Signs and Symbols - Props and Bric-a-brac

A word of caution. Art historians do like to 'interpret' every item in a painting.  As suggested in the section on living symbols, these interpretations are generally valid and are the work of detailed scholarship, but occasionally they can be spurious, and in any case there is no guarantee that experts will agree on what they represent. Sometimes it is better simply to enjoy the painting rather than agonise over every item the artist has included. 

  A workbasket refers to the task Mary has been given in the temple:
      'And the priest said: Choose for me by lot who shall spin the gold, and the white, and the fine linen, and the silk, and the blue, and the scarlet, and the true purple. And the true purple and the scarlet fell to the lot of Mary, and she took them, and went away to her house.' Protoevangelium of James, Ch. 10.

Titian's Annunciation includes a realistic-looking workbasket next to the partridges: the full image is on this page. The workbasket in the beautiful Annunciation from the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge, does, it has to be said, look a little bit like a waste-paper basket. 

Scuola di San Rocco, Venice

Attributed to Bernart van Orley
Fitzwilliam, Cambridge

Mary's Clothing
  The scarlet and true purple assigned to Mary has influenced many artists when deciding on what she should wear.
  The purple was a highly significant colour for Mary to be given. Tyrian purple, extracted from shellfish,  was the most expensive dye of all in early times.  Around 12,000 molluscs were needed to obtain 1.5 grams of dye. It was, therefore, reserved for the very rich and powerful, and thus appropriate for the Virgin Mary and a very good reason for her fellow spinners to feel a bit jealous.

Jacopo del Sellaio (Detail)
Private collection

Allessio Baldovinetti
Uffizi Florence (Detail)

Paolo Veronese
Accademia, Venice (detail)

You may have noticed  that although the scarlet is there, the purple looks distinctly - bluish. So why didn't artists go for a real  purple? 
    Ultramarine Blue was the most expensive pigment used by Renaissance artists. It was made from powdered lapis lazuli; cheaper blue pigments had a poorer colour and were less stable. Ultramarine, therefore, could be seen to represent the Tyrian Purple dye. For the Virgin, only the best would do.  
  The Virgin is frequently seen reading a book, and this reflects the wisdom with which she in endowed. But what is she reading? 
The Old Testament is the obvious candidate, in particular the book of Isaiah which foretold the virgin birth:  Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 
In this wing from the Isenheim Altarpiece by Grunwald, this is reinforced by Isaiah himself, who appears in the top left-hand corner with his book open. 

Left wing and detail.  Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar

This Annunciation by Joos van Cleve (below) is almost an encyclopaedia  of Annunciation imagery. 
The dove and the vase of lilies are familiar symbols we have met before. Vases and pitchers represent Mary as a pure vessel in which to receive the Holy Ghost.  This is underlined by the washing paraphernalia at the back of the picture. These stand on a piece of furniture with a distinct altar-like appearance, which gives them the feel of a communion cup and patten.  
  The comfortable bed is clearly a symbol of motherhood. Curtains are a frequent feature of Annunciations: see the Grunwald detail above. They represent revelation, the moment when the curtains are pulled aside. The temple in which Mary worked is described as having curtains or veils, used to hide the Holy of Holies. This was the veil that was 'rent' on the death of Christ. (Matthew 27 v 51)
Candles often appear. An unlit candle, such as the ones on the chandelier, can represent the life that has yet to be born, i.e. Christ.   But note the lit candle above Gabriel. The candles in this picture might represent  the journey from the heavenly world to the physical world. 
  The pictures on the back wall are interesting. The one that looks like a poster is of Moses, considered a significant precursor of Christ. The small diptych has the words 'Abraham' and '
Melchizedek' under paintings. Melchizedek is a king that gives bread and wine to Abraham (Genesis chapter 14.) Thus the picture reinforces the communion references already made. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Annunciation page 1

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