Parade of Virgins

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November 13, 2012 by Gail Armstrong

Today we continue our look at Annunciations.  My favourite Annunciation, seen at the start of the last post, featured a Virgin Mary with sweet and pleasing features.  Not all do.  Today, just for fun, a few virgins who, had they not conceived immaculately, might never have conceived at all….

Let’s start with this woodcut-virgin, found in a Collection of Scottish Poetry dating from the 1st quarter of the 16th century.  She looks a lot like a maiden aunt of mine (Scottish, as it happens), round about her 70th birthday.  She looks quite good-natured (unlike my maiden aunt), but pretty she’s not.

Detail: Annunciation


Here’s a German virgin, from Four Gospels, with a List of Lections, created in the 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 11th century. 

The Annunciation


Now tell me she doesn’t look like someone’s little old-world granny, complete with man-hands?  Again, she looks good-natured, and definitely virtuous, but if she’s a day under 60 I’d eat my halo, if I had one.

Now for an English virgin, this one from Psalter and Canticles from England, c. 1246 – 1260. 



With other virgins in other annunciations, the words that come to mind are gentle, sweet, mild…with this one the words that come to mind are anemic, sunken-eyed, depressed.  I mean, she’s just been told she’s going to be mother to the son of God but apparently doesn’t have the energy even to look a touch surprised.  I prescribe iron-pills and a holiday in the sun.

And finally, a maiden from a French Book of Hours, dating from 1480-1485. 



Really?  This is how the artist saw the Virgin Mary, personification of human virtue, mother to Jesus and future Queen of Heaven?  All I can say is, the angel is equally homely, so either the artist had an agenda or just wasn’t that good at faces.  (I encourage you to link to the original and click on it to see it in greater detail, lest you feel I’m being too harsh.)

Ok, enough criticism.  Here are a few Marys of interest for other reasons, to close our Annunciation theme…for example, this one from Dante Alighieri’s Divina Comedia. 



What an expressive face – surprised, excited, a little apprehensive, all so deftly conveyed.  (Again, I encourage you to click through to see the face in detail.) She is shown here with Dante and Beatrice (and others) atop the Celestial Rose.

Here’s another I like, from a Book of Hours created in Bruges c. 1500:



I think this Mary is just lovely, so real and human.  She wears a simple, but beautifully coloured blue robe, and has her hair loose and flowing.  There is no feeling of formality between her and the angel, but rather the sense of an intimate, straightforward relaying of a monumental message. 

There are minimal “devices” here – just the merest suggestion of a halo and a very realistic white dove overhead.  The angel’s wings are merely suggested too, in touches of the gold that give these manuscripts the name “illuminated”.  Mary’s face looks gentle, yes, but also thoughtful and intelligent; this virgin understands the destiny she is being given and is ready to live up to it.

Thus endeth the Parade of Virgins…at least for now.


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