Monthly Archives: May 2013

Pearls, Unicorns, and Lilies: Symbols of Feminine Purity in the Renaissance

Renaissance symbols of feminine purity share a number of similarities. Namely, many symbols share their whiteness in color, their references to genitalia or fertility, and a perceived beauty and delicacy. By studying frequently depicted objects such as pearls, unicorns, and lilies in the context of women’s portraits of the time one can understand that patrons and artists were using symbols of purity to depict the faith, virginity, and chastity of the women involved and therefore protect and enforce the patron’s social status.

Virginity was important for the women of Renaissance families, as their sexual behaviors were viewed in Christian terms and thought of as reflecting the honor of the family as a whole. The concept of women’s purity being related to familial honor has been historically long lasting. According to feminist historian Sherry B. Ortner, there is an “ideological linkage of female virginity and chastity to the social honor of the group, such chastity being secured by the exertion of direct control over women’s mobility”.[1] By commissioning marriage portraits depicting daughters or future brides as being chaste through the use of symbols of purity, fathers, brothers, and husbands were merely displaying their control over the female members of their family and raising the social status of the family as a whole.[2] Marriage portraits are one of the most frequent types of paintings to include references to chastity.

Antonello da Messina, The Virgin Mary Reading

Antonello da Messina, The Virgin Mary Reading. Note the pearl jewelry used on her crown and brooch (on her shoulder). In addition to pearls, emeralds were said to shatter if a virgin had sex, sapphires protected chastity, and rubies provided strength and prevented lust and tristesse.

Pearls are one of the quintessential representations of female virginity and purity. It should be noted that pearls do not always carry deeper moral significance—many portrait subjects simply wish to display their sense of fashion and wealth. These precious stones expressed a multitude of meanings; in fact, the pearl was often used to represent vanity or lavishness. However, when pearls are depicted within the specific context of a marriage portrait or the depiction of a religious figure, a message of purity emerges.[3]

The pearl was imbued with many of its implications in the context of paintings of the Madonna. Through representations of the Virgin Mary pearls came to be associated with faith and chastity. The pearls used to adorn the Virgin were not necessarily the pearls one would see in everyday life. These were larger, perfectly round, and flawlessly white with a beautiful luster, while normal pearls may have irregular shapes and lack the Virgin pearls’ snow-white sheen. The perfection of the pearls served to mirror the Christian perfection of the Virgin Mary. Interestingly enough, they also mirror the impossibility of the Virgin’s standard. In order to be the perfect Christian woman one must be a virgin and yet a mother, fertile yet free from lust. As the ideal woman of Christianity, the Virgin’s impossible pearls mirror her impossible persona.[4]

Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, Beatrice d'Este, 1490

Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, Beatrice d’Este, 1490

Mary’s virginity is one of her most frequently discussed attributes. Her purity was highly contested, and supposedly confirmed by Pope Pius IX in a declaration of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. Even Mary’s own conception was highly debated, in regards to whether she was immaculately conceived by Saint Anne and Saint Joachim.[5] In short, Mary’s virginity and purity are her main attributes, and the items used to adorn her serve to further this message. Theologians walked a fine line in discussing the Virgin; she could not be too human but also could not be too godlike. According to historian Robert Kiely, “all efforts to situate her precisely seemed unable to avoid letting her slip into an all too human condition or raising her to precarious heights of power and virtue”.[6] By creating an unattainable ideal in terms of the Virgin’s purity it discouraged women from pursuing power within the church. How could one become like the church’s most powerful woman when her main characteristics were impossibly conflicting?[7]

Additionally, the Virgin Mary’s beauty promoted comparison with the beauty of a pearl. As depictions of the Virgin became younger, more beautiful, wealthier, and whiter as time went on, so did comparisons between her visage and pearls. The Virgin’s beauty became inexplicably connected with her goodness. The majority of Renaissance portraits of her, even those depicting her son’s death, show her as a young woman in the prime of her life. At times Christ even appears to be older than his mother. The visual comparison between the Virgin and pearls began to encompass not only chastity and faith, but chastity and faith as connected to youth and beauty.[8] Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,