The pricelessness of lapis lazuli and the association of blue historically as a royal colour (certainly in the Byzantine tradition) meant that throughout the 14th and 15th centuries the ultramarine blue pigment that this rare mineral produced would be reserved for the most special and revered usage by western illustrators. It was used as the colour of the heavens and even more specifically, to clothe the Queen of Heaven herself, the Virgin Mary, who even gave her name to the colour, ‘Marian blue’. However, it must be noted that the blue pigment in a medieval manuscript is not always necessarily lapis lazuli, as azurite was a cheaper and more plentiful alternative.
In early iconography Mary was literally an Empress, commonly seated on a throne holding the Christ child as in this ivory above. In western art this image later softened and we begin to see an emphasis on the Virgin’s humanity, showing her more frequently as a tender young mother (1). The formality of her throne was gone but the ‘royal’ blue remained.
The four images below are all of the annunciation from Rylands manuscripts ranging from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Clearly there are significant stylistic differences, but in each a consistent symbolism is also apparent. Naturally, each of the figures of Mary is clothed either fully or partially in her characteristic blue.
Gabriel appears to Mary and the scene is an interior one: Mary is enclosed, reminding us that she is ‘intact’, i.e. a virgin. The archangel Gabriel is placed to the left and the Virgin is to the right; it is unusual to see these figures reversed. In each the divine word of God, the power of the Holy Spirit in the form of a Dove, signalling the moment of Immaculate Conception, is visible travelling towards Mary. In three of the examples Mary is kneeling, showing her submission to the will of God and she is also depicted reading, demonstrating her wisdom (2).
There are of course further clues in the images. The gold-strewn border from Latin MS 21 (above left) contains wild roses, a flower often associated with Mary (the rose without thorns) and also a peacock, an ancient symbol of Christ’s resurrection. The blue gown of Mary in Latin MS 24 (above right) is decorated with a pattern of three white dots which refers to the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In Latin MS 38 (above left) we actually see the heavenly father, a small figure in a burst of gold and of course blue, the exact blue in fact of the Virgin’s cloak, explicitly making a connection between the two figures. Similarly Latin MS 39 (above right) also signals the blue heavens between the arched frame of the room and the gold-strewn border in the same shade as Mary’s gown.
The use of gold in and around all the images (illumination) is liberal. This is another signifier. The light that shines back at us from the gold represents the light of Christ and also the eternal nature of God: unlike silver, it does not tarnish and the gold in these masterpieces remains gleaming centuries on.
Next – Medieval storytelling: From Golden Pages to the Golden Legend
- Wendy A. Stein. How to Read Medieval Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2016), p.109.