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Handmaid of God: The Developing Social Class of the Virgin Mary

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SUNY Geneseo

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  1. Introduction
  2. Mary's humility: Found in contemporary writings
  3. Humility as the number one virtue for Mary
  4. A gradually increasing emphasis on Mary's humanity and circumstances of her domestic life
  5. Jan van Eyck: A Flemish artist born in 1385
  6. Van Eyck atempt to dress Mary like royalty to make people take her seriously
  7. The â€oeMerode Altarpiece” by Robert Campin: Annunciation as a vision viewed by the patrons of the painting.
  8. Conclusion
  9. Works cited

Although the Virgin Mary is depicted in the gospel text and other religious literature as primarily a humble ?handmaid of God,? imagery in medieval representations of her tend to downplay that aspect of her personality. Instead, social class is what is most often emphasized, with the depiction of Mary's superior social standing echoing that of the either the painter or the patron who commissioned the work. The royal, ?Queen of Heaven? aspect of her personality becomes what is most important, while other characteristics such as humility fall by the wayside. This paper will address two such paintings by northern European artists in the 15th century: ?The Merode Altarpeice? by Robert Campin and the ?Washington Annunciation? by Jan van Eyck. Both of these are paintings of the Annunciation to the Virgin by Flemish painters around the same time period. Both depict the Virgin Mary at a social standing equal or greater to the level of the patrons ? the audience has to be able to view her as socially higher than them in order for her to be respected. To add an extra level of analysis, these paintings will be compared not only to each other, but also to the 1898 ?Annunciation? by African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner.

[...] When the angel Gabriel announces Mary's divine mission to bear Christ, Mary replies, ?Ecco ancilla domini Behold the handmaid of the lord.?[2] Mary humbly accepts her role and refers to herself in the position of a humble handmaid. During the visitation to Elizabeth, Mary is at once exalted as full of grace ?above all women,? but her humility is again emphasized as well. This virtue is what is most often mentioned in the scriptures as an important aspect of her personality. [...]

[...] Bernard she was reading Isaiah at the time of the annunciation, with the angel appearing just as she read, ?Behold, a virgin shall conceive.?[11] This also shows that her role is a simple girl serving in the temple? but as a link between the Old Testament scriptures and the new era that was to come with the conception of Christ. Thus, iconographically speaking, Mary becomes more than a humble maiden, the mother of Christ, or the Queen of Heaven she is a tangible link between the Jewish traditions of the Hebrew Bible and the new traditions of Christianity, showing that there is a connection between the two. [...]

[...] ?Unlike other female figures represented in books of hours the Virgin Mary or female saints, for example the shepherdess is unnamed, anonymous, and thus she is ?available? as an object of ideological construction for her upper class and generally noble patrons.?[7] The patrons can impress their own opinions about the peasantry onto the picture without any ideological disruptions. More importantly, the shepherdess's lower class status was believed to signify their moral laxity. Many pictures show them with their hair uncovered, dancing alone or with the shepherds, often using expressive gestures in their actions. [...]

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