin signify the seven gifts of the Spirit. These characterize her as personified Wisdom — the Mater Sapientiae.

Doves placed near Mary when she is reading, or at work in the temple, are expressive of her gentleness and tenderness.

8. BIRDS. The bird in the Egyptian hieroglyphics signified the soul of man. In the very ancient pictures there can be no doubt, I think, that the bird in the hand of Christ figured the soul, or the spiritual as opposed to the material. But, in the later pictures, the original meaning being lost, birds' became mere ornamental accessories, or playthings. Sometimes it is a parrot from the East, sometimes a partridge (the partridge is frequently in the Venetian pictures) : some-times a goldfinch, as in Raphael's Madonna del Cardellino. [Pitti, Florence.] In a Madonna by Guercino, the Mother holds a bird perched on her hand, and the Child, with a most naive infantine expression, shrinks back from it. It was in the collection of Mr. Rogers. [Sold in 1856. Vide Redford's Sales, vol. ii. p. 234.] In a picture by Baroccio, he holds it up before a cat (National Gallery, London) : so completely were the original symbolism and all the religious proprieties of Art at this time set aside.

Other animals are occasionally introduced. Extremely offensive are the apes when admitted into devotional pictures. We have associations with the animal as a mockery of the human, which render it a very disagreeable accessory. It appears that, in the sixteenth century, it became the fashion to keep apes as pets, and every reader of Vasari will remember the frequent mention of these animals as pets and favorites of the artists. Thus only can I account for the introduction of the ape, particularly in the Ferrarese pictures. Bassano's dog, Baroccio's cat, are often introduced. In a famous picture by Titian, " La Vierge au Lapin" (Louvre), we have the rabbit. The introduction of these and other animals marks the decline of religious Art.

Certain women of the Old Testament are regarded as especial types of the Virgin.

EVE. Mary is regarded as the second Eve, because through her came the promised Redemption. She bruised the head of the Serpent. The Tree of Life, the Fall, or Eve holding the Apple, are constantly introduced allusively in the Madonna pictures, as ornaments of her throne, or on the predella of an altar-piece representing the Annunciation, the Nativity, or the Coronation.

RACHEL figures as the ideal of contemplative life.

RUTH, as the ancestress of David.

ABISHAG, as " the virgin who was brought to the king." (1 Kings i).

BATHSHEBA, because she sat upon a throne on the right hand of her son.

JuDiTH and ESTHER, as having redeemed their people, and brought deliverance to Israel. It is because of their typical character, as emblems of the Virgin, that these Jewish heroines so often figure in the religious pictures.

In his Paradiso (c. xxxii.), Dante represents Eve, Rachel, Sara, Ruth, Judith, as seated at the feet of the Virgin Mary, beneath her throne in heaven ; and next to Rachel, by a refinement of spiritual and. poetical gallantry, he has placed his Beatrice.

In the beautiful frescoes of the church of St. Apollinaris at Remagen, these Hebrew women stand together in a group below the throne of the Virgin.

Of the Prophets and the Sibyls who attend on Christ in his character of the Messiah or Redeemer, I shall have much to say when describing the artistic treatment of the history and character of our Lord. Those of the Prophets who are sup-posed to refer more particularly to the Incarnation properly attend on the Virgin and Child ; but in the ancient altar-pieces they are not placed within the same frame, nor are they grouped immediately round her throne, but form the outer accessories, or are treated separately as symbolical.

First, Moses, because he beheld the burning bush, " which burned and was not consumed." He is generally in the act of removing his sandals.

AARON, because his rod blossomed miraculously.

GIDEON, on whose fleece descended the dew of heaven, while all was dry around.

DANIEL, who beheld the stone which was cut out without hands, and became a great mountain, filling the earth (ch. ii. 45.)

DAVID, as prophet and ancestor. "Listen, 0 daughter, and incline thine ear."

ISAIAH. "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son."

EZEKIEL. " This gate shall be shut " (ch. xliv. 2).

Certain of these personages, Moses, Aaron, Gideon, Daniel, Ezekiel, are not merely accessories and attendant figures, but in a manner attributes, as expressing the character of the Virgin. Thus, in many instances, we find the prophetical personages altogether omitted, and we have simply the attribute figuring the prophecy itself, the burning bush, the rod, the dewy fleece, etc.

The Sibyls are sometimes introduced alternately with the Prophets. In general, if there be only two, they are the Tiburtina, who showed the vision to Augustus, and the Cumean Sibyl, who foretold the birth of our Saviour. The Sibyls were much the fashion in the classic times of the sixteenth century ; Michael Angelo and Raphael have left us consummate examples.

But I must repeat that the full consideration of the Prophets and Sibyls as accessories belongs to another department of sacred Art, and they will find their place there.

The Evangelists frequently, and sometimes one or more of the Twelve Apostles, appear as accessories which assist the theological conception. When other figures are introduced, they are generally either the protecting saints of the country or locality, or the Saints of the Religious Order to whom the edifice belongs ; or, where the picture or window is an ex-voto, we find the patron saints of the confraternity, or of the donor or votary who has dedicated it.

Angels seated at the feet of the Madonna and playing on musical instruments are most lovely and appropriate accessories, for the choral angels are always around her in heaven, and on earth she is the especial patroness of music and minstrelsy. Her delegate Cecilia patronized sacred music ; but all music and musicians, all minstrels, and all who plied the " gaye science," were under the protection of Mary. When the an-gels were singing from their music books, and others are accompanying them with lutes and viols, the song is not always supposed to be the same. In a Nativity they sing the Gloria in Excelsis Deo; in a Coronation the Regina Cadi; in an enthroned Madonna with votaries, the Salve Regina, Mater Misericordiae ! in a pastoral Madonna and Child it may be the Alma Mater Redemptoris.

In all the most ancient devotional effigies (those in the catacombs and the old mosaics) the Virgin appears as a majestic woman of mature age. In those subjects taken from her history which precede her return from Egypt, and in the Holy Families, she should appear as a young maiden from fifteen to seventeen years old.

In the subjects taken from her history which follow the baptism of our Lord, she should appear as a matron between forty and fifty, but still of a sweet and gracious aspect. When Michael Angelo was reproached with representing his Mater Dolorosa much too young, he replied that the perfect virtue and serenity of the character of Mary would have preserved her beauty and youthful appearance long beyond the usual period. (St. Peter's, Rome.)

Because some of the Greek pictures and carved images had become black through extreme age, it was argued by certain devout writers that the Virgin herself must have been of a very dark complexion ; and in favor of this idea they quoted this text from the Canticles, "I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem." But others say that her complexion had become black only during her sojourn in Egypt. At all events, though the blackness of these antique images was sup-posed to enhance their sanctity, it has never been imitated in the Fine Arts, and it is quite contrary to the description of Nicephorus, which is the most ancient authority, and that which is followed in the Greek school.

The proper dress of the Virgin is a close red tunic, with long sleeves ; 1 and over this a blue robe or mantle. In the early pictures the colors are pale and delicate. Her head ought to be veiled. The fathers of the primeval Church, particularly Tertullian, attach great importance to the decent veil worn by Christian maidens ; and in all the early pictures the Virgin is veiled. The enthroned Virgin, unveiled, with long tresses falling down on either side, was an innovation introduced about the end of the fifteenth century ; commencing, I think, with the Milanese, and thence adopted in the German schools and those of Northern Italy. The German Madonnas of Albert Durer's time have often magnificent and luxuriant hair, curling in ringlets, or descending to the waist in rich waves, and always fair. Dark-haired Madonnas appear first in the Spanish and later Italian schools.

In the historical pictures, her dress is very simple; but in those devotional figures which represent her as Queen of Heaven, she wears a splendid crown, sometimes of jewels interwoven with lilies and roses. The crown is often the sovereign crown of the country in which the picture is placed : thus, in the Papal States, she often wears the triple tiara ; in Austria, the imperial diadem. Her blue tunic is richly embroidered with gold and gems, or lined with ermine or stuff of various colors, in accordance with a text of Scripture : " The King's daughter is all glorious within ; her clothing is of wrought gold. She shall be brought unto the King in raiment of needlework " (Ps. xlv. 13, 14). In the Immaculate Conception, and in the Assumption, her tunic should be plain white, or white spangled with golden stars. In the subjects relating to the Passion, and after the Crucifixion, the dress of the Virgin should be violet or gray. These proprieties, however, are not always attended to.

In the early pictures which represent her as nursing the Di-vine Infant (the subject called the " Virgine Lattante ") the utmost care is taken to veil the bust as much as possible. In the Spanish school the most vigilant censorship was exercised over all sacred pictures, and, with regard to the figures of the Virgin, the utmost decorum was required. " What," says Pacheco, " can be more foreign to the respect which we owe to Our Lady the Virgin, than to paint her sitting down with one of her knees placed over the other, and often with her sacred feet uncovered and naked ? Let thanks be given to the Holy Inquisition, which commands that this liberty should be corrected." For this reason, perhaps, we seldom see the feet of the Virgin in Spanish pictures, or in any of the old pictures till the seventeenth century. " Tandis que Dieu est toujours montré pieds nus, lui qui est descendu 4 terre et a pris notre humanité, Marie an contraire est constamment représentée les pieds perdus dans les plis traînants, nombreux et légers, de sa robe virginale ; elle qui est élevée au-dessus de la terre et rapprochée de Dieu par sa pureté. Dieu montre par ses pieds nus qu'il a pris le corps de l'homme ; Marie fait comprendre en les cachant qu'elle participe de la spiritualité de Dieu." [While God is always shown barefooted, He who descended to earth and took on our humanity, Mary, on the contrary, is constantly represented with her feet lost in the trailing folds, light and ample, of her virgin robe, she who is lifted above the earth and brought close to God through her purity. God shows by his bare feet that he has taken the body of man ; Mary, by hiding hers, makes it known that she shares the spirituality of God.] Carducho speaks more particularly on the impropriety of painting the Virgin unshod, " since it is manifest that our Lady was in the habit of wearing shoes, as is proved by the much venerated relic of one of them, from her divine feet at Burgos."

The child in her arms is always, in the Greek and early pictures, clothed in a little tunic, generally white. In the fifteenth century he first appears partly, and then wholly, undraped. Joseph, as the earthly sposo, wears the saffron-colored mantle over a gray tunic. In the later schools of Art these significant colors are often varied, and sometimes wholly dispensed with.



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