The Mysteries of the Rosary
late sixteenth century, early seventeenth century
Vatican Pinacoteca Inv. 41409
The Latin inscription on top of the panel characterizes this painting
as “The threefold devout contemplation of the Rosary of the Blessed
Virgin Mary.” The Rosary had traditionally fifteen mysteries or events
of the lives of Jesus and Mary. The mysteries are grouped in three
series: the joyful, the sorrowful, and the glorious mysteries.
The painting shows a broad landscape. In the foreground it is
subdivided by three large trees. Attached to each tree are medallions or
tondos representing the mysteries of the Rosary. At the foot of
each tree is shown an episode of the Old Testament. The landscape is
further subdivided by three nature scenes: the verdant field with trees,
a body of water, and a chain of mountains with silhouettes of towns with
tiny domes and spires.
The painter is unknown, but it is believed that he was Greek, and
familiar with both Byzantine and Western traditions of painting. The
painting reflects Italian-Cretan icon style (medallions) as well as
Western stylistic elements (Venetian landscapes). The colors are strong
and glazed in hues of red, blue, brown, and ocher. Faces and silhouettes
are diminutive and dark, enlivened by highlights.
The Three Trees
convey the central message of this
painting, which has a pronounced educational character. It informs about
the Rosary and its meaning. Its goal is to lead to “devout
The Palm Tree (left)
introduces us to the joyful mysteries. The palm is a symbol of glory. In
Christian tradition, it stands for the victory of Christ over death. It
suggests Resurrection and immortality.
Each of the circular images attached to the branches represents one
of the five joyful mysteries. There is a sixth medallion, which
summarizes the overall meaning of the five joyful mysteries.
The Angel Gabriel announces
to Mary the
birth of Christ (Luke 1:38)
The Visitation of Mary with her Cousin
Elizabeth (Luke 1:42)
3. The Nativity of Jesus (Luke 1:48)
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
The finding of Christ among the Doctors (Luke 2:49)
The sixth and central image (Madonna with Child) represents Mary’s
divine maternity and the Incarnation of Christ which is the beginning of
redemption and Resurrection for all of good will. This is the central meaning of
the joyful mysteries.
The Old Testament scene at the foot of the palm tree is from Exodus
(15:1). Moses raises his staff after crossing the Red Sea, and closes
the passage, drowning the Egyptian army. The scene announces the power
of God, which finds its highest expression in the coming of his Son.
The Blackberry Bush
(center) introduces us to the sorrowful mysteries. The blackberry bush
with its thorns is a symbol of suffering and death. Its branches laden
with thorns enclose the mysteries and events of Jesus’ Passion and
death. The medallions show, beginning at the top.
Jesus Praying in the Garden (Luke 22:42)
The Flagellation (Psalm 72:14)
The Crowning with Thorns (Ezekiel 24:17)
Christ Bearing the Cross (Matthew 16:24)
The Crucifixion (John 19:26)
The central tondo (6) represents the Pietà emphasizing the
deep sorrow of the mother holding her son in her arms. The sorrowful
mysteries lead us to the contemplation of Christ’s death, a death
suffered for the redemption of all.
The scene at the foot of the blackberry bush pictures Joseph thrown
into the well by his brothers (Psalm 118:12). Joseph is a symbol of
Christ. The scene anticipates Christ’s burial, and Joseph’s brothers are
reminiscent of Christ’s persecutors. Psalm 118 already announces
Christ’s victory over sin and death.
(see next tree) is
adorned with red and white roses. The rose is a traditional symbol of
Mary and of the Rosary. Red stands for love, white for virginity (St.
Bernard). The two colors are also metaphors of charity and purity. The
rosebush represents the third series of Rosary mysteries, the glorious
mysteries. These begin with the Resurrection of Christ, and end with the
Coronation of Mary.
The Resurrection of Jesus (Psalm 3:6)
The Transfiguration of Jesus
instead of the Ascension (Matthew 17:9)
Pentecost, showing Mary in the
midst of the Apostles (Wisdom 1:7)
4. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin
Mary (Sirach 24:19)
The Coronation of the Virgin by
the Father (Canticle 4:7)
The medallion at the center (6) shows Mary with a crown on her head.
She is the crowning of Christ’s work of salvation. She is the
all-beautiful one, and represents the fulfillment of all in eternity.
The scene at the foot of the rosebush shows the personification of
wisdom that is Mary, Seat of Wisdom, and Tabernacle of the Eternal Word.
The baskets filled with flowers symbolize the gifts of wisdom. Mary
offers fruit and flowers, the gift of wisdom, to the poor (Sirach
Three Images of Mary:
threefold rosary of joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries can be
summarized in the three central representations of Mary:
Mother of Jesus Christ (joyful mysteries)
Pietà (sorrowful mysteries)
Madonna Queen (glorious mysteries)
Each of these images can only be rightfully understood in relation to
Jesus Christ. He is the Incarnate Word, the Redeemer, and ultimate
fulfillment of human life. Mary embodies the human side of salvation
history: She receives Jesus (Mother), accompanies him to the end (Pietà),
and receives eternal glory from God’s hand (Queen).
Interesting Iconographical Motifs
1) Blue and Red:
Mary’s vestments are
traditionally red and blue. In the joyful mysteries her cape is blue,
and her garment red. Red stands here for Mary’s Assumption into heaven.
2) Sun and Moon:
medieval representations of the crucifixion, sun and moon stress the
cosmological or universal importance of redemption. They also point to
Old (moon) and New Testament (sun). Sun and moon on the upper left and
right corners of our painting may be a pictorial allusion to the rapport
between Jesus and Mary: Mary (moon) receives her meaning and importance
through Jesus (sun).
3) The “golden horns:”
We can see two blazing rays on
Moses’ forehead (see foot of the palm tree). These are not “golden
horns” (Ex. 34:29f) but rays of light that illuminate his face, a result
of Moses’ encounter with God. An erroneous interpretation of the Vulgate
Bible made them into horns.
To learn more about the Rosary:
Ask for Rosary Markings, a
pamphlet on the origins, the importance, and ways of praying the Rosary.
Did you know that there are now four series of mysteries? The fourth
was added in the fall of 2002 by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical
letter on the Rosary. See our website The Mary Page: http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/rosarymarkings.html.
To read a summary of the encyclical and link to the full document
The Mary Page:
For more information:
Consult the exhibit catalog:
Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary, pp.
Consult our web site: