The art essay

The Presentation in the Temple (1342) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (Known from 1319–1348)

Painted in 1342 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti for the Chapel of San Crescenzio in the Siena Cathedral, this altarpiece was one of four in a narrative series on the life of the Virgin, each destined for a different chapel and each by a different artist, one of whom was his brother, Pietro Lorenzetti. Basing his scene on Luke 2:22-39, Ambrogio depicts the Presentation with an apparent simplicity and, at the same time, theological sophistication and visual complexity. In his commentary on the infancy narratives, Pope Benedict XVI indicated that in this passage several events have been collapsed into one moment: the Circumcision, performed eight days after birth; the Purification of Mary on the fortieth day after birth; and the Presentation of the Child in the Temple, whereby Jesus was personally and completely handed over to God. Ambrogio is absolutely faithful to the text in rendering these major elements of Luke’s narrative.

Architecture as the organizing principle

Architecture provides the organizing structure of this painting, as we peer into a vast, three-aisled Gothic edifice, suggestive of the Siena Cathedral for which it was destined. Other architectural details suggest the Temple in Jerusalem, specifically the inclusion, in the interior, of Romanesque arches, as well as, on the exterior, the octagonal dome and lantern. A sense of perspective, exceptional for 1342, is initiated by the richly patterned floor in which the orthogonal lines converge, leading the eye directly to the altar at which stands the priest, holding in one hand a pair of turtledoves for the ritual of purification and in the other hand a knife for the circumcision. On the other side of the altar are the other protagonists of the narrative. Ambrogio continues the Medieval practice of using a double scale of proportions for the figures in relation to the setting, but adjusting the scale so as to make the relationship between the two more visually plausible.

The placement and organization of these figures is exceptional. On the far left stands Saint Joseph, separated from Mary by two attendants. This positioning suggests not only his humility but also his role as foster father of Jesus, who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary, garbed in a deep blue cape with a vibrantly contrasting red robe, holds in her hands a visually striking white cloth that may have served as Jesus’ blanket, but which also announces her ritual purification. On the other side of the priest, as the eye moves further right, stands the elderly Simeon, who had been promised by God that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. Simeon’s holding the baby in his arms visually establishes Jesus as the Messiah, now come into the Temple—a theme to be elaborated in other details. Ambrogio’s penchant for day-to-day specificity of details, already evident in his perspectival elaboration of interior space, depicts the Infant with a finger in his mouth: a human detail suggestive of the fact that this Messiah is true God and true Man.

Prophets and symbols of redemption

 Taken together, the figures of Mary, Jesus, and Simeon introduce another leitmotif: this child will become the ultimate sacrifice for the human race, upon the cross, once and for all, replacing repeated animal sacrifices, such as that of the turtledoves, upon the altar. The knife, which will draw blood in the circumcision ritual, prefigures the actual spilling of Jesus’ blood on Calvary, here symbolized by the Infant’s blood-red garment as he lies in the arms of Simeon, in a position suggestive of one laid in a tomb. The visually striking white cloth in Mary’s hand, positioned almost at the center of the visual field, suggests a burial shroud. These allusions become more explicit as the eye moves to the last figure on the right: the prophetess Anna, who points her finger toward Jesus. Her gesture recalls a similar one seen in many paintings, where it is Jesus’ cousin, Saint John the Baptist, who points visually, as he did in life verbally, to the Messiah, declaring Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In her other hand Anna holds a scroll, with a Latin text that reads: And she, coming in that instant, gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of him to all that looked for redemption in Jerusalem (cf. Lk 2:38). Near the pinnacle of the altarpiece, on each side of the Temple’s octagonal dome, are two prophets of the Old Testament, Moses and Malachi, each holding a scroll, like the prophetess Anna below. Moses’ scroll is inscribed in Latin with the text of Leviticus 12:8, the ritual for this purification. Malachi’s Latin text is from Malachi 3:1, And the Lord whom you seek shall suddenly come to his Temple. This last citation reveals the deepest meaning of the painting. When the Infant Jesus is brought for traditional Jewish rituals, it is the long-awaited Messiah who enters the Temple, by tradition the place of encounter between God and his people. The specificity of Ambrogio’s spatial relationships, decorative details, and even the Infant, with his finger in his mouth, root this event in a specific place and moment in time, just as Jesus, the Messiah, enters into a specific place and moment in human history. Thus one understands the significance of the temporal reference in Anna’s scroll: And she, coming in that instant, gave thanks…. This temporal and spatial specificity is balanced by a timeless dimension, achieved by Ambrogio’s endowing the figures with humble but majestic solemnity and by the absolute absence of motion, even of the turtledoves. Not that these figures are frozen in time—rather, they exist beyond time, in the realm of the eternal.  

Francis J. Greene Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts at Saint Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.