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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]

Master of the Castello Nativity, Portrait of a Woman, 1450s

Master of the Castello Nativity, Portrait of a Woman, 1450s

In addition to the Virgin Mary, one saint in particular became associated with pearls. Saint Margaret—whose name is markedly similar to the Latin word for pearl, margarita—was known for her purity and chastity, as well as for being the saint invoked most frequently during childbirth. It’s notable that the two women of the church most closely associated with pearls were the women most well

known for their virginity and simultaneously with fertility. It is not a coincidence that the chaste saint is named for a pearl. Saint Margaret’s story is somewhat muddled, in fact. Earlier versions depict her as a heathen dancer and prostitute, who lavishly covered her body with pearls (one of the aforementioned alternative meanings of the gem). However, later versions present the saint as being ever chaste. Jacobus de Voragine described Saint Margaret as being “named after a highly refined white stone known as margarita, small and filled with virtues. Thus the blessed Margaret was white due to virginity”.[9]

Piero del Pollaiuolo, Portrait of a Woman, mid 1470s

Piero del Pollaiuolo, Portrait of a Woman, mid 1470s. Look at the elaborate pearl hairstyle used for this marriage portrait.

These references would be well known to wealthy Renaissance patrons. Male family members would commission portraits for the female members of their family, often as a marriage portrait. These images often used strands of delicate pearls to represent the wearer’s virginal status and piety. Marriage portraits were intended to elevate the status of the family of the bride and of her husband. By promoting the purity of the young women—one of the most prized feminine characteristics of the time—as well as the wealth of both families, their statuses would grow in esteem. The importance of the color of the pearls, being lighter, is enforced by the popularity of lighter hair colors and light skin in portraits of women. Women would dye their hair to be light and would have it painted even lighter. This emphasis on whiteness is due to its association with purity and faith as well as with historical preference.[10] The roundness and whiteness of the pearls also reflected the time’s preferred roundness and whiteness of the feminine form.

Another symbol of purity is the unicorn, which was frequently shown in portraits of women, though never portraits of men. According to legend, only virgins could tame unicorns (historically, the concept of virginity has largely been applied to women while men were treated more forgivingly and generally not in terms of virginity. Thus while there were undoubtedly many male virgins there were no depictions of male virgins with unicorns). Unicorns were consistently depicted as white in coloring, likely due to the association between the color white and purity. Renaissance women, for whom virginity prior to marriage was a requirement, would be depicted with unicorns in order to emphasize their chastity. Similar to pearls, unicorns were meant to exhibit the sitter’s virtue. However, unicorns were not meant as a symbol of faith or piety, in that they were mythological and not religious creatures. An excellent example of this phenomenon is Raphael’s painting, Young Woman with Unicorn. This piece emphasizes the sitter’s virginity by having the symbol of chastity—the unicorn—placed directly in her lap. Raphael was an apt reader of societal norms, and his portraits reflected his awareness of the sitter’s place in society. According to Stefano Zuffi, Raphael, “returned the artform to Alberti’s conception of it as a sign of the sitter’s role in society, in which identity was politically and, in the case of women, socially determined”.[11] As a gift to a young bride, this was particularly appropriate.

The Unicorn Tapestries, The Unicorn at Bay (left), The Unicorn is Tamed (right)

The Unicorn Tapestries, The Unicorn at Bay (left), The Unicorn is Tamed (right)

Unicorns are particularly interesting as a symbol of feminine purity because they are phallic in nature. The common scene of the unicorn and the maiden comes from the idea of the joining male and female. Unicorns represent masculinity, with many works depicting the hunt of a unicorn for the magical properties of its horn, while the maiden represents femininity. In the end, men are unable to tame the unicorn and it must be captured by a young maiden. An excellent example of this are The Unicorn Tapestries, created by unknown artists in the early 1500s. Men unsuccessfully chase the strong and swift unicorn, eventually using a young woman as bait. The young maiden tames the unicorn, calming male elements with her female ones.

Maestro delle Storie del Pane, Portrait of a Man, possible Matteo di Sebastiano di Bernardino Gozzadini, and Portrait of a Woman, possible Ginevra d'Antonio Lupari Gozzadini, 1485-95

Maestro delle Storie del Pane, Portrait of a Man, possible Matteo di Sebastiano di Bernardino Gozzadini, and Portrait of a Woman, possible Ginevra d’Antonio Lupari Gozzadini, 1485-95. There’s a unicorn in the lower right background of the bride’s side of the marriage portrait. She’s also holding a golden orb which may represent the apple from the Garden of Eden.

Raphael, Lady Holding a Unicorn, 1506

Raphael, Lady Holding a Unicorn, 1506

Moretto da Brescia, St Justina with Unicorn 1530

Moretto da Brescia, St Justina with Unicorn, 1530

Domenichino, The Maiden and the Unicorn, 1530

Domenichino, The Maiden and the Unicorn, 1530

Flowers have been associated with female sexuality throughout history. It’s unsurprising, given the ideas of growth and fertility flowers contain, as well as the obvious visual relationship to female genitalia. However, not all flowers represent the same aspect of sexuality. The lily flower is though to represent virginity particularly well and has roots as an attribute of virgin saints. The Virgin Mary and the lily have become closely associated, specifically for its indication of purity. Additionally, a lily flower among thorns frequently represents the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception.[12] Commonly present during scenes of the Annunciation, the lily serves as a metaphor for the conception due to its pure white petals and golden stamen, which acts as a visual reminder of beams of light.[13] Many believe that this particular flower symbolizes the Virgin Mary because of how perfectly white its petals are, as well as its sweet scent. Whiteness is one of the constant markers of female purity throughout the Renaissance.[14] The lily is interesting in that it is also used to represent male saints, including Saint Dominic, Saint Francis, and Saint Joseph. However, portraits of Renaissance men holding lilies were not common in the way portraits of Renaissance women with the flower were.[15]

Sandro Botticelli, The Cestello Annunciation, 1489-90

Sandro Botticelli, The Cestello Annunciation, 1489-90. The Archangel Gabriel holds a lily in his hand.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Costanza Caetani, 1480-90

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Costanza Caetani, 1480-90

Lorenzi di Credi, Portrait of a Young Woman

Lorenzi di Credi, Portrait of a Young Woman

By studying depictions of the Virgin Mary and marriage portraits from the Renaissance one is able to better understand the moral symbolism behind common objects. While sometimes a pearl is just a pearl, in other contexts it can be a symbol of feminine purity, chastity, and even faith.


[1] Ortner, Sherry B.. “The Virgin and the State.” Feminist Studies 4.3 (1978): 23. JSTOR. Web. 17 Apr. 2013.

[2] Ortner, Sherry B.. “The Virgin and the State.” Feminist Studies 4.3 (1978): 19-35. JSTOR. Web. 17 Apr. 2013.

[3] De Jongh, E. . “Pearls of Virtue and Pearls of Vice.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 8.2 (1975): 85. JSTOR. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.

[4] Boss, Sarah Jane. Empress and Handmaid: On Nature and Gender in the Cult of the Virgin Mary. London: Cassell, 2000. Print.

[5] Kiely, Robert. “The Standing of Mary.” Blessed and beautiful: Picturing the Saints. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 15-20. Print.

[6] Kiely, Robert. “The Standing of Mary.” Blessed and Beautiful. 17.

[7] Foskett, Mary F.. “A Virgin Conceived.” A Virgin Conceived: Mary and Classical Representations of Virginity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. 7-15. Print.

[8] Kiely, Robert. “The Standing of Mary.” Blessed and Beautiful. 15-25.

[9] De Jongh, E. . “Pearls of Virtue and Pearls of Vice.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 8.2 (1975): 85. JSTOR. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.

[10] Zuffi, Stefano. “Portrait of the Lady.” Gospel Figures in Art. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003. 67. Print.

[11] Zuffi, Stefano. “Portrait of the Lady.” Gospel figures in art. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003. 78-79. Print.

[12] Cohen, Simona. “Flowers of Virtue.” Animals as Disguised Symbols in Renaissance Art. Leiden: Brill, 2008. 83-86. Print.

[13] Fisher, Celia. “Lilies.” Flowers of the Renaissance. Los Angeles, Calif.: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011. 35-46. Print.

[14] Ferguson, George Wells. “Flowers, Trees, and Plants.” Signs & symbols in Christian art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. 33-34. Print.

[15] Fisher, Celia. “Lilies.” Flowers of the Renaissance. 35-46..

2 Comments

  1. In pre-Christian times, what we call Grace was considered the Divine Masculine since it fell from Father Sky. The Divine Feminine was that which arose from Mother Earth or what we call Passion or Kundalini.

    The Christian religion is the only religion that views the Power of Passion as masculine and the Power of Grace as feminine. I can only assume that the reason for this is that since Jesus was male, then by association the Christ or Kundalini must also be masculine. In order to have the powers balance each other, Grace must then be relegated to the feminine role.

    The horn on the unicorn is a conduit of the Father’s essence, Grace. The horse, which is a symbol of wild emotion, is white because Grace, which is referred to as Light in other belief systems, is always portrayed as white or iridescent. The gentleness of the beast is created through Grace. The White steeple on top of churches is likened to the unicorn’s horn.

    The renaissance brought back the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians who understood and used the Father Sky and Mother Earth theology. The unicorn symbology is a throw back to that ancient system of belief.

    Reply
    • Thank you for this information! Very interesting to know.

      Reply

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