St. Paul writes of the Church as Christ's bride whom he has saved and washed clean with the "laver of living water in the word" (Ephesians 5:26, referencing Exodus 30:18-19). Christian art follows this personification in always representing the Church as a woman, as in the mosaic shown above.
Within this iconographic tradition there are two main image types. The first contemplates the Church as the bride from the Song of Solomon. The other juxtaposes the Church with what Christians considered her predecessor, the Synagogue.
THE CHURCH AS BRIDE OF CHRIST
Christian commentators on the Song of Solomon understood the bride allegorically as the Church. (See this page for an extended example in an illuminated manuscript.) The intimate language of the Song represented Christ's love for his bride and sometimes led to a fairly intimate iconography that portrayed the kisses and embraces of the bride and bridegroom.1
Another tradition in the art merged the Church and the Virgin Mary into a type known as Maria Ecclesia, as in the 13th-century apse mosaic at Santa Maria in Trastevere (above), where the woman wears a crown and sits enthroned alongside Christ, who lightly embraces her with his right arm. The embrace is explained by the text on the scroll in her hands: Leva eius sub capite meo et dextera illius amplesabitur me, "His left hand is under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me," from the Song of Solomon (2:6 and 8:3). This identifies the woman as the bride in the Song. At the same time, the book in Christ's hand links her to Mary. It uses the same words Christ speaks to Mary in the Golden Legend when she enters Heaven: Veni electa mea et ponam in te thronum meum, "Come, my chosen one, and I shall put you on my throne.2
The same composition appears in simpler form in the first picture on the right, a fresco in Untergreutschach, Austria. Considering the obscurity of the location, it seems likely that it is not the only image modeled on the Trastevere mosaic.
A very early example of this conflation of Mary and Ecclesia is found on the triumphal arch at Santa Maria Maggiore (432-440). On the left side of the second register the Christ Child sits on a throne flanked by his mother on the right and on the left by a woman wearing a crown and a golden robe. The latter is surely Ecclesia, but on the right side of the second register, the Holy Family's arrival in Egypt, the same woman in gold stands with Joseph and the Child, conflating the roles of Ecclesia and Mary.
In a portrait of St. Barnabas in Rome a female figure points to the phrase magistra apostolorum in a book held open by St. Barnabas. Magistra is the feminine form of the word for "teacher," and apostolorum means "of the apostles." The use of this phrase might suggest that the female figure could be Maria Ecclesia: see my study of the portrait.
THE CHURCH AND THE SYNAGOGUE
Another iconographical type juxtaposes a representation of Ecclesia with her predecessor, Synagoga (first picture at right). The latter often carries a tablet of the Law and will be blind or blindfolded, whereas Ecclesia will carry a cross and look confidently into the distance. Sometimes each will hold a lance or scepter, but Synagoga's will be broken.
When thus paired, Ecclesia is sometimes shown with the laver of Ephesians 5:26. In contrast to this cleansing laver, Synagoga will be pictured with the kind of sacrificial victim that Leviticus 16:16 says will "expiate the sanctuary from the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and from their transgressions, and all their sins" (example). The opposing of laver and animal victim illustrates the point in the Letter to the Hebrews, that Christ's sacrifice replaces and surpasses the one ordained in Leviticus:
For if the blood of goats and of oxen, and the ashes of an heifer being sprinkled, sanctify such as are defiled, to the cleansing of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who by the Holy Ghost offered himself unspotted unto God, cleanse our conscience from dead works, to serve the living God?
In the Middle Ages St. Paul was believed to be the author of Hebrews, which may explain his presence in Garofalo's grand-scale allegory, The Old and New Testament. Garofalo's work exemplifies the kind of Ecclesia/Synagoga image in which the two figures flank the crucifix.
Other works picture the actual displacing of Synagoga. In this Crucifixion image an angel on the right unceremoniously pushes an elderly Synagoga out of the frame while another on the left leads in the beautiful young Ecclesia. In medieval exegesis of the Book of Esther, the heroine and the disobedient queen she replaces are types of Ecclesia and Synagoga, and Esther's intercession for her people prefigures the Church's intercession for all of mankind.3 This typological relation is referenced in Veronese's Esther Cycle.
Finally, traditional Catholic teaching spoke of three "states" of the church: the Church Suffering (in Purgatory), the Church Militant (in the world), and the Church Triumphant (in Heaven).4 The latter two are pictured in Andrea da Firenze's The Church Militant and the Church Triumphant.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-10-29, 2019-01-08.
Detail of the apse mosaic at Santa Maria in Trastevere: Christ and Maria Ecclesia enthroned. See the description page for a discussion of the entire apse and its symbolism.