The Annunciation. The figure
above shows a magnified detail of the thumbnail image; the lower
image focuses further on the homunculus or the naked baby Jesus
jumping out of God’s mouth. This late-medieval motif was fiercely
suppressed after the Council of Trent
The Catholic Church now saw it as crude; no baby was to be shown
because Christ was conceived through the immaterial will and
word of God (as stated in the opening of St John’s Gospel: ‘In
the beginning was the Word.’).
Vincent of Kastav, The Annunciation, fragment of
a fresco, Church of St Mary na Škrilinama, Beram, Croatia, 1474.
120 x 120 cm.
The Annunciation. One conception was simultaneously
central and exceptional in Western culture: that of Jesus Christ. The Archangel
Gabriel was believed to have revealed to the Virgin Mary that she would
conceive through the Holy Spirit. The iconographical tradition of ‘the Annunciation’
built upon numerous theological writings, but primarily the Gospel according
to Luke. In this fifteenth-century fresco from Western Croatia, the naked
baby Jesus, carrying a wooden cross on his shoulder, plunges towards Mary
from the mouth of God the Father. The Virgin is shown with a book (‘she
was always engaged in prayer and in searching the law’, Pseudo-Matthew,
1: 3). Gabriel is holding a scroll with the words ‘Hail [Mary], full of
grace’ (Luke 1:28).
Acquiring a soul
Aristotle’s arguments, that the formation of a new being was gradual
and the soul acquired some time after conception, informed medieval ideas.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that the female provided
the menstrual blood as the passive material from which the active male semen
generated the new form. While observing chick eggs at different stages,
he became convinced that the form gradually emerged from unformed matter
in a process he named ‘epigenesis’.
Epigenesis required a soul. All organisms had a vegetative soul,
and animals also a locomotor one, but the rational soul was reserved for
humans. Aristotle drew on humoralism, which postulated that physical and
mental features are determined by an innate balance of qualities such as
heat, coldness, moisture and dryness. The hotter male embryos were ensouled
around the fortieth day of pregnancy while the cooler females took twice
For Christians, the soul had a different meaning and purpose.
Some theologians placed ensoulment, or the acquisition of a God-given immortal
soul, at conception. Yet from the late
Middle Ages the Aristotelian view dominated. For practical purposes, quickening
tended to be interpreted as coinciding with the entry of the soul. Understanding
the early embryo as not-yet-human contributed to widespread tolerance of
abortion. This would begin to change only in the Enlightenment
Early-modern images of Aristotelian epigenesis,
Aristotelian epigenesis. This series of woodcuts
from Rueff’s textbook shows the gradual coagulation
of male and female seeds into a child. The egg-shaped
mass (1) covered with three membranes (2) gradually
develops blood vessels and organs such as the liver
and heart (3–5) that assume the form of a human being
(6) and finally turn into a child (7). The entire process
supposedly took 45 days. By the end, the child would
have ‘sense and feeling’, although enough strength for
movement would not be acquired before the ninetieth
day (twice 45). On the 270th day (three times 90), the
infant would ‘hasten and come forth to the birth’ (quotes
from the 1637 English edition, ff. 41–2).
Woodcuts from Jacob Rueff, De conceptu et generatione
hominis, et ijs quae circa h[a]ec potissimum consyderantur,
libri sex, congesti opera Iacobi Rueff chirurgi Tigurini.
Insertae quoq[ue] sunt picturae uariae foetus, primum
in utero siti, deinde in partu, mox etiam matricis &
instrumentorum ad partum promouendum & extrahendum pertinentium,
nec non postremo uariorum monstrorum insuper, Latin
translation by Wolfgang Haller of the first German translation,
Zurich: Christopher Froschauer, 1554, ff. 3v, 4, 7v,
8, 8v, 9v and 10. 20 x 14 cm.
Wellcome Library, London
The moment of ensoulment, 1400s
Conception and ensoulment. This illumination
from a fifteenth-century French manuscript shows a couple
in bed. The Holy Trinity—father, son and Holy Ghost—watch
from the upper left corner and send them a childlike
form. This recalls the iconography of the Annunciation.
The scroll quotes Genesis from the Latin Bible: ‘Let
us create man in our image and likeness’ (‘Faciamus
hominem ad imaginem et similitudem nostram’). The
slippers by the bed refer to God’s commandment to Moses
to remove his sandals before the holy ground of the
burning bush, and so point to the holiness of the sacrament
of marriage. The woman’s extended right arm probably
signifies Eve’s offering the apple from the Tree of
Knowledge, reminding us that we all inherit Original
Sin at conception. The burning candle on the mantelpiece
indicates the beginning of a new life. Ensoulment and
conception are tightly linked here, and so probably
took place in the same moment, contrary to Aristotelian
and vernacular ideas.
Illumination from Jean Mansel, Vie de Nostre
Seigneur Jésus Christ, fifteenth century, fol.
174. 11.1 x 15.8 cm.
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.