The cover of the month
Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Pierre-Marie Dumont
Odilon Redon (1840–1916), that king of imaginary worlds, refused to be classified as a spiritualist painter, much less a Christian painter, although Christ and the Gospel occupied a central place among his favorite themes. Although non-practicing and wary of the Catholic Church, deep down, he was not without faith, and he thought that the spiritual element of a painting does not come from the painter but is a dimension inherent in reality. For him, the artist’s mission is precisely to make the viewer see this invisible dimension of real things.
The depiction of the Virgin Mary that you can contemplate on the cover of this issue of Magnificat can be interpreted not only as a Mother at the foot of the cross but also as a Virgin of the Annunciation. Because of its unique story, it should be viewed as a fundamentally mystical work of art. When the painter died, it was found on his easel, a work in progress. It is therefore legitimate to see it also as an overwhelming pictorial expression of the painter’s last prayer before commending his soul into the Father’s hands:
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me, a poor sinner,
now, yes now, at the hour of my death….
Surrounded by a mysterious, cloud-like halo painted in the colors of the blood and water that gushed from the pierced Heart of the One who definitively defeated death for all time, the Mother of God stands until the end of the world at the foot of the cross of all those in their final agony. She is always there when the “now” of the hour of our death arrives. Her eyes closed, she holds in her right hand the Book of Scripture which is perfectly fulfilled by the Incarnation of the Son of God in her womb—a fullness which moreover reveals the supernatural reason that every human being has for living and dying. This hand holding the Book is placed on her heart, signifying that, precisely in her heart, united with the Heart of God her Son, Mary is the Mother of our Hope and the Gate of Heaven. And so she treasures and guards the destiny of each one of her dear children at the most tragic moment of their great passage.
And we, poor sinners, who throughout our life have recited each day by the decade: “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death,” how could we doubt that the Mother of God and our Mother will indeed be present and active at our bedside, when the hour of our passage from this world to our Father has come? In his book The Glories of Mary, Saint Alphonsus Liguori relates this anecdote: “Saint John of God, finding that he was soon to die, waited for Mary’s visit: he loved this kind Mother so much! Seeing that she did not appear, he was saddened, and perhaps complained about it. When the moment had arrived, the Mother of God manifested herself to him, and, as if to rebuke him gently for his lack of confidence, she spoke to him these words which are so comforting for the servants of Mary: ‘It is not my custom to abandon at an hour like this those who have followed me.’” Poignantly, the final painting of Odilon Redon testifies that neither does the Mother of God abandon at the hour of death those children of hers who throughout their life have not followed her.
So that the death of everyone, even the most hardened sinners, may be a victory over death, “for the Father is not willing that any of his children should be lost” (see Mt 18:14), we might adapt slightly the formula of our prayer from time to time:
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for all the sinners who never pray to you,
now and at the hour of their death. Amen.
Virgin (1916), Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Museum of Fine Arts, Bordeaux (France). © Mairie de Bordeaux, musée des Beaux-Arts, photo L. Gauthier.