Q: What is the meaning of the crescent moon that Mary is sometimes pictured standing upon?

A: The so called Luna, half moon, or sickle of the moon, also waning and waxing moon, is a sign of fertility, related to life and death, and thus a popular symbol in many religions. It pinpoints changing seasons, ebb and tide (and related inundations as harbingers of fertility), and the feminine menstrual cycle. The half moon was the attribute of Luna and more specifically of Selene. It was later transferred to Diana (Artemis), offspring of the earth mother, and known not only as virgin but also as protectress of the newborn and symbol of fertility in her own right. Biblical references use the moon symbol to highlight cosmic events, divine epiphanies and the ephemeral nature of human life and history (see, for example, Isaiah 30,26; 60,19; Revelations 21,23). Patristic times saw in the symbol of the moon, or the mysterium lunae, i.e. the three phases of the moon: dying (waning), generating (waxing) and giving birth (full moon) a valid representation of the Church (ecclesia). Ecclesia is virginal and "dying" in the encounter with Christ, the bridegroom; she is maternal and lifegiving in her spousal relation with the redeemer, and resplendent in her grace-filled existence.

John the Baptist is sometimes connected with the waning moon (Baptistry of Ístr Hoby, Sweden, 12c) to explicate his role as the last prophet of the waning Old Testament which is regarded, simultaneously, as a promise of the New Testament. The moon contrasts here the sun as symbol of fulfillment, in other words, the New Testament, more specifically Jesus Christ himself, the sol invictus. The same contrast is used to signify ecclesia and synagoga. The latter is identified with the symbol of the waning moon.

Mary as the God-bearer is identified with ecclesia. She is standing on the waning moon which points out that the Old Testament and synagoga are the foundations of the Church. No doubt that we have here also the idea of victory of ecclesia over synagoga. The motif of the luna is very old (~820, MS 99 Paris, Valenciennes) and is not used in the beginning as an attribute of Mary but of the Church. It is only in the 14/15c that a lateral transfer takes place, meaning Mary occupies now in iconography the place of the Church and inherits some of its attributes. The Katharinenthal Gradual of 1312 shows an image of transition, where the same feminine figure contains or bears the attributes of the Church, Mary and the Apocalyptic Woman. The figure stands on a personalized half moon. It is true that the visual elements, half moon, stars, sun, are borrowed from Revelations 12,1. Early representations of Ecclesia (10-12c) show her as the apocalyptic woman with the dragon. The motif of the apocalyptic woman is applied in a variety of ways to Mary. [Trier]

There exists, beginning around 1348, a type of Marian sculpture called Madonna standing on the crescent moon (Mondsichel-Madonna) where the reference to the apocalyptic woman is largely dissociated from the use of the moon symbol (for example, wooden sculpture, Trier, 1480). It sometimes opposes -- in representations of the Platytera -- the sun born from Mary and the human race in need of salvation (moon) (Katharinenthal, 1312). The crescent moon is used in representations of Mary's miraculous conception and birth (Joachim and Anna at the Golden Door, da Camerino, Tadino, ~1470). The crescent appears under Mary's feet in paintings of the Assumption (Meister of the Luzien-Legende, 1485) and signifies her glory and victory over time and space. The most important application of the moon symbol occurred in representations of the Immaculate Conception. The obvious significance of victory over sin is enriched with the ideas of beauty and purity (pulchra ut luna, Litanies of Loreto) (see for example, Francesco Vanni, Altar of the Immaculate Conception, Montalcino, 1588). During baroque times we can observe frequent combinations of the Immaculata motif with that of Our Lady of Victory. In some of these paintings or sculptures Mary stands on a globe combined with the crescent moon.

Image: Marian Altar
Cathedral of Trier (Treves)
Trier, Germany

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