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The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple
Giotto di Bondone
Where did M ary , the Mother of God, learn to listen attentively to God’s Word? Who prepared her young heart and mind to respond freely in humble faith with a fiat, her “yes” to the archangel Gabriel? How was Mary nurtured for her unique role as the Virgin Mother of God? Such questions come to mind as the Church celebrates the feast of the Presentation of Mary at the close of the liturgical year.
A striking fresco by the master artist Giotto di Bondone, painted for the magnificent Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, uncovers an obscure scene in Mary’s life—her presentation in the Temple, known largely from early apocryphal writings. In his masterful fresco cycle, which adorns one of the most richly decorated chapels in Italy, the Florentine artist brings to life, in vivid detail, this hidden moment. Striking in its simplicity and beauty, the frescoed panel draws one into the mystery of Mary’s life, a life that always leads to her Son.
Full of grace
Giotto completed his masterpiece frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel during the first decade of the 14 th century. The over-arching theme is salvation history, and the chapel was dedicated to Santa Maria della Carità on the feast of the Annunciation. No wonder, then, that the life of the Virgin Mary and her graced role in salvation history would inspire Giotto’s creative genius.Hail Mary, full of grace! These words the archangel Gabriel spoke at the Annunciation are familiar words of Christian prayer. They teach us an important truth about the Mother of God: long before the Annunciation, Mary was filled with grace. From the moment of her Immaculate Conception, Mary had been preserved from the stain of Original Sin. She was “full of grace” indeed—from her conception in the womb of Saint Anne to her glorious assumption into heaven.
The family of Mary
“The family is the basic cell of society. It is the cradle of life and love, the place in which the individual ‘is born’ and ‘grows’” (Christifideles laici, 40.4). These words of Saint John Paul II remind us that the family has a fundamental and formative role, both in society and in the life of each person. This is true of every Christian, and is exemplified, in a special way, in the life of Mary.For details on the family of Mary, artists would draw heavily on apocryphal writings, such as the Protoevangelium of James. Here it appears that Giotto relied on such apocryphal stories of Mary’s presentation in the Temple by her parents, Saint Joachim and Saint Anne. Following Jewish custom, these devout parents would most likely have brought their daughter to the Temple at the young age of three. In doing so, they expressed their desire to consecrate her to God and to prepare her for her unique role as Mother of the Redeemer.
Consecrated to God
The Temple, the space set apart for God, was a fitting place for Mary’s consecration to God. Multiple lines of perspective draw the eye into the sacred space, from the triangular-shaped roof to the narrow stairs leading up to the canopied entrance where a crowd of onlookers welcomes the child.The deep blue sky contrasts vividly with the red cloak of the Temple priest and the gently cascading red robes of Saint Anne. On the left, we see the haloed figure of Saint Joachim looking onto the scene with quiet joy and wonder at his daughter’s future. Saint Anne gently nudges her daughter up the stairs. There the haloed face of the young girl radiates peace, as she stands before the Temple priest dressed in pure white robes. Mary’s hands are folded in humility, a gesture repeated by Renaissance artists in countless Annunciation scenes.
A share in Mary’s life
Giotto’s artistic genius was unparalleled in his time.His work served as a vital bridge from the Medieval iconographic tradition into the Renaissance,his frescoes infused with emotional intensity, realism, and humanity. His sculptural figures are solidand natural in form, with garments that drape and flow naturally. The faces of his painted figures are alive with peaceful wonder and spiritual inspiration, evoking the Eucharistic context of his exquisitefrescoes. Mary’s presentation in the Temple unfolds as if on a stage. Giotto’s careful arrangement of figures, and the emotions in their facial expressions and gestures, invite the viewer to enter into this scene, to take our place among the figures, and to share in the joy, awe, and wonder at this moment in Mary’s life.
Blessed are you among women
From a young age, Mary was consecrated to God. Even as she is presented in the Temple, she is being prepared to become the temple of the Lord, when she bears the Son of God into the world. At her presentation, Mary was endowed with the natural and supernatural gifts she needed for her role asthe Theotokos, the God-bearer. For her entire life was a preparation for the indwelling of God in the world: first in her womb, and then in her heart and mind. Mary was the first Christian disciple who heard the Word of God and pondered the mysteries of faith, as she nurtured Christ in her body, heart, mind, and life.This Marian feast is a reminder that we, like Mary, are called to walk in the way of her Son Jesus, after her example as Mother and disciple. Mary points us to her Son so that we might accept his offer of divine friendship and be reconciled to God and to one another in the power of the Holy Spirit. For “what the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines, in turn, its faith in Christ” (CCC 487).
Jem Sullivan, Writer on art, catechesis, and the New Evangelization
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What is a saint?
Symbolism, contemporaneous with and not opposed to Impressionism, was a literary and artistic movement born at the end of the 19 th century as a reaction against Naturalism, Scientism, and the religion of Progress. Gustave Moreau († 1898) was one of its most eminent—and no doubt most mystical—geniuses. Profoundly religious, he sought to touch that nostalgia for the divine that dwells deep within every human heart. When asked if he believed in God, he replied, “I believe only in God. In fact, I do not believe in what I touch nor in what I see. I only believe in what I cannot see; solely in what I sense. My mind and my reason seem to me ephemeral and of dubious reality. My inner consciousness alone appears eternal and unquestionably certain.” Painted in 1882, The Charity of Saint Martin reflects the artist’s desire to create a work in which “the soul can find all the aspirations of dreams, tenderness, love, enthusiasm, and religious ascent toward the higher spheres, where everything is elevated, powerful, moral, and beneficent, where all is the joy of imaginative, lyrical flights of fancy to distant lands, sacred, unknown, and mysterious.”In this scene from the life of Saint Martin, Moreau reveals the essence of the genius of Christianity. The sword no longer serves to kill, nor even to defend: it is here the instrument of sharing between brothers of equal dignity. The powerful warhorse of an officer of the Legion, the mightiest army on earth, is transformed into a vehicle of charity in the service of our fellow man in need. But more, by inclining its head as it makes an obeisance to the beggar dying of cold, the gaze of this princely steed indicates the real master we serve. Who is the one who saves the other for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven? Martin only wears a halo because he is saved; he is a saint because he made himself the good and faithful servant of the one who saved him, his Lord and his God who, until the end of the age, gives himself to be loved in each one of the most humble among us.
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