Aaron’s rod which bloomed without roots or water, was likened to the Virgin by all four Doctors of the Western Church. Virga is the Latin word with which Jerome translated the Hebrew matteh, and the poetic effects offered by the linguistic similarities of virga and virgo were seized upon by countless other interpreters of the Scriptures through the ages.
The inscribed rectangle in the middle of the central panel of this fifteenth-century altarpiece shows the Madonna and Child enthroned surrounded by symbols of Christ and scenes and figures from the Old Testament. The preponderance of inscriptions leaves little doubt as to the painting’s didactic function, and the inscription on the lower part of the engaged frame, underwriting all the rest, proclaims its overall theme: Hanc per figuram noscas castam parituram (‘Learn of the Virgin birth through this painting’). It is clear from the many vignettes, both textual and figural, that the Virgin birth is to be understood not only as the miraculous conception of Christ, but also the perpetual virginity of Mary. Saints Jerome and Augustine, both of whom wrote treatises in defence of this doctrine, appear in the wings of the altarpiece holding scrolls which proclaim it.
Despite this focus on Mary’s purity, Christ is also foregrounded in the imagery. Four triangles surrounding the Madonna contain symbols relating to his Passion and Resurrection—the pelican who pierces her breast to feed her chicks, the lioness whose cubs awake on the third day, the phoenix who rises again, and the unicorn tamed by a virgin.
These scenes are encased within a quatrefoil of four semi-circles containing scenes from the Old Testament. Aaron appears in the upper right, kneeling before the altar, his gaze trained upon his budding rod. As with the altarpiece’s overall imagery, the depiction of Aaron proclaims the miracle of the Virgin birth while also celebrating Christ, the fruit of her miraculous fecundity.
The inscription Hec contra morem produxit virgula florem stresses the parity between the rod and the Virgin’s womb.
Das Rheinische Landesmuseum. 1977. Auswahlskatalog 4: Kunst und Kunsthandwerk: Mittelalter und Neuzeit (Bonn: Rheinland-Verlag), pp. 53–58
17 The Lord said to Moses, 2“Speak to the people of Israel, and get from them rods, one for each fathers’ house, from all their leaders according to their fathers’ houses, twelve rods. Write each man’s name upon his rod, 3and write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi. For there shall be one rod for the head of each fathers’ house. 4Then you shall deposit them in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you. 5And the rod of the man whom I choose shall sprout; thus I will make to cease from me the murmurings of the people of Israel, which they murmur against you.” 6Moses spoke to the people of Israel; and all their leaders gave him rods, one for each leader, according to their fathers’ houses, twelve rods; and the rod of Aaron was among their rods. 7And Moses deposited the rods before the Lord in the tent of the testimony.
8 And on the morrow Moses went into the tent of the testimony; and behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds, and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds. 9Then Moses brought out all the rods from before the Lord to all the people of Israel; and they looked, and each man took his rod. 10And the Lord said to Moses, “Put back the rod of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their murmurings against me, lest they die.” 11Thus did Moses; as the Lord commanded him, so he did.
12 And the people of Israel said to Moses, “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. 13Every one who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord, shall die. Are we all to perish?”