Mother’s Day has been celebrated annually in the United States on the second Sunday in May for over one hundred years. Following its declaration as an official holiday by the state of West Virginia, Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation announcing the first national Mother’s Day on 9 May 1914.
Images of the Virgin and Child are among the most common depictions of motherhood from the Middle Ages. The Strahov Madonna of ca. 1340 captures the dynamism (or “squirminess”) typical of small children, while also communicating to beholders the special status of the figures through solemn expressions and meaningful gestures. The Child grasps his mother’s veil with his left hand and holds a goldfinch in his right hand, a pose adapted from the Virgin Kykkotissa, a highly venerated, miracle-working Byzantine icon thought to have been painted from life by Saint Luke. Portrayals of the Visitation present an earlier stage of motherhood.
A fifteenth-century French Book of Hours shows the pregnant Virgin gently cradling her swollen abdomen as she greets her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, who “leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). A thirteenth-century fresco of the birth of John the Baptist from Parma Baptistery captures yet another aspect of motherhood, depicting two midwives tending to Elizabeth as two others bathe her newborn infant.
The Index of Christian Art has 29 subject records for the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. John the Baptist: Birth appears in 104 records.
Nine times Moses went to the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II to demand freedom for the Israelites in captivity, saying “Let my people go.” Each time Moses and his brother Aaron were sent a way, an episode classified by the Index as, Moses and Aaron: driven from Pharaoh’s Presence. Despite these increasingly tense exchanges, and then a marvelous act that changed Aaron’s rod into a serpent before the Pharaoh’s court (Moses: Miracle of Rod changed to Serpent), Ramses still refused to release the Israelites from slavery.
What followed was the foretold wrath of God enacted as ten crippling plagues on the Egyptians. In the first wave of calamities, there were plagues of blood, frogs, gnats, and lice that polluted the air and water. The second wave, brought plagues of flies, diseased livestock, and boils. Then came hail, locusts, and darkness that fell on Egypt for three days. The tenth and final plague, the “Plague of the Firstborn,” claimed the lives of the eldest children in all Egyptian families. The Index of Christian Art classifies the subjects of the Exodus plagues under the major figure of Moses:
Moses: Plague of Water into Blood (Exodus 7:20-25)
Moses: Plague of Frogs (Exodus 8:6-14)
Moses: Plague of Lice (Exodus 8:17-18)
Moses: Plague of Flies (Exodus 8:24-31)
Moses: Plague, Murrain of Beasts
Moses: Plague of Boils (Exodus 9:8-11)
Moses: Plague of Hell (Exodus 9:23-26)
Moses: Plague of Locusts (Exodus 10:13-19)
Moses: Plague of Darkness (Exodus 10:22-23)
Moses: Plague of Firstborn (Exodus 12:29-32)
The final plague is described in several phases throughout the books of Exodus (11:4-8; 12:1-13, 21-23, 29-30). Moses first warns of its coming to the embattled Ramses, but his warning is dismissed.
Facing the impending deadly plague, Moses instructs the Israelites to make a sacrificial offering to God, and to use the blood of the animal – a male yearling – to mark the doorposts and lintels of their homes. Moses explains to them that marking their homes this way will spare their firstborn children from the “death angel,” saying he “will pass over the door.” (Exodus 12:23).
Following this, the Israelites were delivered from bondage and departed from Egypt. The Exodus is remembered at the feast of Passover – the Hebrew feast of Pesach – with special instructions for preparing, eating, and storing traditional, often symbolic food. While Passover traditions have varied over time and from one region to another, it is generally a family holiday in which the meal is accompanied by readings, songs, and traditional rituals designed to remind the celebrants of the Exodus story and the hopes for a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. The order of the seder, or Passover meal, is set out in a book known as the Haggadah, which was sometimes richly illuminated in the Middle Ages, as shown here in the Sarajevo Haggadah, originating in Barcelona in the middle of the 14th century. Well-known related manuscripts to this Haggadah include the Rylands Haggadah and the Simeon Haggadah. The Index classifies subjects depicting the original Passover feast as Moses: Passover, Moses: Passover proclaimed, and Moses: Law, Feast of Passover and with a general heading for Scene: Passover.
The middle of April strikes dread (or joy) in the hearts of millions of tax filers. Since 1955, April 15 has typically marked the end of the tax season in the continental US. This year, however, filers have received a three-day reprieve to accommodate Emancipation Day in Washington D.C, which is observed on the weekday closest to April 16 when it falls on a weekend.
Saint Matthew is among the best-known tax collectors in the history of Christian art. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus encountered Levi (Matthew’s name before his conversion) in the custom house of Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus said to him, “Follow me,” and Matthew obeyed.
A remarkable depiction of Christ calling Matthew appears in the Picture Book of Madame Marie, a thirteenth–century French devotional manuscript now at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. The scene takes place beneath sharply-cusped arches and against a fiery background. Wearing a brilliant blue garment and purple cloak, Christ addresses Matthew, whose money table has been dramatically tilted to reveal neat piles of gold and silver coins. Thematically related is a fifth-century gold solidus of Pulcheria with the empress wearing an elaborate coiffure and lavish jewels, a macabre Dance of Death featuring a money-changer from a fifteenth century French Book of Hours, and a regal image of the Queen of Coins on a fifteenth-century Italian tarot card.
“And when he was come into Jerusalem, the whole city was moved, saying: Who is this? And the people said: This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matthew 21:10-11)
Celebrated seven days before Easter Sunday, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Passion Week and commemorates Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The episode, which appears in the four canonical gospels, describes the multitudes gathering at the gates of Jerusalem to welcome Jesus, laying their cloaks and branches on the ground in recognition of his status as the Messiah.
The earliest extant pictorial representations of the Entry into Jerusalem date to the fourth century, and the subject was popular across media throughout the Middle Ages. A highly compressed version of the episode appears on a fourteenth-century ivory diptych from the Abbey of Muri, Switzerland, which is decorated with Passion scenes. The right side of one of the leaves portrays a single disciple trailing the mounted Christ blessing two figures, who serve as shorthand for the multitudes. Equally schematic is the Entry into Jerusalem on the batrashil of bishop Athanasius Abraham Yaghmur of Nebek, produced in Syria in the fourteenth century. This long, embroidered stole shows three figures placing a palm branch before Christ, riding on an ass and attended by five disciples.
The lintel from the main portal of the twelfth-century church of San Leonardo al Frigido in Italy presents a more expansive version of the scene by illustrating all twelve disciples, their open mouths perhaps indicative of speech, and three small figures perched in a tree on the right-hand side of the composition. The last detail, common in depictions of the subject, relates to the prophecy of Zechariah, which describes children breaking branches from an olive tree and following the crowd into Jerusalem.
The model during Lent, the forty days of reflection and restraint before Easter, is Christ in the desert overcoming temptation. According to the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Christ wandered alone in the Judean desert for forty days immediately following his baptism and before starting his public ministry. Satan first tempted Christ in the desert to turn stones into bread. Christ responded by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “It is written, man shall not live by bread alone…”. The Gospels describe two other attempts of temptation to win over both Christ’s pride and power. On the second temptation and with a dramatic setting change, Satan tested Christ to act independently from God and use his divine powers to jump from the height of the temple in Jerusalem – Christ firmly refused. Finally, Satan made a grand offer to Christ; to bask in the glory of all the kingdoms of the world if he would give up his mission and be partners with Satan, to which Christ replied, “Get thee hence.”
By the time of Gregory the Great, Pope from 590-604 CE, medieval Christians were expected to observe Lent by emulating these desert trials of Christ by fasting from animal products, remaining diligent in prayer, and giving alms to the poor. Typically, one meal per day was consumed during Lent; save the worship day of Sunday, observers were to resist all carnal attractions. The strict prohibitions during Lent required endurance from believers and tested their own degree of devotion.
The Index classifies the Temptation episodes in three major divisions according to the number of times the devil tried to seduce Christ. Currently, the database records the most scenes for “Christ: Temptation, 1st,” the temptation for hunger, and works of art are mostly executed in manuscript illumination, but also stained glass, fresco, and sculpture, as shown. There is also a general subject category for “Christ: Temptation” which is used to describe scenes where Christ and Satan are facing each other in an unknown part of the narrative or when all three Temptations are depicted in one scene as in the south vault mosaic at San Marco in Venice . “Christ: in Wilderness” is often a subsequent subject heading applied to the Temptation scenes as well as, “Christ: ministered to by Angels.” The latter records a specific part in the narrative when Christ is kept alive in the desert by angels following the departure of the devil. Lent, coming from the Old English word “lengthening,” is the transitional time in the church calendar and for the seasons.
This year, the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere falls on Sunday, March 20, marking the moment when the sun shines directly on the equator and the length of day and night are nearly equal. In anticipation of the change of season, The Index of Christian Art presents images thematically related to spring. First, a fifth-century mosaic from the synagogue in Zippori, an abandoned Roman-era town in central Galilee, depicts a personification of spring, identified by Greek and Hebrew inscriptions. Portrayed with roses in her hair, the bust-length figure is flanked by a blossoming branch and a bowl of flowers (on the left) and a basket of flowers and two lilies (on the right).
Second, a personification of March, labelled MARCIUS, graces a Catalonian textile from the late-eleventh or early-twelfth century. The figure appears to be chasing a stork (CICONIA), known as a harbinger of spring because of its migratory patterns. The figure holds a serpent, described in medieval bestiaries as an enemy of the stork, and a frog, perhaps a reference to the rainy season. Above is a personification of the north wind (FRIGUS), as well as a crescent moon and blazing sun. Last, a thirteenth-century Flemish Psalter depicts a figure pruning a stylized tree, an agricultural labor closely associated with the month of March.
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Celebrated annually on February 14 as a day for courtship and romance, Valentine’s Day began as a liturgical celebration in honor of one or more Early Christian martyrs named Valentinus. The Roman Martyrology mentions two Valentines, both of whom were decapitated on the ancient Via Flaminia, the main artery connecting the city of Rome to the Adriatic Sea. One Valentine died in Rome and seems to have been a priest. The other, who may have been a bishop, was martyred approximately 60 miles away at Interamna (modern Terni).
The earliest extant connection between Valentine’s Day and romantic love appears in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1383): “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” February 14 was associated with courtly love as early as 1400, in a charter ostensibly issued by Charles VI of France (d. 1422). The text describes the festivities of the royal court, which included love poetry competitions, dancing, jousting, and a feast. Contrary to popular belief, there is no firm evidence linking Valentine’s Day with the ancient Roman Lupercalia, a pastoral festival observed from February 13 through 15 to purify the city of Rome and to promote health and fertility.
The Index of Christian Art is delighted to present four images thematically associated with Valentine’s Day. First, the nimbed Valentine of Rome is represented with the sword of his martyrdom in the fifteenth-century Hours of Catherine of Cleves (Morgan Library, M.917 and M.945). Second, a sixteenth-century Roman de la Rose contains a charming depiction of the God of Love locking the Lover’s heart with a giant key (Morgan Library, M.948). Third, a fourteenth-century ivory box cover of Parisian origin shows women defending the castle of love, a popular subject in late medieval courtly circles. The winged god of love at the top of the roundel prepares to launch his arrow, while women throw flowers at the attacking knights. Last, a sixteenth-century drawing from an Arma Christi and Prayers (Princeton University Library, Taylor 17), which portrays Christ’s heart with three blossoming flowers, is inscribed pyte, love, and charyte.
Today marks the feast day of Saint Charlemagne. The Frankish leader was canonized by the antipope Paschal III in 1165, some three-and-a-half centuries after his death on January 28, 814. Political motivations assuredly played a role in this act given the pontiff’s desire to curry favor with Charlemagne’s successor, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Yet it is well worth remembering that distinctly local commemorations of the emperor had already been established throughout the original footprint of the Carolingian empire.
Although Paschal III’s ordinances were officially revoked during the Third Lateran Council in 1179, Charlemagne remained a figure of veneration, particularly in the cathedral of Aachen, which houses an elaborate thirteenth-century shrine containing his relics. On Karlstag, the twelfth-century liturgical chant Urbs Aquensis, urbs regalis is performed within the cathedral in celebration of the emperor’s memory. With its vivid language, the sequence evokes Charlemagne’s accomplishments by describing him as a soldier of Christ, just ruler, converter of infidels, and an all-around rex mundi triumphator. Such descriptors complement posthumous medieval depictions of the emperor, which are amply represented in the Index’s catalogue. Portrayed variously as a ruler, warrior, patron, and saint in different media, these figures of Charlemagne underscore the diversity of guises and legends that developed after the historical emperor’s death.
Of all the medieval images associated with the Christmas story, surely most familiar is that of the Nativity, which depicts the Christ child in the lowly stable of his birth, almost always attended by the Virgin Mary, her husband Joseph, and the ubiquitous ox and ass. Medieval nativity scenes often included other onlookers as well, from the shepherds and magi to whom angels announced Jesus’ birth to the midwives who, in some accounts, assisted at it. Of all these figures, few have a longer or more engaging history than the shepherds, with whose homespun character and simple faith many ordinary medieval Christians could identify.
The shepherds themselves have biblical origins: Luke 2:8-20 describes them receiving news of Christ’s birth from a host of angels, then rushing to the stable to see the child for themselves. The scene of the angelic annunciation to the shepherds is sometimes presented adjacent to or in the background of the Nativity, and in the very late Middle Ages, under the influence of Franciscan piety, it was also depicted as an independent scene. However, from the beginnings of Christian art, the shepherds were also frequent onlookers at the Nativity itself. By the fourth century, Roman and Gallic sarcophagi had begun to include one or two shepherds standing beside the manger, often raising a hand in recognition of Jesus’ divinity; middle Byzantine mosaics often cast the shepherds as a trio to balance the three magi who also attended the child. Such pairings were encouraged by medieval texts that presented the shepherds as symbolizing the Jewish tradition from which Christianity had sprung and the magi as representing those pagans who converted to the faith. Alternatively, the magi and shepherds were sometimes presented as demonstrating Christ’s recognition by all walks of life, a universalistic message sometimes developed further in the portrayal of both groups as men of varying ages and even ethnicities.
Late medieval pietistic trends, which promoted the idea that the poorest of men had been the first to receive news of Christ’s birth as confirmation of the value of humility and simplicity, encouraged fourteenth- and fifteenth-century artists to elaborate their images of the shepherds. They often are shown as rough-hewn peasant types—sometimes even including a shepherdess—who offer the child simple, heartfelt gifts, such as a lamb, a flute, flowers or, more unusually, a basket of eggs. The appeal of these humane, familiar figures still resonates in many a Christmas sermon as well as Christmas carols, from the traditional Austrian “Shepherd’s Carol” to the 1941 pop hit “The Little Drummer Boy.”
Shepherds are noted in over 650 records of the Nativity in the online database of the Index of Christian Art; many more can be found in the card files. Media include sculpture, gold glass, manuscripts, enamel, mosaic, fresco, and painting. We wish all our friends who celebrate Christmas a joyous and peaceful holiday.