Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Initial G with the Birth of the Virgin
  • Creator: Don Silvestro de' Gherarducci, painter
  • Description:

    This manuscript illumination from a gradual of 1375 represents the letter G, surrounded by lilies, and depicting the interior of Saint Anne’s bedroom, where she has just given birth to the Virgin Mary. Her bedchamber is decorated with cassoni and beautiful silks. A young woman is holding the holy child in her left arm and testing the temperature of the water in the bowl, while another young woman is adding more water to it. Gathering around Saint Anne, female servants and possibly a midwife and family member with a halo are taking care of her. The artist brilliantly used the letter G to create a cozy, domestic space.

    Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, the artist, was a member of a distinguished team of illustrators among the monks of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence. Vasari, while noting the skill of Don Jacopo (“a better writer of large letters than any who lived either before or after him, not only in Tuscany, but in all Europe”), wrote that Don Silvestro "illuminated the said books no less excellently than Don Jacopo…" Don Silvestro's most famous works are the initials and illuminations from choir books, especially the gradual illuminated for Santa Maria degli Angeli in the 1370s. He was also responsible for the final decoration of this book by furnishing the large historiated initials.

    Initial G with the Birth of the Virgin is one of the illuminations from this manuscript. A gradual is the principal choir book used in the mass. It can also refer to the versicle and response of the Epistle reading that constitutes one part of the mass. The introits, here the letter G, are the first sung elements of the mass, often introduced by historiated initials. In this illumination, the capital letter G is the initial of the first word of the introit to the Mass for the feast of the birth of the Virgin (September 8). This scene, however, was first interpreted as the Birth of Saint John the Baptist when the second holy woman was identified as the Virgin Mary. However, if that is the case, the illumination would have been decorated with the initial D as the beginning of the introit to the Mass of the feast day of the birth of Saint John.

    Additionally, the beautiful lilies surrounding the scene are iconographic symbols of the purity of the Virgin, which further suggests that this image is a representation of the birth of Mary. The second woman with a halo in this picture is identified as Saint Anne’s sister, Hismeria, the grandmother of John the Baptist. This illumination from a gradual created for the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli thus represents the scene and celebrates the birth of the Virgin Mary. The iconography of the scene is Sienese, faithfully following the composition of Pietro Lorenzetti's altarpiece for Siena cathedral.

    The presence of relatives, servants and midwives in this image connects with historical sources and material culture that emphasize a female, family-centered childbirth in medieval Italy. In 14th century Italy, doctors were less in evidence in the birthing room than midwives, whose knowledge of childbirth came through experiences including both pre- and postnatal care. In Leon Battista Alberti’s I Libri della Famiglia, he addresses issues concerning the mother’s care.
    “The woman, then who thinks she is pregnant should live discreetly,
    contentedly, and chastely – light nourishing foods, no hard, excessive
    labor, no sleepy or lazy days in idle solitude. She should give birth
    in her husband’s house and not elsewhere. Once she is delivered,
    she must not go out into the cold and the wind until her health is
    fully restored and all her limbs have fully regained their strength.”

    The birth of the Virgin Mary is quite special in Christian dogma, particularly with regard to the discussion of her Immaculate Conception. This is the idea that Mary, unlike other human beings, is free of original human sin. Original sin is the Christian doctrine that each human being is born in a state of sin inherited from the first man, Adam, who disobeyed God in eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The story of the Virgin Mary’s mother Anne comes from apocryphal sources rather than the Bible. She and her husband, Saint Joachim, are infertile. When God hears their prayers for a child, Mary is conceived and born. In the earliest texts, the conception occurs without sexual intercourse, though it does not advance the idea of an Immaculate Conception. Legend said they conceived by embracing before the Golden Gate of Jerusalem.

    The belief in the Immaculate Conception raised controversy, was long championed by Franciscans and opposed by Dominicans and only gradually emerged through centuries of disputation. It was not proclaimed a dogma of faith until 1854. The fourteenth century marks a significant period in the doctrine because of both theological and popular developments. Duns Scotus refuted the points raised by Thomas Aquinas against the Immaculate Conception, affirming Mary's sinless state and, at the same time, reconciling this with her seemingly contradictory need for Christ's universal saving work through his incarnation. Moreover, lay people came to celebrate the feast of the Conception of the Virgin increasingly in the fourteenth century, and even some Dominicans, who were opposed to the doctrine, joined in the celebration by the end of the century. However, during the time this illumination was painted, there was no official proclamation of the Immaculate Conception as a dogma of faith. In 1431, the Council of Basel declared Mary’s Immaculate Conception a “pious opinion” consistent with faith and scripture. Sixtus IV, a Franciscan, commissioned two offices for the feast of Mary's conception (December 8) during his papacy (1471-1484).

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Anne, Mother of the Virgin, Saint Childbirth in Art Illumination of Manuscripts Infants Liturgy Mary, Virgin, Saint- Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 14
  • Date: ca. 1375
  • Related Work: Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, Historiated initial 'R' of the Annunciation, British Library, Additional 35254C. Cutting comes from Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana Corale 2, fol. 60, a Gradual (Sanctorale) dated 1370.
    Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, Historiated initial 'S' of the Madonna and child holding a globe, Cleveland, Museum of Art, 1924.1012. Cutting comes from Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana Corale 2, fol. 137, a Gradual (Sanctorale) dated 1370.
    Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, Illumination cuttings from Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana Corale 2, a Gradual (Sanctorale) dated 1370.
    Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, Assumption of the Virgin, panel painting, ca. 1365, Vatican, Pinacoteca.
    Pietro Lorenzetti, The Birth of the Virgin, ca. 1342, Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
  • Current Location: New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 21.168
  • Original Location: Florence, Santa Maria degli Angeli, a Camaldolese monastery for men
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Manuscript illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Tempera ; Ink ; Gold
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 29.2/29.8/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Ellington, Donna Spivey. From Sacred Body to Angelic Soul: Understanding Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Catholic University of America Press, 2001.

    Kanter, Laurence B. Painting and Illumination in Early Renaissance Florence, 1300-1450. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994. Pages 124-125. Available open access.

    Kanter, Laurence B. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art; distributed by H.N. Abrams, 1994. Page 150.

    Musacchio, Jacqueline Marie. Childbirth in Italy: The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy. Yale University Press, 1999.

    Sella, Barbara. "Northern Italian Confraternities and the Immaculate Conception in the Fourteenth Century." Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 49, 4 (1998): 599-619.

    Twomey, Lesley K. The Serpent and the Rose: The Immaculate Conception and Hispanic Poetry in the Late Medieval Period. Brill, 2008.

    Wight, C. "Gradual." Glossary for the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Available open access: https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/GlossG.asp#GRADUAL