Our Lady clothed in a dark blue dress adorned with golden ears (see picture)
is depicted as a youthful, standing Mary. Girded with a long knotted cincture, she is
portrayed as a virgin whose hands are folded in prayer. Her long blonde
hair touches her shoulders and often neck and wrists are surrounded by
rays of light. Open hair, long loose robe and folded hands are the
typical attributes of the temple virgin, especially when the figure is
situated within a sanctuary type of building.
This image represents the Blessed Virgin as fertile soil and untilled field of God called to bear fruit,
symbol for her virginal motherhood of God's Son. This image makes
reference to the Eucharist: Mary can be seen as the tabernacle of God's
Eucharistic presence. Another source may be the custom to shower
newlyweds with ears, an expression of wishes for marital fertility. Another socio-cultural
source for this rare iconographical motif may be found in Demeter whose
attribute was the blade of wheat, symbol of fertility. Some authors have
established a symbolic connection between Bethlehem, the "House of
Bread" and Our Lady with the wheat ear covered dress. Patristic
literature has applied the image of God's untilled soil bringing forth
the fruit of all fruit to Our Lady and writings from the fifteenth
century take recourse to it. The first portrayal of the Madonna in "ear
dress" is a silver statue of Our Lady in Milan’s cathedral which dates
back to 1387. This image was destroyed and replaced by a painting in
1465 which in turn was exchanged with a marble statue in 1485.
Several portrayals of the Madonna in "ear dress" from the fifteenth
century are known. Among them are the image in Budweis, Czech Republic
(St. Mary Church, 1410/20), Strassengel near Graz, Austria (ca 1435),
Munich (National Museum, ca 1435) and the "Grain Mother" in Maria
Ehrenburg, Pustertal, Germany. Many of these images bear an inscription
pointing to the Madonna of Milan.
Earlier depictions of this type of Marian images combining virginity and motherhood show Our Lady
in a flower garden sometimes with angels who, according to legend,
brought her food when she was a temple virgin. Such paintings include an
altar or some object reminiscent of Our Lady's stay in the temple (yarn)
and of the Eucharist (bread and water). Often a wreath of flowers,
symbol of Mary's virginity, is hung next to the image or is placed in
the hands of the donor of the image kneeling before the Blessed Virgin.
Among the most prominent depictions is A. Dürer's drawing of the
Madonna of Ears in the prayer book of Emperor Maximilian I dated 1515.
In the sixteenth century some older images of Mary have been adorned with wheat ears.
Veneration of the Madonna in the "ear dress" clearly declined during the
Reformation; it was revived however in the context of the veneration of
the Immaculate Conception in the seventeenth-eighteenth
centuries. A second although less known trend of veneration of the
Madonna in the "ear dress" started around 1600 with a panel of Wasserburg and ended approximately in 1770 with the
painting of the
Weizenährenfrau (woman with ears of wheat) by Maria Sorg of Salzburg. During the eighteenth
century holy cards with the motive of the Madonna in the ear dress were
spread widely. Occasionally she is also portrayed as the astrological
sign of virgo holding ears in her hands.