Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve
  • Creator: Olivuccio di Ciccarello, painter
  • Description:

    This painting, attributed since 2002 to Olivuccio di Ciccarello, depicts the Virgin Mary nursing the baby Jesus. Mary is flanked by saint George and the archangel Michael on her left and the archangel Gabriel on her right. Twelve medallions spring forth from her halo, each depicting one of the apostles. Reclining at Mary’s feet, Eve holds the forbidden fruit. The Tree of Knowledge sprouts from between Eve’s thighs, and a serpent with a woman’s head gazes at her face. The heraldic shield in the painting helps identify friar Agostino Rogeroli as its patron and is likely a commission for the church of Sant’ Agostino at Fermo where he also donated a reliquary for a thorn from Christ’s crown. The church served both lay people and friars.

    It is important to consider how the Fall of humankind in the Garden of Eden and the Annunciation to Mary are represented in terms of human nature and salvation in this work. First consider the representation of human nature. Eve’s choice to disobey God and eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden led to the fall of humankind because it introduced sin to the world. This scene is shown at the bottom of the painting where Eve is seen being tempted by the serpent to take a bite of the apple. Her placement in the painting below the vision of Mary, her son Jesus, and Mary’s halo of medallions draws attention to the fact that humankind is always below the chastity and humility of Mary due to its sinful nature. In addition, the artist’s choice to place Eve in a black abyss illustrates the darkness of human nature that is related to sin.

    On the other hand, salvation is displayed above Eve with Mary, the infant Christ, and archangel Gabriel. There is reference to the Annunciation, when the archangel came to Mary and told her that as a virgin, she would give birth to the Son of God. Mary welcomed the salvation of the world by acquiescing to God’s request. By giving birth to God’s Son, Mary created an avenue to salvation so that Christ redeemed humankind from the sin that Eve introduced to the world. The bright gold used to surround Mary emphasizes that she symbolizes this salvation for humans. The painting presents a choice for a medieval woman: she can either take the route of sin, like Eve, and be seen as disobedient to God, or she can choose salvation, like Mary, and be mindful of Christ’s teachings.

    Several similarities in the appearances of Mary and Eve lead the viewer instinctively to compare them. Both have the same markers of ideal beauty: pale skin, flowing blond hair, and small, shapely breasts. Notably, both the Virgin and Eve have their right breast exposed, further inciting comparison. Some scholars argue the panel posits Eve as an inversion of Mary; one is the chaste, honorable mother, the other the sinful, immodest temptress. The Latin for Gabriel’s greeting begins, Ave (Hail), a reversal of Eve’s Latin name, Eva. As mentioned above, women onlookers would have been presented with models of the “good woman” they must emulate, and the “evil woman” to shame. However, this reading does not account for the medieval emphasis on Eve’s role as ancestor to Mary.

    Indeed, while Eve’s position below Mary may seem to represent inferiority and condemnation, it also quotes a medieval tradition of conveying ancestry through a similar pose. The Tree of Knowledge which sprouts from Eve can be seen as a reference to the family tree that connects Eve and Mary. This reading highlights a different perspective on Eve’s role in human redemption. In bringing about the Fall, she necessitated the birth and Passion of Christ. More literally, she is ancestor to both the Virgin and Christ. Finally, Eve’s nudity may not be an implication of sinfulness or even of sexuality. Medieval thinking was that a woman’s breast milk was converted from menstrual blood. The image of the Virgin nursing the infant Christ emphasizes the link between her breast milk and Christ’s blood, thus presenting her as a co-Redemptress of humanity alongside Christ. Eve, with her right breast also exposed, appears to be involved in this act of redemption. Her bare chest is not a sign of sexuality, but of divine mercy.

    Moreover, the feeding imagery references Eve and the Virgin’s motherhood and their respective roles in the condemnation and salvation of humanity. While the Virgin is seen breastfeeding Christ, the Tree of Knowledge and the snake encircling it allude to Eve’s act of feeding Adam fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. In doing so, Eve brought about the Fall and condemned her offspring (the rest of humankind) to sin and death. In contrast, the Virgin’s breastfeeding symbolizes her own humility, Christ's humanity, and the salvation of humankind. Humility was seen as a key way to acquire other virtues important to Christianity, and the Virgin’s acceptance of her role as the Mother of God made her a significant model of humility. During the fourteenth century the composition of the Madonna of Humility, seated on the ground, gained prominence as it provided a natural and relatable portrayal of the Virgin that was more engaging for the viewer than the traditional imagery of the Enthroned Madonna and Child. At the time, a child was understood to be the combination of flesh from the mother, and its soul, derived from the father. Therefore, while divine, the Virgin’s flesh also gave Christ his humanity. The Virgin’s breastfeeding (a motif known as “the Virgin Lactans”) provides evidence of her life-giving and life-sustaining role, as she quite literally feeds Christ with her own body. Through her humility and motherhood, the Virgin is able to intercede on behalf of humanity in their prayers for salvation. She is the direct source of Christ’s flesh and blood, and, in giving him life, she provides redemption for humanity. However, instead of producing a dichotomy of sinful Eve and the humble Virgin, the Virgin’s intercession is dependent on Eve’s condemnation and their roles are contingent upon one another.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Altarpieces Breast Feeding Eve (Biblical Figure) in Art Humility Intercession in Art Mary, Virgin, Saint and Child in Art Mary, Virgin, Saint- Annunciation in Art Mothers in Art Nude in Art
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 14- 15
  • Date: circa 1400
  • Related Work: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and workshop, Maestà lunette, ca.1334-36, fresco. Rotunda of San Galgano, Montesiepi.
    Andrea di Bartolo, Madonna of Humility, The Blessing Christ, Two Angels, and a Donor [obverse], ca. 1380/90, tempera and gold on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection 1939.1.20.a.
    Paolo di Giovanni Fei, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints John the Evangelist, Peter, Agnes, Catherine of Alexandria, Lucy, an Unidentified Female Saint, Paul, and John the Baptist, with Eve and the Serpent; and The Annunication in the spandrels, ca.1390, tempera on panel, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.1.23.
    Master of the Straus Madonna, Madonna and Child, ca.1390-1395, tempera and gold on panel, Stalybridge, Astley Cheetham Art Gallery.
    Sassetta, Madonna of Humility, ca. 1435/40, tempera and gold on poplar panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC., Samuel H. Kress Collection 1939.1.246.
    Olivuccio di Ciccarello, Altarpiece with the Virgin and Child with Saints, ca. 1410-1420, oil and gold leaf on panel, Walters Art Museum.
  • Current Location: Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art, Holden Collection 1916.795
  • Original Location: Marche, Italy
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Wood panel; Tempera paints; Gold
  • Donor: Male religious; Agostino Rogeroli, an Augustinian friar, whose heraldic shield appears in the painting. He may have commissioned it, along with a reliquary, for the church of Sant’Agostino at Fermo.
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 181.5/88.6/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Dunlop, Anne. “Flesh and the Feminine: Early-Renaissance Images of the Madonna with Eve at Her Feet.” Oxford Art Journal 25, 2 (2002): 127-147.

    Gertsman, Elina and Barbara H. Rosenwein. The Middle Ages in 50 objects. Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pages 88-91.

    Phillips, Kim M. "The Breasts of Virgins: Sexual Reputation and Young Women’s Bodies in Medieval Culture and Society." Cultural and Social History 15, 1 (2018): 1-19.

    Stefanacci, Davide. “Humility as a Virtue: Oral and Visual Religious Indoctrination to Purify the Female Gender in Italy in the Early Quattrocento.” Signs and Society 8, 2 (2020): 220-242.

    Williamson, Beth. “The Virgin ‘Lactans’ as Second Eve: Image of the ‘Salvatrix’.” Studies in Iconography 19 (1998): 105 - 138.