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The Past Her Prelude: Marian Imagery in the Old Testament

We used to learn our Marian theology through symbols. They shaped our art and inspired our prayer. Surely the time has come to reclaim that heritage.

Detail from "The Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary" (c. 1305) by Giotto, in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. []

St. Augustine said that “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old is fulfilled in the New.” Like other Church Fathers he distinguished between the outer “literal” and the inner “spiritual” meaning of Holy Scripture. And like the others, he often preferred spirit to letter.

The categories into which various Fathers divided the spiritual sense need not concern us here, only their zealous attempts to read the figurative meanings of the Bible. They saw the New Testament foreshadowed in the Old through several devices. Types are persons, things, or events taken as historical (Adam is a Type of Christ); prophecies are predictions (the Messiah will be born of a virgin); and allegories are poetic comparisons, not limited to strict personifications (Holy Wisdom is a gracious woman). Our discussion will move freely across all these categories.

The Fathers saw every part of the Scriptures as linked to every other part. They believed that God had encoded patterns of similarities and contrasts into his Word to produce flashes of illumination. Making cross-comparisons rounds out our picture of what Salvation is–and is not. For instance, innocent, devout Abel is a Type of Christ while jealous, murderous Cain his Antitype.

Mary entered this web of associations early, when St. Justin Martyr (d. 165) contrasted her obedience with Eve’s disobedience immediately after referring to Christ’s symbolic titles in prophecy. His insight was repeated a generation later by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. ca. 200): “What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith.” Thus Mary came to be called the New Eve and the Latin pun Eva/Ave for the reversal entered Christian lore.

Eve is the mother of all according to the flesh, but Mary according to the spirit. As universal spiritual mother and first Christian, Mary is also a Type of the Church, a parallel first noted by St. Irenaeus. Therefore, the same Biblical imagery used for the Church can also apply to Mary: she is the living Ark of the Covenant, the ultimate Temple, the new Jerusalem, and the perfected Israel as Bride of God.

These Old Testament prefigurations are brought forward into the Book of Revelation and amplify the Woman Clothed in the Sun (Rev 12:12), the “great sign” manifested immediately after the scene of the Ark in the celestial Temple. The pregnant Woman’s body carries the Messiah as the Ark once held the Divinely sent Tablets of the Law, Aaron’s rod that flowered, and a pot of manna Moreover, she is also the mother of all Christians. But this Woman flees from the threatening Satanic Dragon, unlike Eve who fatally lingered when the Serpent spoke.

The Woman does not, however, grapple directly with the Dragon, though some Marian devotees wish it were otherwise. Direct engagement with the Foe is left to other Marian Types. Deborah rallies the Israelite army (Jgs 4:4-16), Jael smashes the head of an enemy general (Jgs 4:17-22), Judith beheads Holofernes (Jdt 13), and Esther maneuvers Haman onto the gallows (Est 7), in each case saving their people from certain destruction.

Besides the typology of specific characters, Messianic Psalm 45 has been traditionally taken to represent Christ as the king with Mary as the queen who stands beside him adorned “in gold of Ophir”. This Psalm is often quoted in the liturgy, including texts of Marian feasts such as the Assumption. There it refers to Our Lady’s entrance into heaven and justifies showing her enthroned beside her Son.

The queen in the Psalm is the king’s bride but the normal structure of a Semitic court gave the king’s mother far more power than any wife. This situation, demonstrated by the relationship between Solomon and his mother Bathsheba (1 Kgs 2:12-25) does fit Mary, so Bathsheba was used as a Type of Mary. In the incident shown, however, Bathsheba’s intercession gets the petitioner executed. The only other queen mothers shown in action, idolatrous Maacah (1 Kgs 15: 18) and murderous Athalia (2 Kgs 11), could be called Antitypes of Mary.

The Old Testament also gives many poetic images for Mary that have proven important in art and prayer. These cluster around several themes that illustrate doctrines. Her Divine Maternity is the ground of everything else, shown in metaphors for fruitfulness and containment. As a Virgin Mother, Mary is unpenetrated, an impossibility miraculously possible. As a unique partner in Redemption, she is a passage, source, or signal. As a perfectly sinless being, things beautiful and unblemished reflect her.

Some of the imagery preceded the dogmas. The Immaculate Conception and Assumption were only defined in modern times while Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix are still commonly believed without dogmatic definition.

Although these images developed more quickly in the East than the West, this essay is limited to European examples. The anonymous eighth or ninth century Latin poem Ave Maris Stella, which would enter the Breviary, is an early Western example that builds on Patristic insights. It begins:

Ave maris stella,            Hail,Star of the Sea,
Dei Mater alma,             Loving Mother of God,
Atque semper Virgo,        And ever-Virgin,
Felix coeli porta.            Happy gate of heaven.

Sumens illud Ave           Receiving that “Ave”
Gabrielis ore,               From Gabriel’s mouth,
Funda nos in pace,           Secure us in peace,
Mutans Hevae nomen.         Changing Eve’s name.

Star of the Sea, mistaken for the Hebrew meaning of the name Mary, and Gate of Heaven, paralleling Jacob’s ladder to heaven (Gn 28: 10-12, 16-17), later became invocations in the Litany of Loreto.

In the West during the first millennium, the Madonna and Child motif was meant to defend the Incarnation. Only towards the end of that period does it become a devotional object in its own right as Mary herself loomed larger in European Christian consciousness.

By the year 1000, a new style of Madonna emerged, first in southern France, that came to be called the Majesty of Mary. Enthroned as a queen, the Mother presents to the world her Child who holds a book. This is also the visual formula for another Litany title, Seat of Wisdom. With her lap doubling for her womb, Mary is the living throne of the New Solomon. (Good examples from the twelfth century are carved above entrances to Notre-Dame of Chartres and Notre-Dame of Paris.)

Relying on earlier collections of Patristic ideas, such as the Glossa ordinaria, typological thinking dominated Biblical interpretation in the High Middle Ages. It shaped art from Austria to England. Major cycles of images survive in the glass of Canterbury cathedral and the Verdun altar, a masterpiece of enameled gold. In these works Mary appears in Gospel scenes matched with Old Testament parallels such as the Annunciation of Jesus paired with the Annunciations of Issac and Samson.

One striking new motif that originated in twelfth century France was the Tree of Jesse, taken from Isaiah’s prophecy of the lineage of the Messiah: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Is 11:1). The tree sprouts from the lions of David’s father Jesse bearing the ancestors of Christ. As time went on, Mary received more emphasis to appear in a flower atop the Tree holding Jesus, the final fruit.

As devotion to Our Lady blossomed in medieval times, so did the range of Marian typologies. Honorius of Autun (d. 1152) expounded a set of images that soon turned up on the new Gothic cathedrals of France. The most complete expression of Honorius’ ideas was carved around the Mary-portal at Notre-Dame of Laon in the thirteenth century.

These stone reliefs at Laon depict prefigurations of Mary’s virginal conception: Gideon’s fleece, wet by dew when the ground stayed dry and vice versa (Jgs 6: 36-38); Moses’ Burning Bush unconsumed by its fire (Ex 3:1-14); Daniel miraculously fed by the prophet Habakkuk while sealed in the lions’ den (Dn 14: 28-42); the Ark of the Covenant, a womb-equivalent, which contained Aaron’s flowering rod (Num 17:1-11); Ezekiel’s Shut Gate that only the Lord may enter (Ez 44:2); the Stone Not Cut by Hands (Dn 2:34-35); and the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace, unharmed by flame (Dn 3)

The Laon reliefs also show Daniel killing a dragon worshipped by the Babylonians (Dn 14: 23-27), a fate the Eden Serpent will share thanks to Mary (Gn 3:15), and Balaam’s prophecy of the Messiah’s lineage, “a star shall rise out of Jacob” (Num 24:17) that was joined to Mary’s title Star of the Sea to make her the guiding star of mankind.

Medieval books of typologies were extremely popular as aids to meditation among the literate. Two famous examples (both available in modern replica editions) are the illustrated Biblia pauperum (Poor Men’s Bible) and the Speculum humanae salvationis (Mirror of Human Salvation) from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries respectively. Originally hand-copied, these works got into print in the fifteenth century carrying woodblock illustrations.

The Biblia consists of carefully structured sets of one New Testament event flanked by two Old Testament comparisons tied together with four prophecies and captions. For example, the Coronation of the Virgin is matched to the enthronements of Bathsheba and Esther.

The Speculum shows one Biblical or legendary scene with three separate parallels from the Old Testament or secular history, plus explanations. The comparisons themselves can function as commentaries as when the Birth of Mary is paired with the Tree of Jesse (her lineage), the Shut Gate (her virginity), and the Temple of Solomon (God’s presence in her)

Meanwhile, a new repertoire of Marian symbols was developing from the thought of the Mellifluous Doctor, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1153). Thanks to his four volumes of sermons of the Song of Songs, Mary came to be showered with fresh and even sensuous metaphors.

Although the Song of Songs–which ostensibly celebrates Solomon’s love for his Bride the Shulamitess–continued to be read in the traditional way as an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church or God’s love for the human soul, it now had lovely Marian connotations.

As in Psalm 45, the Lover is Christ and the Bride Mary. Erotic language is spiritualized to signify total contemplative union between God and his most perfect creature. “I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him: and I will not let him go . . . .” (SoS 3:4)

Comparing the Virgin to flowers, gardens, foodstuffs, spices, perfumes, gems, and precious metals mentioned in the Song of Songs is lush but fitting. Seeing her as she who comes forth “as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array” (SoS 6:9) has the cosmic flavor of the Apocalyptic Woman (Rv 12:1)

But modern sensibility flinches at calling the Blessed Mother a grape (uva) or cluster of grapes (botrus) as in SoS 7:7 although the milk of her breasts “sweeter than wine” was transformed into the Sacred Blood of her Son and thence into the Eucharist. Neither are we comfortable seeing her as a marriage bed (thalamus) or couch (triclinum) as in SoS 1:15 although her womb was the chamber in which God’s romance with the human race was consummated. Yet these shocking epithets were used in a late medieval Missal from Evreux, France.

The Cantica canticorum, a book of woodblock images made in the Netherlands before 1465 spread daring metaphors to a wider audience. For instance, “A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, he shall abide between my breasts” (SoS 1:12) is quite an audacious image to apply to Our Lord and Our Lady. Surprisingly, it is taken to mean the Sorrowful Mother clasping the dead body of her Son.

This style of similitude reaches a lovely peak in a Book of Hours printed in Paris in 1505. The figure of the pre-existent Immaculata stands praying beneath the gaze of God who says: “Thou are fair, my love, and there is not a spot in thee.” (SoS 4:7) She is surrounded by her symbols which are mostly from the Song of Songs (marked *): “bright as the sun,”* “fair as the moon,”* “gate of heaven,” “exalted cedar” (Sir 24:17), “planted rose” (Sir 39:13), well of living water,”* “enclosed garden,”* “city of God,” “sealed fountain,”* “spotless mirror” (Wis 7:26), “tower of David,* “lily among thorns,”* “precious olive (Sir 24:19), “star of the sea.”

Such poetry survived the Council of Trent’s purifications to influence the beautifully mysterious titles in the Litany of Loreto, the official Litany of the Blessed Virgin (1575). Notice that nearly all are metaphors for Mary’s sinless body–her lap, womb, vagina, and neck (by extension signifying her whole figure). These phrases are:

Mirror of Justice: As “unspotted mirror of God’s majesty, and the image of his goodness (Wis 7:26) Mary would necessarily reflect Divine justice.

Seat of Wisdom: She is the living throne of Christ who is Divine Wisdom.

Cause of Our Joy: She is the means through which the Joy of the Redeemer came into the world.

Spiritual Vessel, Vessel of Honor, Singular Vessel of Devotion: “Vessel” can stand for body, Mary’s body being uniquely graced for “containing” Christ. Possible allusion to a virtuous High Priest as “a vessel of beaten gold, studded with precious stones” (Sir 50:9) because Mary offers Christ to us.

Mystical Rose: This is an ancient symbol of love, beauty, and femininity, Our Lady’s favorite flower. cf: (Sir 50:8).

Tower of David, Tower of Ivory: These citadels are both well-guarded (SoS 4:4) and splendid (SoS 7:4) images of the Bride’s beauty.

House of Gold: Solomon’s Temple was richly adorned with gold.

Ark of the Covenant: Mary is the blessed resting place of God.

Gate of Heaven: Through the Incarnation in her virgin body, the Shut Gate (Ez 44:2) and the Jacob’s Gate of Heaven (Gn 28:17) are opened to us.

Morning Star: Mary signals the coming dawn of Salvation (Sir. 50:6 and SoS 6:9).

And so it was. We used to learn our Marian theology through symbols. They shaped our art and inspired our prayer. Surely the time has come to reclaim that heritage, to reconstruct a culture described by art historian Emile Male in which “everything in the world admired by man is only a reflection of the Virgin’s beauty.”

(This essay was originally posted on Ignatius Insight in October 2006.)

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About Sandra Miesel 27 Articles
Sandra Miesel is an American medievalist and writer. She is the author of hundreds of articles on history and art, among other subjects, and has written several books, including The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code, which she co-authored with Carl E. Olson, and is co-editor with Paul E. Kerry of Light Beyond All Shadow: Religious Experience in Tolkien's Work (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011).


  1. This beautiful essay calls to mind the book by Hugo Rahner – Our Lady and the Church. Any new insights concerning the Church’s Marian tradition are most welcome. They are beacons of light in the ugliness that surrounds, but does not overwhelm us. Praying the mysteries of the Rosary from a typological perspective, can prove to be very helpful. I thank CWR for the attention that Mary receives.
    Stephen in Australia.

  2. It is worth mentioning here that the Protestant Reformation eliminated from the Bible books and parts of books that exalted the role of women in saving the people. Close examination shows that this exaltation of women was willed by God to undo the negative status for women that Satan created by the role of Eve in Genesis. All of the O.T. writings that exalted women helped to prepare the Church for a growing awareness of the importance of Mary in God’s plan for humanity.

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