Artimovich – Art History
ICONOGRAPHY OF THE LIFE OF JESUS
Iconography is the study of subject matter in art. It involves identifying both what a work of art represents—its literal meaning—and the deeper significance of what is represented—its symbolic meaning. Stories about the life of Jesus, grouped in “cycles,” form the basis of Christian iconography. What follows is an outline of those cycles and the main events of each.
The Incarnation Cycle and the Childhood of Jesus
This cycle contains events surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus.
The Annunciation: The archangel Gabriel informs the Virgin Mary that God has chosen her to bear his son. A dove represents the Incarnation, her miraculous conception of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
The Visitation: Mary visits her older cousin Elizabeth,
pregnant with the future
The Nativity: Jesus is born to Mary in
The Annunciation to
the Shepherds and The Adoration of the Shepherds: An angel announces Jesus’ birth to humble
shepherds. They hasten to
The Adoration of the
Magi: The Magi—wise men from the
East—follow a bright star to
The Presentation in
The Massacre of the
Innocents and The Flight into
Jesus among the
The Public Ministry Cycle
In this cycle Jesus preaches his message.
The Baptism: At age thirty Jesus is baptized by John the
Baptist in the
The Calling of Matthew: Passing by the customhouse, Jesus sees Matthew, a tax collector, to whom he says, “Follow me.” Matthew complies, becoming one of his disciples (apostles).
Jesus and the
Samaritan Woman at the Well: On his
Jesus Walking on the Water: The apostles, in a storm-tossed boat, see Jesus walking toward them on the water. Peter tries to go out to meet Jesus, but begins to sink, and Jesus saves him. When Jesus reaches the boat, the storm stops.
The Raising of Lazarus: Jesus brings his friend Lazarus back to life four days after he has died. Lazarus emerges from the tomb wrapped in his shroud.
The Delivery of the Keys to Peter: Jesus designates Peter as his successor, symbolically turning over to him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
The Transfiguration: Jesus is transformed into a dazzling vision
The Cleansing of the
The Passion Cycle
This cycle contains events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection. (Passio is Latin for “suffering.”)
The Entry into
The Last Supper: During the Passover seder, Jesus reveals his impending death to his disciples. Instructing them to drink wine (his blood) and eat bread (his body) in remembrance of him, he lays the foundation for the Christian Eucharist (Mass).
Jesus Washing the Disciples’ Feet: After the Last Supper, Jesus humbly washes the apostles’ feet to set an example of humility. Peter, embarrassed, protests.
The Agony in the Garden: In the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, Jesus struggles between his human fear of pain and death and his divine strength to overcome them (agon is Greek for “contest”). An angelic messenger bolsters his courage. The apostles sleep nearby, oblivious.
The Betrayal (The
Arrest): Judas Iscariot, one of the
disciples, accepts a bribe to point Jesus out to his enemies. Judas brings an armed crowd to
The Denial of Peter: Jesus is brought to the palace of Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, to be interrogated for claiming to be the Messiah. Peter follows, and there he three times denies knowing Jesus, as Jesus predicted he would.
Jesus before Pilate: Jesus is taken to Pontius Pilate, the Roman
The Flagellation (The Scourging): Jesus is whipped by his Roman captors.
Jesus Crowned with Thorns (The Mocking of Jesus): Pilate’s soldiers torment Jesus. They dress him in royal robes, crown him with thorns, and kneel before him, hailing him as King of the Jews.
The Bearing of the
Cross (The Road to
The Crucifixion: The earliest representations of the
Crucifixion are abstract, showing either a cross alone or a cross and a
lamb. Later depictions include some or
all of the following narrative details:
two criminals (one penitent, the other not), are crucified on either
side of Jesus; the Virgin Mary, John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalen, and other
followers mourn at the foot of the cross; Roman soldiers torment Jesus—one
extends a sponge on a pole with vinegar instead of water for him to drink,
another stabs him in the side with a spear, and others gamble for his clothes;
a skull identifies the execution ground as Golgotha, “the place of the skull,”
where Adam was buried. The association
symbolizes the promise of redemption: the blood flowing from Jesus’ wounds will
The Descent from the Cross (The Deposition): Jesus’ followers take his body down from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrap it in linen with myrrh and aloe. Also present are the grief-stricken Virgin, John the Evangelist, and sometimes Mary Magdalen, other disciplines, and angels.
The Lamentation (Pietà or Vesperbild): Jesus’ sorrowful followers gather around his body. An image of the Virgin mourning alone with Jesus across her lap is known as a pieta (from the Latin pietas, “pity”) or, in German, a Vesperbild.
The Entombment: Jesus’ mother and friends place his body in a nearby sarcophagus, or rock tomb. This is done hastily because of the approaching Jewish Sabbath.
The Descent into Limbo (The Harrowing of Hell): No longer in mortal form, Jesus, now called Christ, descends into limbo, or hell, to free deserving souls, among them Adam, Eve, and Moses.
The Resurrection (The Anastasis): Three days after his death, Christ leaves his tomb while the soldiers guarding it sleep.
The Mary’s at the Tomb (The Holy Women at the Sepulchre): Christ’s female followers—usually including Mary Magdalen and the mother of the apostle James, also named Mary—discover his empty tomb. An angel announces Christ’s resurrection. The soldiers guarding the tomb look on, terrified.
Noli Me Tangere (“Do Not Touch Me”), The Supper at Emmaus, and The Incredulity of Thomas: Christ makes a series of appearances to his followers in the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension. He first appears to Mary Magdalen as she weeps at his tomb. She reaches out to him, but he warns her not to touch him. In the Supper at Emmaus, he shares a meal with the apostles. In the Incredulity of Thomas, Christ invites the doubting apostle to touch the wound in his side to convince him of his resurrection.
The Ascension: Christ ascends to heaven from the