Mary’s Child With Symbols

LEONARDO da Vinci  Madonna with a Flower (Madonna Benois)  c. 1478  Oil on canvas transferred from wood, 50 x 32 cm  The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

LEONARDO da Vinci
Madonna with a Flower (Madonna Benois)
c. 1478
Oil on canvas transferred from wood, 50 x 32 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

This painting is one of the few surviving works by the young Leonardo. He presents the traditional subject as a genre scene, in which a young mother, shown with the dress and hairstyle fashionable in Leonardo’s time, is playing with her son. She holds out a four-petalled flower to her child. This traditional symbol of the Cross is taken by the Child as an innocent toy, which he seeks to grasp in his first attempts to know the world.

DAVID, Gerard  Madonna and Child with the Milk Soup  c. 1520  Oil on oak, 35 x 29 cm  Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

DAVID, Gerard
Madonna and Child with the Milk Soup
c. 1520
Oil on oak, 35 x 29 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Several versions of this picture are known, all attributed to Gerard David, whose style and painting technique they display. The presentation of the Virgin in the foreground, half turned toward the viewer, allows us to enter the intimacy of this domestic interior, with its window opened onto a contemporary townscape. A basket and a prayer-book taken out of its cover are lying on a console against the wall. To the left, a cupboard carries an earthenware jug and a small bunch of flowers. As an attentive mother, the Virgin delicately takes the soup for her Son whom she is holding seated on her knees. He is dressed in a light linen shirt and is also playing at holding a wooden spoon. This highly realistic representation of a spoon-fed meal is a variation of the theme, more common at the time, of the Virgin nursing the Child. The Child fed by the Virgin is a metaphor of the believer nourished by his mother the Church and by Christ himself. The bread at the front of the scene and the jug on the cupboard are the eucharistic symbols of his body and his blood. The very idea of Christ’s incarnation through which humanity has been saved is evoked here.

Botticelli Madonna of the Magnificat (Madonna del Magnificat) 1480-81  Tempera on panel, diameter 118 cm  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Botticelli
Madonna of the Magnificat (Madonna del Magnificat)
1480-81
Tempera on panel, diameter 118 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The pomegranate which the mother and child are both holding is a symbol of the Passion and adds to the basic melancholy and meditative mood of the painting.

BOTTICELLI, Sandro  Madonna of the Pomegranate (Madonna della Melagrana)  c. 1487  Tempera on panel, diameter 143,5 cm  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

BOTTICELLI, Sandro
Madonna of the Pomegranate (Madonna della Melagrana)
c. 1487
Tempera on panel, diameter 143,5 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The picture’s title is explained by the pomegranate in Mary’s hand: this should be understood as symbolizing Christ’s Passion, the wealth of seeds conveying the fullness of Christ’s suffering. A comparison of this painting with Botticelli’s earlier tondo Madonna del Magnificat reveals that the artist has now arranged the angels symmetrically, thereby avoiding the compositional difficulties of the older depiction.

The Christ Child, whose hand is raised in blessing, is lying securely in the arms of Mary, but the sad, melancholy expression on the faces of mother and child are intended to remind the observer of the torments the Son of God will suffer in the future. The angels are worshipping Mary with lilies and garlands of roses.

Madonna of Humility (Virgin and Child) c. 1442  Tempera on wood, 56 x 43 cm  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Madonna of Humility (Virgin and Child)
c. 1442
Tempera on wood, 56 x 43 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In this Madonna of Humility Mary sits on a cushion in a flowered clearing surrounded by an orange grove.

In the Bible, a passage in the Psalms says that the upright man is like the tree whose leaves never fall.  Many images of ever-green trees, including the orange, which are seen repeatedly in Renaissance representations of Paradise, derive from this reference.

At times the plant is identified with the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which is also an allusion to Original Sin, but also to our redemption by Christ.  In other symbolism the orange is sometimes believed to be the fruit with which Satan tempted Eve at the Fall instead of the usual apple.  In the image below, the orange tree  appears in the picture of Madonna and Child signifying the redeeming purpose of the Incarnation. In this context, I would also say that within CIMA da Conegliano’s  painting you have Mary and the Christ Child as the New Adam and the New Eve being venerated by St. Louis of France and St. Jerome.

CIMA da Conegliano Madonna of the Orange Tree c. 1495  Tempera and oil on panel, 212 x 139 cm  Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

CIMA da Conegliano
Madonna of the Orange Tree
c. 1495
Tempera and oil on panel, 212 x 139 cm
Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

In Flemish paintings, as in so many works, the orange is a symbol of redemption.  Interesting to note is that the Dutch term for orange is sinaasappel which means “Chinese Apple.”  Joos van Cleve’s Holy Family is such an example

CLEVE, Joos van  The Holy Family  -  Oil on canvas transferred from wood, 43 x 32 cm  The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

CLEVE, Joos van
The Holy Family

Oil on canvas transferred from wood, 43 x 32 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Grain is the preeminent fruit of the earth and appears in many episodes in the Scripture.  It is, as mentioned, closely related to the Eucharist.  As seen in the Portinari Altar Piece. It is can be found in Nativity scenes, where the the Christ Child lies in,  or is placed on piled stalks of gain or wheat in anticipation of the Eucharist.  A similar allusion to Christ’s future sacrifice appears in representations of the Virgin and Child where the baby Jesus is holding a few stalks of wheat or some bread in His hand, sometimes with a cluster of grapes.  Below the symbolism of grain is demonstrated in  Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna of the Eucharist.

Sandro Botticelli Madonna and Child with an Angel c. 1470  Tempera on wood, 84 x 65 cm  Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Sandro Botticelli
Madonna and Child with an Angel
c. 1470
Tempera on wood, 84 x 65 cm
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

The pear, seen in Mother and Child paintings,  symbolically derives from afrom a passage in the Psalms that invites one to taste and se the how good the Lord is.  For this reason, as well, the pear may allude to the sweetness of virtue. The pear, rarely used except in paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, can also symbolize the fruit of Mary’s womb. For some, however, the pear can be identified with the famous tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

Albrecht Durer Madonna and Child With A Pear 1526  Oil on wood, 43 x 32 cm  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Albrecht Durer
Madonna and Child With A Pear
1526
Oil on wood, 43 x 32 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The Rose, Coral and Carination will conclude, at this time, the symbols of Mary and her Child.

For me, no one has presented a more beautiful symbolic Rose the Stefan Lochner

LOCHNER, Stefan  Madonna of the Rose Garden  c. 1440  Oil on panel, 51 x 40 cm  Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne

LOCHNER, Stefan
Madonna of the Rose Garden
c. 1440
Oil on panel, 51 x 40 cm
Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne

The Christian tradition sees the rose with its thorns as an image of the torments of martyrs, but they are associated with the Virgin Mary who is called a “rose without thorns.”  This may refer to St. Ambrose’s legend that the rose grew,  without thorns, in the

garden of Eden.  After the Fall, it became an earthly plant,  and a reminder of the Fall from Grace.  The scent and beauty remained as a poignant reminder of the lost perfection of Paradise.

Its five petals of the wild rose are equated with the five joys of Mary.

Coral in ancient Rome and during the Middle Ages as believed to have curative powers.  It was also thought to ward off evil spells.  Pliny recounts that people would put coral around babies’ necks as a charm against danger.  As can be seen in the della Francesca work talismanic qualities were carried over into Christian iconography where the Christ Child has a twig of coral or necklace of coral around his neck as a sign of protection.

PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA  Madonna of Senigallia  c. 1470  Panel, 61 x 53 cm  Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino

PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA
Madonna of Senigallia
c. 1470
Panel, 61 x 53 cm
Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino

The carnation is a symbol of pure love, and according to legend, is to said to have sprung originally from the tears shed by Mary on her way to Calvary.  It became the symbol of motherly love, and in modern times is sold on Mother’s day.  The pink also became a symbol of fidelity.  During the fifteenth century the carnation was also a popular of Christ or he Virgin Mary.  It also represented the nails driven into the hands and feet of Jesus during the Crucifixion, from its fragrance, like that of the nail-shaped clove.

DÜRER, Albrecht  The Madonna of the Carnation  1516  Parchment on pine, 36 x 25 cm  Alte Pinakothek, Munich

DÜRER, Albrecht
The Madonna of the Carnation
1516
Parchment on pine, 36 x 25 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

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About Monsignor Mark Richard Lane

I am a Catholic Priest of the Diocese of Richmond. I am also a presenter in the Theology and Symbolism in Art from the art of the catacombs to modern art. My current research is on the duplicity of art in 19th Century America.
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