Here's where you can enter in text. Feel free to edit, move, delete or add a different page element.


John Mullaney MA










Pages     2 – 9                 Essay


Pages    10 – 11              Notes


Pages    12 – 17              Appendix A; Examples of depictions of ‘The Annunciation’


Page     18                       Appendix B; The Platonic ‘Theory of Knowledge’.


Page     19                       Appendix C; Discussion on Depictions of Prayer Postures in               

                                                              Christian Art.

Page     20                        Bibliography

















In 1415 Rowland Lenthall fought at Agincourt and was knighted by Henry V. He was married to Maragaret Fitzalan, a Plantagenet and so related to the royal family.  Margaret’s mother, a De Bohun, was also related to the King. As a reward for his loyalty, and no doubt to retain the family ties, Rowland was granted the Hampton estate in Herefordshire.  This had been formed by combining the manors of Hampton Richard and Hampton Mappenor. It extended to well over 60 000 acres. Sir Rowland built the original quadrangular manor house in 1427. In 1434 King Henry V1 granted him licence to crenellate the house. Today the chapel is one of its few remaining original structures. Pevsner in describing Hampton Court writes that its ‘finest piece is the chapel with its … windows’.(1)  So what were these windows, why were they there and what do they reveal of the social significance of stained glass at the time?





The chapel is a large building suited to housing the family and retainers of a very large estate. The glass, now all dispersed, is attributed to Thornton and his Coventry associates.(2) It has close ties with some of the glass in York Minster, especially the East window.  According to Caviness it ‘is among the finest painted in England’(3). At the west end the chapel  boasted a series of Apostle windows. In fact it was a traditional ‘Creed’ window with each Apostle holding a scroll showing the words attributed to him.  There was another series of windows depicting the ‘Joys of the Virgin’ and also set of tracery lights featuring saints. In addition to the fine coloured glass work they all show technical subtlety in the use of grisaille, especially on the faces.(4)




The  window of the ‘Annunciation’ was the first in the series from a narrative set depicting the ‘Joys of the Virgin’. It is this that I shall examine in detail.  I shall use it to illustrate the social significance of stained glass windows in general, looking at their artistic and social context during the middle ages. Finally I shall demonstrate in what ways this window was representative of its period.




The Annunciation c 1420-1435

Courtesy of the Burrell Collection, reference number 45.588. Glasgow City Council (Museums), Glasgow.










Firstly taking its generic status, the window is redolent of traditional late medieval, early Renaissance depictions of the Annunciation. At first sight most ‘Annunciations’ appear to represent a ‘real life’ event. They are located in domestic surroundings. Sometimes these are richly decorated, making reference to the claims of a royal lineage for Mary and her Son. At other times the surroundings are more modest emphasising the concept that God has become an ordinary man, thereby identifying Himself with the human condition.

To the modern eye any claim to realism may seem strange. Winged angels, godlike floating figures, doves emanating beams of light, people surrounded by nimbi; all indicate a purely metaphorical representation. Looked at in context, there was already a thousand year old Christian tradition of this type of iconographic art. Very similar ‘Annunciations’ can be found as early as early as the 2nd century. Indeed some of the figures, such as winged messengers, can be traced to even earlier civilisations.

So how do these icons represent ‘reality’? They are in fact depictions of a very different way of understanding the universe than the one we use today. Several philosophies and religions claimed that what our senses tell us is not the whole truth, is not the whole of reality. What we see is only a part of what is really around us, but our senses are incapable of ‘seeing’ the whole. One such philosophy was that of Plato.   We do know that Platonic philosophy held a strong attraction for many religions, not only Christianity, in the first millennium.

 During the middle ages Platonic philosophy exerted a major influence on Catholic theology. As such it was closely identified with certain religious orders, especially the preaching orders, such as the Augustinians, who would have spread their brand of spirituality. In contemporary art  it is possible to identify certain features common to the Neo-platonic ‘philosophy of being’. In other words the icons  claimed to represent an ‘idea’.  As such they would have been seen and understood by many people of the day.

Today we are used to looking at ‘writing’ and understanding that the shapes in front of us are not the things themselves, but are rather guides or representations. Icons contained symbols, which like ‘writing’, do not claim to show things as they are, but stand for the ideas behind them. However at another level some of the icons may indeed be trying to tell the viewer that such and such was actually taking place, it is just that our weak senses are incapable of perceiving the hidden reality. (APPENDICES A & B).

We can say that this particular version of the Annunciation is typical of the ‘gothic’ period in its schematic use of hierarchical perspective. Mary, not the angel nor even God, is made the centre of our attention. As such her figure dominates the frame by taking up the whole right half. The way God and the angel are looking at the Virgin draws our eyes towards her. The positioning of the vase and its contents, the open page of the book, the framing confluence of  Mary’s hands , combine to make the viewer focus on the Virgin’s face. And then there comes the unexpected. Mary is not looking at the angel, nor even out at the viewer. Her face and gaze are averted and looking out of the picture. Our eyes are drawn yet again to another focal point. This  indicates the monumental nature of the window. It was clearly intended for a much larger setting and part of a wider frame of reference. The window is in fact incomplete in itself. If we look at the figure of Mary and especially if we compare it with other similar representations we are struck by this difference. (cf. Appendix A) The same technique is used in narrative windows to draw the viewers’ attention to what follows. Mary is leading our gaze to the next picture, the next passage in the story of her life. We are being told that this window, this event in Mary’s life, is only part of a much greater message.

Consequently we need to keep in mind that this window was part of a series. In this sense it is a narrative window recounting incidents in the Virgin’s life. My sources indicate that it was part of a series depicting the ‘Joys of the Virgin’.(5)  As often the case with such a narrative, though not universally so, the first picture is of the Annunciation. Also by comparing it with other representations of the Annunciation dating from about 1100 to 1500, we can see how this window fits into the accepted iconography of its time  (Appendix A)

An ‘Annunciation’ is intended to present the viewer with the moment when the Divine and Human meet. In medieval Christian theology this was understood as the instant when God and Man are united, the incarnation, through the conception of Jesus, the hypostatic union. Another interpretation, dating back to the early Church Fathers and especially to Tertullian, is that there is also a mystical marriage between Man and Christ. The analogy was then extended further to the relationship between the Church and Christ. It is known as the great ‘fiat’. The moment of when a human being submits fully to the will of God, when the breach between God and Man, is bridged. The Annunciation is the antithesis of the moment when Man cuts himself off from God, when God can no longer touch Man, so eloquently depicted by Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ on the Sistine chapel roof.

So what do we see in the Hampton ‘Annunciation’, and, of more importance to us, how did those who saw it at the time interpret it? 

God is in his heaven. Golden rays, symbolising the Holy Spirit, beam down on the Virgin, the Angel or messenger is uttering the famous words ‘Ave gratia plena d(omin)us tecum’. Mary is in her bedchamber reading a book, probably a ‘Book of Hours’.(6) She is holding up her hands in the iconographical representation of surprise. It is also a traditional symbol of prayer, used as early as the 1st century as, for example, in the Christian catacombs.(7 and Appendix C).

Around the picture there are other symbols. The angel’s wings are decorated with  peacock feathers.(8) The peacock is a symbol of immortality and the resurrection of the soul, the lily depicts purity and the bridal chamber symbolises the marriage union between Mary and God. The angel has a raised finger pointing directly to God, showing the provenance of his message. (9)  There are other potential but perhaps less obvious symbols. It is helpful at this point to note similarities with other pictures across Europe. (Appendix A)  We can then understand the universality of the symbolism being used. As such there is a compelling argument to say that it would have been expected that the viewer would have understand many, if not all of these symbols.  I suspect that it would have been expected that the depth of the interpretation would be dependent on the level of each viewer’s education. The messages would have been seen at ever deeper levels, certainly deeper than the average person looking on them today. It is of little surprise therefore that tales of the occult, of deeper hidden meanings in ecclesiastic symbols, were commonplace. Even  today the popularity of the ‘Da Vinci Code’ shows we have not altogether rid ourselves of similar mythologies.


The choice of colours is another area where it may be possible to read some symbolic references.  Undoubtedly the colours used were those favoured at the time for technical, as well as artistic reasons, by glaziers. However these too did carry meanings that were used in other contemporary art and I believe it legitimate to speculate that their symbolism would not have been lost on those visiting Hampton. The threefold virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity are represented by their respective colours of white, green and red.(10). Heaven and all things divine are symbolised by the most precious of the elements, gold.

There are other features to note. As noted above, Mary represents the Church. The theme ‘Maria Ecclesia’ was part of a developing Marian theology in the 11th century that had become commonplace by the 15th.(11) Mary is often represented as an outsize figure, dominating her surroundings. Such symbolism is most commonly seen in the numerous contemporary pictures of the ‘Madonna della Misericordia’, where Mary is depicted protecting the church with her spread out mantle. (12)

Medieval writers and chroniclers revelled in playing with the meaning and spelling of words. This may be connected with the rapidly changing nature of language in the period from 1000 to 1500. For example, the well known greeting ‘Ave Maria’ shown in the Annunciation, was a subject of theological comment. ‘Ave’ is a reversal of Eva. Mary’s act of obedience reverses the evil Eva (Eve) brought to earth through her disobedience. (13)


The symbolism of the book placed over the pedestal should not be overlooked. Here we have the ‘WORD of God’, the LOGOS, placed on a draped cloth of white (faith) and gold (the divine) covering a squared pedestal. Is it possible that we can also see in this a symbolic covering all things earthly as represented by the square pedestal and again in tune with current neo-Platonic thinking? The white lily is placed in a suggestively shaped vase. (14) There are echoes of other Annunciations here. The swelling shape of the vase, like that of Piero’s pillar, could represent the pregnant state of Mary. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the ‘stem’ in the vase and supporting the lily is symbolic of the ‘virga de radice Jesse’. (15)

It seems almost redundant to mention now how the medieval mind would love to make play of the words ‘virga’(rod) and ‘virgo’(virgin). The culmination of all this symbolism was to underpin a theological doctrine which elevated the Virgin to the status of ‘Mother of God’, ‘Deipara’ in Latin or ‘Theotikos’ in Greek. The theology for this doctrine had developed from the earliest days of Christianity.  It had also been the cause for dissent within the Church and during the next centuries, with the growth of Protestantism, it was to become one of the mainsprings for discord between Rome and the reformers.

Medieval and early Renaissance painting, literature and music show that the people of the day were looking for signs and omens in everything around them. Several characters, such as The Pardoner, in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ make frequent references to portents and wonders. It is not difficult to imagine a sermon in this chapel where the preacher would use these symbols and offer even further ‘explanations’ of the relationship between Mary and God, between ‘The Church’ and Mary and most important of all between the individual listener and the Divine.




Having looked at the window and some of its symbolism let us now turn to see whom these windows were for and what was their social significance.


Sir Rowland and his royal wife not only built a magnificent manor house but also a Chapel which would put many parish churches to shame. In fact the Chapel would have been considered the very centre and powerhouse of manorial life. Each day would have started with Mass and very probably the recital of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin similar to the Book of Hours possibly depicted in the Annunciation window. This latter was a shorter version of the Divine Office sung in monasteries. It may be difficult today for us to understand how such hard bitten and down to earth men and women could genuinely believe that their whole life and work should be dedicated to God. We only have to look at King Philip of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V or even Henry V111 a hundred years later. All went to Mass every morning and considered their morning prayers essential to their day’s work. Even the great reformer Henry V111 believed this to his dying day!


Returning to Sir Rowland and his estate, I have not been able to find out how many workers and retainers he had, but it must have been considerable number. This Chapel was for them as well. Yes, it would be visited by royalty and by the leading clerics from nearby Hereford. Its rich glass, lavishly painted ceiling, its architectural excellence were designed to be an appropriate venue for his exalted visitors. The surroundings reflected Sir Rowland’s favoured status with the King. It would not have been a message lost on visiting dignitaries. It was also a chapel worthy of a King. And this too possessed a metaphorical message. The King was God’s anointed, it was therefore also a chapel truly worthy of the ‘King of Kings’, of God. And this too was part of the monumental metaphor. As the main, if not sole donor, Sir Rowland was at a stroke proclaiming his status in the realm, his loyalty to the King and his devotion and orthodoxy to the Catholic faith.


Here we have an example of the considerable social significance that the use of stained glass had at this time. It was very expensive. Glass of this quality, worked by such a renowned glazier, would have probably been the most expensive item in the construction of the chapel.  Once more the wealth and prestige of the donor was a significant factor in the raison d’etre of the chapel.


The building as a whole also carried an even deeper social meaning and one that was directed at not only the exalted visitor but also at the ordinary people.   

The chapel would have been used by the whole village and surrounding hamlets at various times.  This gives us some clues as to why so much time, effort and money went into the chapel, not just the windows. Not only did Sir Rowland obtain windows from the works of one the most famous glaziers of his day but, as we have seen, the whole chapel from its painted ceiling to its impressive design was the epitome of current English architectural expertise.(16)


Why was this?  Clues to the mentality of people of the time can be gathered from the literature of the age. As we have seen one contemporary source is Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. In numerous stories we read how the rich liked to flaunt their wealth. As indicated there is little doubt that Sir Rowland was making a social statement.  It also seems likely, following the mores of his age, that he was also offering back to God some benefits of his good fortune. Good works, including building shrines and churches were one way of showing this thanks.


So here we may deduce yet another social significance in the use of stained glass windows. Not only was Sir Rowland giving back to ‘God the things that are God’s’ and so earning merit for the afterlife, he was also making a Charitable act, one of the evangelical virtues, represented as we have seen by the colour red. As such it was a way of also ‘giving’ to the less fortunate. He was following the Gospel injunction to give to the ‘poor’. They too would be given the opportunity to come to the chapel, to pray, to offer thanks and to make gifts.


So who were these ‘poor’? In fact the ordinary people were possibly not as poor as before the plague. Compared with the enormous wealth of the landed gentry and the nobility, however, they we poor indeed. The Black Death, only a generation earlier, had transformed European, including English, society. (17) There are several estimates as to the percentage of people killed in this pandemic. Evidence, coming from as far apart as Boccacio’s Decameron, set in Florence, to Pipe Rolls in Norfolk, shows a catastrophic decline in population. One generally accepted result of the fall in the population is that it led to a new freedom for the peasants or serfs. Fewer people meant a shortage of labour and the laws of supply and demand gave the villager (villein) greater bargaining  power. So much so that the old feudal system of a labour barter began to give way to a commutation of work towards money wages. In England the movement culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt.  Though brutally suppressed, the ruling elite could not prevent the seismic shift in society. All over Europe people moved to the new towns, a commercially motivated ‘middle class’ was emerging. This in turn resulted in greater freedom of thought and a questioning of authority, both civil and ecclesiastic. The cry of ‘Stadtluft macht frei’ was repeated throughout  Europe and became a reality. The expansion of trade and travel, the concomitant growth of printing and new revolutionary ideas from such as the Lollards and John Wiclif (sic), led to a much better educated society.(18)

Revolution was in the air. Even Henry V at Agincourt had snubbed the traditional concept of elite knightly virtue and employed yeomen archers to better the ‘flower of noble France’. A new religious and social order, questioning authority, was on the march throughout  Europe.  Once again we need only look at Chaucer’s characters to see just how deeply changing ideas had penetrated English society by the 1400s.


So it would have been at Hampton. The peasantry would have been a force to be reckoned with and they would have recognised the message of the chapel and its windows. Though many would still have been illiterate they would have been able to ‘read’ the symbolism presented to them. It would have been more than a mere ‘biblia pauperum’. They would have seen dramatised religious plays, along the lines of the Mystery Plays. The glass had after all probably originated in Coventry, the centre of one the main ‘cycles’ of Mystery Plays. There would have been wandering players, pardoners, musicians and mendicant preachers passing through Hereford and the surrounding towns and villages; all bringing ideas and news from a wider world.

The windows, along with the new polyphonic music set within the stunning perpendicular architecture would have been a cause of admiration and inspiration. It was an age of colour. Clothes, buildings fairs, travellers caravans and carts, paintings, vases,  would have all been highly decorated. But more impressive than all these would have been the magnificence of ‘light’ as refracted through stained glass windows. Even today, acclimatised as we are to laser shows, wide screen TVs, big screen multiplexes, we are struck by the impact of a Cathedral bathed in the light from stained glass windows. It is no wonder that the mystery of light was given a deeper theological significance.  This would no doubt have been spelt out to visitors or pilgrims in sermons. To many it was further proof of God’s ineffable power. And so it was that Churchmen used stained glass as a theological tool in their sermons to underpin the ‘status quo’.{19)

There was also a social message.  The theme of the young girl at work in her bedchamber, reading a holy book, was a common one. In the Annunciation window the Virgin is set apart from mankind through her special status as ‘gratia plena’ (full of grace) and ‘THEOTIKOS’ (mother of God). She  is also, however, a paradigm for every young girl. She is at her studies and she is obedient to the will of her betters. Once again by utilising the impact of stained glass, it was hoped the existing social order could be sustained.



It is unlikely that every peasant, craftsman or passer-by would have been able to read meaning into all the symbolic features I have indicated above. I believe that the final message the ‘window’ and its chapel  was multileveled. It underpinned Sir Rowland’s social status, it was a religious expression of devotion for all who came.  It also promoted the virtue of traditional values, it united the questioning mood of change with the certainties of the past.


Different visitors to the chapel would have also brought their own interpretations to the messages being presented. However most would have recognised their own familiar world reflected in the chapel and most would have felt at home, ‘salus et sanus’, within its sanctuary. The overall message for all who visited the chapel was ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’ (there is no salvation outside the Church) and that Mary is that Church, as clearly  represented by depictions of ‘Maria della Misericordia’. The chapel was at once a promise and a threat. It was the promise of salvation for those who followed Catholic orthodoxy, it was a threat of a return to the banishment of Adam and Eve for those who rejected it.

As one Florentine art historian puts it, “The Annunciation was the symbol and banner of Catholic orthodoxy”.(20)








1.Pevsner, ‘Buildings of England; Herefordshire’ p.28. Cf also p142 where he describes the stained glass windows as ‘three lights to the North and five to the East’.

  1. R Marks, ‘Stained Glass Windows in England during the Middle Ages’ p 96, and Caviness Paintings in Glass. Intro p xi
  2. Caviness ibid Ch XV p35. Caviness description of the placement of the windows appears contrary to that offered above by Pevsner.
  3. Caviness ibid Ch XV p44
  4. Gothic Art for England 1400 –1547, p340

6   There are other examples of Mary reading the Book of Isaiah  7,14 where the pages are open at the prophet’s verse  stating that ‘a virgin shall conceive…’ (‘Virgo concipiet’ appearing on the pages).


7.   Schiller, ‘Iconography of Christian Art’ p38 for further discussion on Mary’s              gestures

  1. Istituto statale di Istruzione secondaria superiore – ISIS

Il pavone: simbolo dell'immortalità dell'anima. Il pavone è simbolo della resurrezione della carne in relazione di una credenza che riteneva le sue carni incorruttibili. Translated this reads:

The Peacock: the symbol of the soul’s immortality. The peacock is the symbol of the resurrection of the dead in respect of the belief that its body is incorruptible.

  1. Schiller, ‘Iconography of Christian Art’ cf especially Ch2 Birth and Childhood of Jesus p26 ff.
  2. Lavin, ‘Piero della Francesca’ p190


11 Schiller ibid p37. Schiller proposes that this analogy can be traced back to a much earlier tradition. In 202AD Bishop Iranaeus of Lyons makes the comparison between Mary and the Church as does St Ambrose of Milan in his commentary on Luke’s gospel which suggests a ‘typological relationship between Mary and the Church’


12bid  p44-46

13Another example of this predilection for word play is the famous ROTAS word square. Cf. Caviness, ‘Art in the medieval West and its Audience’ Ch II pp 6 – 12. and Ch V1 p142

14The Vaseappearsmostdepictions of the Annunciation dating form the earliest Christian iconography.Cf; Appendix A

15M A Lavin, ‘Piero della Francesca’ For wider discussion on pregnancy symbolism see p 142. This also looks at ‘entasis’, or the meaning of the swelling columns in architectural representations. See also Appendix A pictures for similar symbols.   





16Pevsner, ‘Buildings of England; Herefordshire’ p.28 and  Francis Fulwood County Illustrated August p 28. However if we consider that at this same time Brunelleschi was planning his great dome in Florence we can see that there were developments taking place in Italy which would take architecture on to a totally different level.


17. Ziegler, Philip, ‘The Black Death’.



18 Cf for brief history and discussion about the Lollards.

       It is interesting to note in passing that Sir John Oldfield, a leading Lollard and   renowned courtier, was from Herefordshire and would have been well known to the villagers in the Hampton area.


19  P Williamson ‘Gothic Sculpture 1140 – 1300’. On p144. Williamson argues that the ‘ most important consideration (of sculptures) was to create an overwhelmingly complete scheme of Christian doctrine and the iconographic novelties should not be overlooked’. I would extend this to the use of stained glass throughout the medieval period and argue that so much time, effort and money would not have been expended if the Church did not think the iconographic symbols were not understood by the majority of those who looked at them.





       ‘l’Annunziata fu simbolo e bandiera della ortodossia cattolica’


























Examples of Annunciations from 12th to 16th Centuries.


German, Hildesheim, about 1170s
Tempera colors, gold leaf, silver leaf, and ink on parchment
11 1/8 x 7 7/16 in.
MS. 64, FOL. 11V


The Annunciation






(b. ca. 1250, Roma, d. 1330, Roma)



Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome


There are seven representations decorating the triumphal arc and the wall of the apsis. The scenes are the Nativity of the Virgin, Annunciation, Nativity of Christ, Adoration of the Magi, Presentation at the Temple, Death of the Virgin, Donor in Adoration of the Virgin. These mosaics clearly demonstrate the transition from the Byzantine immobility to the style of the 14th century.

The Annunciation with its architectural elements and plasticity is a good example of the stylistic changes gradually taking place in the last decades of the 13th century.




© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Kren and Daniel Marx.












 Initial D: The Annunciation;

French, northeastern France, about 1300
Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment
10 3/8 x 7 1/4 in.

The J. Paul Getty Trust

© 2004 J. Paul Getty Trust
Terms of Use
 / Privacy Policy / Contact Us






(active 1381-1409)


The Annunciation

Tempera on wood
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon


Towards 1400 the court of Burgundy was an important centre of art. Commissioned by Philippe the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, Melchior Broederlam, a native of Ypres - who, from 1384 onwards, served the Duke as "peintre et valet de chambre" - undertook the paintings on the lavishly decorated altar of the Carthusian monastery of Champmol. Left of centre the Virgin, seated at a lectern in a Gothic porch with traceried windows placed diagonally across the picture and leading to an elaborately designed building set behind it, listens to the words of the angel. This type of long, narrow building, supported on fragile columns, is to be found in the Italian paintings of Giotto's successors. The harmony connecting the natural and architectural background and the human figures, the contrast between the rigid lines of the building on the one hand, and the more picturesque curves of the mountainous landscape on the other, and the lyric beauty of the figures makes the altarpiece one of the masterpieces of Burgundian art.















Lorenzo Lotto
(Venezia, 1480 ca - Loreto, 1556)















Piero della Francesca. ANNUNCIATION (Arezzo La Laggenda della Vera Croce Aurea) 1450s


Tavola eseguita negli anni 1472-1475.
Italia, Firenze,
Uffizi-Galleria degli Uffizi.









The Platonic ‘theory of knowledge’ asserts that what we see around us is only a ‘shade’ or ‘shadow ‘of the true reality which is hidden from us. Plato’s famous analogy of the Cave is his own way of explaining this concept. For Plato reality is not what our senses tell us. These distort or can only see reflections of the true ‘form’ or ‘idea’, which is what is ‘truly real’. Once the form takes on a corporeal existence it loses its ‘ideal’ purity and so some of its identity. The question of ‘that which makes something ‘what it is’ or ‘quidditas’, was one that exercised many a medieval mind. The Platonists, however, believed that we can transcend the dichotomy between the corporeal and spiritual, between the debasement of the flesh and the elevation of the spirit. Man can pass through various stages of knowledge. At the simplest level he can learn to observe and appreciate the wonders of the visible universe, following on this he can begin to read the spiritual meaning underpinning it and so understand the real truth or ‘form’ behind what we see. Finally, but with great difficulty, a chosen few achieve full transcendental harmony of mind with the divine. Art can lead us to the penultimate stage, but at this point it is only be a springboard for the final leap into the dark; direct contemplation of the godhead.  The great division in medieval philosophy was between the moderate realists, those in the Aristotelian tradition as represented by Aquinas and the Neo-Platonists such as Francis Bacon. Although it would be wrong to maintain that all metaphorical art was a canvas for platonic theology, there is no gainsaying the popular appeal of this way of depicting the Christian message. So the popularity of such scenes as the Annunciation was a two way process between the people, who looked for spiritual reassurance, and those Churchmen who saw this form of art as a means of preaching their message.

For further treatment of this theme in medieval art, including stained glass windows see Caviness Art in the Medieval West and its Audience, Ch 111 p 9. 






















There are many portrayals of people with outstretched arms and hands throughout Christian art. Below is one of the earliest examples. The Catholic Church defines prayer as the ‘lifting up of the heart and mind to God’. One way of demonstrating this is through bodily attitudes. This can be through kneeling, looking heavenwards and holding the arms out with the palms of the hands facing outwards, looking downwards with eyes closed, placing the hands together as in Durer’s famous sketch and many other variations of posture.

Different positions indicate different types of prayer. The wrapt attention of a ‘saint’ looking upwards indicates awe, sometimes it may suggest that a divine message is being communicated. Those attitudes which cut off the person from the outside world perhaps demonstrate a more internal contemplative union with the Divine. Outstretched arms represent, rather, an openness to receiving a ‘free gift’ or ‘grace’ (gratia) from God. They can also suggest a reaching out to the divine. They can, on the other hand, also indicate that the subject is ‘giving’ or ‘handing’ back thanks or praise to the heavenly God. It is a gesture that we see even today, though usually through the raising of one arm with outstretched hand.  Some of these postures are to be found in other religions, but the outstretched arms and hands certainly seems to have existed from earliest times in Christianity judging by the evidence of such primary sources as paintings and sculptures.

There are also many written sources which refer to ‘raising hands in prayer’, often associated with raising voices in prayer, spoken or sung.  Indeed it is a gesture increasingly common in the UK and which has long been normal in Italy when saying the Lord’s Prayer.  As a symbol, therefore, it would have been understood and accepted throughout the Christian era, though exactly how the viewer might have interpreted it, given the examples above, is probably open to discussion.


Catacomb of S. Marcello, Rome.




Cantor, Norman F. In the Wake of the Plague - The Black Death and the World it Made


M Caviness, Paintings on Glass Studies in Romanesque and Gothic Monumental Art 1997


M Caviness, Art in the medieval West and its Audience  2001


Chaucer The Canterbury Tales


A Lavin, Piero della Francesca  2002


A Macfarlane & G Martin. The Glass Bathyscape  2002


R Marks, Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages  1993


R Marks and P Williamson, Gothic art for England 1400 –1547. 2003. Accompanying the V&A Gothic Exhibition 2003


Pevsner, Buildings of England. Herefordshire


G Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art  trans J Seligman, London 1969.

(first published as ‘Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst’ Germany 1966.


Tertullian , Apologeticus, c197


P Williamson, Gothic Sculpture 1140 –1300 1995


Ziegler, Philip, The Black Death 1969



1  This the

Catholic Encyclopedia on LINE


  Istituto statale di Istruzione secondaria superiore – ISIS

  This the Italian ‘State Institute for Higher Secondary Education’

  This site leads to

3 (,

   For discussion on early Christian symbols



   confertis for  discussion on current and medieval Mariology

      confertis for discussion on the Lollards