The event pictured above is called the Hypapante by the Eastern churches. In the West it is referred to sometimes as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and sometimes as the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
The western names refer to the two Jewish rituals that Mary and Joseph observe in Luke's gospel. The first is the ritual of a woman's "purification" after childbirth, which is detailed in Leviticus 12:2-8. For forty days after the birth, the mother is considered blood-impure. On the fortieth day she brings to the Temple a lamb and a dove, or two doves if she cannot afford a lamb. The priest offers these in the Temple and thus she is "purified." The other ritual is set forth in Exodus 13:2, 12-13. A firstborn son is to be dedicated to God and then "ransomed" with some unspecified offering. Luke 2:22 conflates these two rituals: "And after the days of her purification, according to the law of Moses, were accomplished, they carried him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord."
In the images of this conflated event, Mary and Joseph bring to the Temple both the two doves for Mary's purification and their son for the dedication and ransoming. In many late medieval images the child has been placed on an altar, as above and in this example. This keeps the viewer in mind that the child is indeed Jesus, the sacrifical "lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29) through his redemptive sacrifice on the Cross. In a sermon on the Presentation, Bernard of Clairvaux urges Mary, "Offer your son, sacred Virgin, and present to the Lord the blessed fruit of your womb. Offer the sacred victim (hostia), pleasing to God, that all of us may be reconciled to him. He is sure to accept this new oblation, this precious victim." And in the York play of the Presentation, when Mary laments having no lamb to offer, Joseph says, "Our baby Jesus…is our lamb, Mary.… He is the lamb of God, I say, who all our sins shall take away."1
SIMEON AND ANNA
Presentation images almost always include Simeon, a man who according to Luke's gospel had been "waiting for the consolation of Israel" and had been told by the Holy Spirit "that he should not see death, before he had seen the Christ of the Lord" (Luke 2:25-26). Although Luke says only that he was "a man," the images consistently represent him as an aged priest. That he was very old was claimed by the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, ch. 15 or could be deduced from his prayer at Luke 2:29-32, "Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace, because my eyes have seen thy salvation.…" That he was a priest is first asserted in the 2nd-century Protevangelium of James (¶24) and could perhaps be justified on the basis that a priest is necessary for the ritual of purification.
In medieval mystery plays Simeon bespeaks the longings of the just for God's redemption.2 Some images make this longing reciprocal through the gestures of Simeon and the baby (example), although later works like the picture above may prefer a more naturalistic effect with the baby reaching back to the mother and away from the scary stranger.
Until the 14th century Simeon always received the child with hands covered by his mantle (example) or by a separate cloth (example). This tradition arose from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (3rd or 4th century), which said that when Simeon saw the child he "took him up into his cloak and kissed his feet." It continued in the West even into the 16th century (example). But it was not mentioned in the Golden Legend, so we start to see uncovered hands in the West in the 14th century, as in the picture above. In the 15th and especially the 16th, the child himself may be half- or fully naked.
An aged prophetess named Anna is also present in Luke's account and is in many Presentation images. The mystery plays make her a representative of mankind's longings as well, but in the images she usually just stands to the side.
THE FULFILMENT OF PROPHECY
Medieval commentators saw the Presentation event as the fulfilment of prophecies in scripture, and a lengthy passage in the Chester Purification play has Simeon and Anna studying the scriptures together.3 The reliefs at Orvieto Cathedral have Simeon reading a book before the Presentation occurs, and a book is on the altar in a 13th-century Presentation image in Rome.
CANDLEMAS / CANDELARIA
Simeon calls the child "a light to the revelation of the Gentiles" and tells Mary, "thy own soul a sword shall pierce." These remarks have a lasting impact on liturgy and iconography in the West. The comment about the sword leads to a subset of the Sorrowful Mother type in which Mary's breast is pierced by a sword (example). The comment about light to the Gentiles led to the celebration of the feast of Candlemas. On February 2, 40 days after Christmas, the faithful bring candles to the church to be blessed and lighted. Medieval and later images of the Purification / Presentation normally include candles to refer to the feast and to the belief that Christ is indeed the light to the Gentiles (Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Candlemas").
In Latin countries, La Candelaria is the name both for Candlemas and for a santo of the Virgin and Child that is processed on that day. The santo typically wears a crown and has the Christ Child in her arms and a candle or other symbolic object in one hand. Sometimes the child also wears a crown.
THE SETTING AND THE DRAMATIS PERSONAE
Luke says Simeon greeted the child after going "into the Temple." Western medieval images follow suit by putting the figures within a room-like area (example). But earlier works show the action as if outdoors (example).
The number of persons in Presentation images can be as few as just Mary, the baby and Simeon (and maybe Joseph and Anna), or it can include a whole throng of bystanders, which in later medieval works may include a young woman with uncovered hair carrying the basket of doves (example). The latter could possibly be one of the virgins the priests assigned as Mary's companions in the apocryphal gospels.4
Sometimes people confuse the Presentation in the Temple with the Circumcision, which occurred on the 8th day of the child's life. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (¶15) says, "when the infant had received parhithomus, that is, circumcision, they offered for him a pair of turtle-doves." And this fresco in Santo Spirito, Rome, has a mitred priest attending to the naked Christ Child as if it were a Circumcision image, yet it also includes attendants with candles and the bareheaded young woman with the basket of doves.
Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-12-07, 2020-06-22.
Exodus 13:2, 12-13 Sanctify unto me every firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel, as well of men as of beasts: for they are all mine.…
Detail from the New Testament frescoes at Pomposa Abbey (early 14th century). See the description page for details.