The cover of the month
A Christmas under the Sign of the Cross by Pierre-Marie Dumont
Giovanni Ambrogio Bevilacqua was a painter from Lombardy (in northern Italy) during the High Renaissance. He was active at more or less the same time as Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) but, unlike his famous contemporary, did not jump with both feet into the artistic revival, applying himself instead to achieving a nice synthesis between realism and symbolism, between Renaissance contributions and the Byzantine, Giottesque, and Gothic elements that characterized Italian art for a thousand years, from the 6th century to the beginning of the 16th.
The work that adorns the cover of your issue of Magnificat is one of the rare remaining examples of an original technique in painting, called Tüchleinfarben in reference to Dürer. The technique consisted of painting in egg tempera directly onto an unvarnished, finely woven linen cloth. This gave the resulting works a very interesting matte texture, but they proved to be fragile and did not withstand the ravages of time well. This technique was used mainly because it was much more economical and practical than painting on coated wood panels. It later disappeared with the advent of oil painting on thicker and prepared linen canvas.
From the heights of heaven, God the Father, emerging from the cloud with an army of cherubim, leans down toward mankind on earth. In front of him, the choir of angels sings the celestial hymn: Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in Terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. “Glory to God in the highest Heavens, and on Earth peace to men, on them His favor rests.”
The celestial worshippers are turned toward the earth!
What is happening, then, on earth? These angels, whose eternal mission is to praise God, are not turned toward him in the highest heavens, but toward the lowest point on earth, plainly contemplating the smallest, most helpless, most naked of the children of men! And on earth, she who is blessed among all women, far from raising her eyes toward heaven, is devoted entirely—O unfathomable mystery—to adoring this newborn child! Her child, certainly, because echoing the song of the angels, her immaculate robe is embroidered in gold with the word “peace.” Now Scripture proclaims that she will be the mother of the Prince of Peace.
And behold, the Almighty takes no offense at the fact that the angels and their queen adore the lowly one. On the contrary, the direction of his gaze and his open hands show not only that he blesses and accepts what is happening, but also that this event is the perfect fulfillment of his holy will. In his left hand he displays the key to this great mystery: his will, which is to be done on earth as it is in heaven, is that the created universe should be placed under the sign of the cross, in other words, should be saved and transfigured by his Only Begotten Son, with him and in him.
At the bottom of the picture, the painter gives us a fine text on which to meditate, the Good News that his work announces. He cites the Gregorian Gradual (response after the Reading) for Masses on feasts in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
Virga Jesse floruit:
Virgo Deum et hominem genuit:
Pacem Deus reddidit,
In se reconcilians ima summis.
A branch of Jesse blossomed:
A Virgin gave birth to one who is God and man:
God restored Peace,
Reconciling in himself the lowliest and the highest.
Thus, what the painter intended to show between the thumb and index finger of the Father’s left hand could well be the image of our humanity, which is called to be perfectly transparent to the divinity of him who was born true God and true man of the Virgin Mary.
Merry Christmas, then, even though all this must happen under the sign of the cross.
Mary, Adoring the Child Jesus (1500–1510), Giovanni Ambrogio Bevilacqua (1474–1516), Gemäldegalerie, Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany. © BPK, Berlin, dist. RMN-GP / Elke Estel / Hans Peter Klut.