Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Newborn Child

I first saw this picture, The Newborn Child by Georges de la Tour, in this book of daily meditations.

I was first struck by the sense of stillness and peace in the picture, and the thoughtful way that Mary was looking at her newborn infant. I have been planning to write something about it for several months.

When I posted it last night, I realized that Mary is not looking at Jesus, but seems to be intent on her own thoughts, and perhaps those thoughts are not so peaceful. Look at her hands, especially her right hand. This is hardly the loving caress of a peaceful mother. I wonder if de la Tour is implying that she is having some premonition of what is to come.

And who is that woman on the left? You can see above that the picture in the book has been cropped, and I originally thought it must be an angel, but in the full picture, you can see that she has no wings, and appears to be just an ordinary woman. Also, it looks very much as is the light is emanating from the child, but if you look very closely, you can see that the woman is holding a candle, the flame being hidden by her raised hand. 

I read on a Smithsonian website that experts question whether or not this is a Nativity scene. Perhaps it is not, de la Tour did paint secular images, but he painted a lot of religious subjects. I think that the picture below gives credence to the idea that it is a Nativity scene.

I originally saw this painting denominated as St. Anne with the Virgin in Linen,  but now I see that the Art Gallery of Ontario, where it resides, calls it St. Anne with the Christ Child, which makes me wonder if the woman in the first picture is supposed to be St. Anne. 

I also found this painting, The Angel Appears to St. Joseph in a Dream, in which the angel has no wings, so perhaps the mystery woman is supposed to be an angel.

I love poking around in these old masterpieces and trying to discover what the artist is trying to portray, and what the people in the paintings, the real people, must have been thinking and experiencing. I am not very good at all with the kind of meditation that involves putting myself in a scriptural narrative, but I find that a sort of visual meditation accomplishes the same purpose for me.

I don't know whether or not de la Tour conceived his painting as one of Mary and Jesus or not, although I strongly suspect that he did, and that perhaps the main motive for doubting this is that the experts in question would just rather that it not be. Even if he did not though, it only shows that Mary is the quintessential image of motherhood. We see in her the very form of a mother, and we strive to imitate what we see. And what mother has not sat holding her infant and sensing that faint chill of future peril to her child? 


Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Holy Spirit Will Come Upon You

I first saw this painting of the Annunciation by Filippo Lippi on the front of Prepare the Way, a book of Advent meditations by Ronald Thomas. I was looking at it as Bill and I prayed the Angelus one morning and noticed for the first time the Holy Spirit moving toward Mary not, as is usually pictured, from above, but flying towards her womb. Mary, instead of looking at Gabriel, or gazing up to Heaven as she is often depicted, is intently watching the Holy Spirit as He comes to her. She appears peaceful, but you can see the tension of expectation in the way she holds her arm and in her alert stillness. Her anticipation may be that of a virgin contemplating her wedding night. As I look at this picture, I get much less the sense of a universal event than that of a private consummation. And this may be at the very heart of Christian mystery, not only that mysterious things might happen out there in the universe but that they may, they will, happen to us--in us--in the most secret recesses of our bodies and souls.

I can remember the way that I felt when I was first pregnant. I knew that millions of women had been pregnant and that this would be a perfectly natural thing to happen, but I just could not believe that it could ever happen to me, and when it did, it was awesome in the true sense of the word. And if this overwhelming sense of mystery is what an ordinary sinful woman who has conceived a child in the ordinary way feels, what must this pure young woman have felt?

The cover of Prepare the Way shows Mary's side of Lippi's painting, and I was originally only going to write about this half of the picture, but then I saw the other side.

Here we have, not the powerful Gabriel with raised hand pointing heavenward, but a messenger wholly engaged in the miracle that he is announcing. His face is full of wonder, intent upon the moment of incarnation. His attitude is that of humility; his hand almost weighted down by astonishing reality that it declares--two natures in this one infant that will soon reside in Mary's womb.

In many depictions of the Annunciation, Gabriel are separated by some physical object: a short dividing wall like we see here, a pillar, a window, or even something like a tapestry behind Mary. This arrangement of Gabriel in the garden and Mary in a man-made space seemingly indicates a separation between heaven and earth. I found it in a few other paintings.

This one by Leonardo da Vinci bears many similarities with the Lippi, but the attitudes of Mary and Gabriel a completely different. It's more formal; less intimate.

The San Domenico Annunciation by Benozzo Gozzoli. You can see a made-up bed in the background on the far right, a symbol of Mary's virginity which is fairly common in pictures of the Annunciation, as is the unopened chest on the far right of the Lippi painting.

A 20th century Pre-Raphaelite Annunciation by John William Waterhouse. Pre-Raphaelite angels seem to always be excessively feminine.

It occurs to me as I write this that there have been quite a few pictures of the Annunciation on this blog over the years. It is one of the mysteries of the rosary that I find easiest to meditate on and I try to remember to say the Angelus morning, noon, and evening, so it's always on my mind. More than that I think, is that unceasing call, issued to all of us, to let Jesus be born in us--to inhabit us, body and soul--to let whatever comes to us that day be done according to His Word.

Click once on the pictures to see them enlarged.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Anne, Did You Know?

About 15 years ago I sat horrified in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Memphis when, after having been asked about the Immaculate Conception by the priest giving us a tour, a group of homeschooled students whose parents had been very faithfully educating them in the Faith, assured Father that the Immaculate Conception was when Jesus was conceived in Mary's womb. I wrote about this a couple of years ago, and noted that it surprised me that since this is such a common mis-conception, the gospel for the feast is the story of the Annunciation. Let's just see what we can do to confirm this error in the congregation's consciousness. 

I suppose that the reason for this choice is that there just isn't any appropriate gospel reading for this event, and very little else about Mary to choose from. You probably know that the story of Mary's conception is found in the Protoevangelium of James, a non-canonical document. Any cursory reading of the narrative will convince the reader that its omission from the Bible was a wise decision, but it's interesting because it is the source from which many legends about the early life of the Holy Family are derived. 

The reason for all of the above is that today my thoughts are with St. Anne.

What must her thoughts and feelings have been when she found that she was with child. Like Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth, a woman past all hope of motherhood, miraculously changed from a barren "failure" into the mother of the greatest woman who ever lived. Of course, she surely didn't know at the time what was in store for her daughter, but she did know that she was singularly blessed.

It's not unusual for mothers to think their children are perfect--at least when they are young--but she's one of the only two mothers who were ever right (Well, maybe St. Elizabeth, too.). And I guess this means that she was the only grandmother who ever had a perfect grandchild. I wonder if she was alive when Jesus was born. 

I wonder what she thought as she watched her daughter grow in perfection. I wonder if other mothers were jealous and spiteful. I wonder if she suffered when other children hurt her daughter. Well, of course she did. I wonder if she worried that she and Joachim would die when Mary was still young, leaving her without proper support.

I always get irritated this time of year when I hear the song, Mary, Did You Know? because yes, she did. But St. Anne--what did she know? What did she suspect? How did she and Joachim determine that Joseph was the proper spouse their daughter. There's just so much we can't know.


Thursday, December 4, 2014


When I was growing up, my grandparents had a beautiful back yard that was just perfect for a bunch of kids to run around in. It had two levels, and so there were steps to climb into the upper yard. There was orange honeysuckle to suck on--I thought that was the only kind of honeysuckle there was. There were places to hide and places to rest. The entire yard was surrounded by a brick wall and along the back wall there was a little wooded area that was probably only a row of trees, but when I was little it seemed like a forest. And then, at the end of the wall, in the very back corner of the yard, there was a gate that led outside.

So, what was outside the gate? The Secret Garden? Narnia? Well, most of the time there was a pretty boring little two lane road, but then one day the department of public works decided to dig up the entire road to bury some of these. 

They did some digging and then they dumped a whole lot of concrete pipes in the road and left them there for quite some time. Some of them were on their sides, and some were standing upright. In one place, the upright ones were left in a sort of flower form with one in the middle and the others in a circle around it. It was the best place to play, and thankfully our parents, not being the mollycoddling sort of parents people have now, let us play there. It was a great summer until one day a bunch of big boys came along and threw big clods of dirt at us and that was that. I still drive down that road sometimes, and when I do, I always think of those pipes lying there beneath the asphalt.

Later when I was in college, my friends and I used to have the occasional party at the house of a friend who lived on a little street that dead-ended shortly before what would soon become the northern leg of I-240. At the moment, it was just a big flat, mostly empty expanse of graded dirt, but what was there was a bunch of great big concrete pipes. I walked down there once with a friend who wasn't quite a boyfriend, but wasn't quite not a boyfriend, and we sat inside of one the pipes talking for a long time. It was great until some bigger boys came along in cars and started racing around up and down and around the pipes. I was very afraid that they would find us and that they would be mean (Would they throw clods of dirt at us?), but I don't think they ever knew we were inside.

So, I guess that if you have been reading this blog for very long, you will think that I am going to draw some spiritual analogy here, but I'm not. It's just that I was driving up the interstate this morning and got behind a truck full of concrete pipes and started remembering. 

Orange honeysuckle, by the way, has about twice as much nectar as the white and yellow sort and tastes much better. I loved to pinch off the end of the blossom and see that little drop of sweetness oozing out.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

For We Are His Handiwork

In Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night, Peter Wimsey buys Harriet Vane,
. . . a set of carved ivory chessmen . . . , for which she had conceived an unreasonable affection. . . . They were Chinese, and each piece was a complicated nest of little revolving balls, delicate as fine lace. 
When I first read this book, years and years ago, I conceived a mad desire to just see such a thing, and so I was nearly ecstatic when I found a set much like the one pictured below in the Peabody and Essex Museum in Salem, MA.  

These look larger than the ones I saw, which I remember as being about 2/3 of the size these are in the picture, and it was an entire set in a lovely case, and I believe they were more delicate and intricate. I kept thinking about how long it took someone to carve the figures, and how no one has the time to do work like this anymore and what a loss that is to the world. After staring at them for a while, I looked around at all the other objects from China and India that were in the room. There were so many exquisite little miracles of craftsmanship, and I wondered how many craftsmen of that caliber there are left in the world.

I remembered the chess set today when I saw the item that is going around Facebook about a young man, Benjamin Harff, who illuminated and bound a copy of Tolkien's Silmarillion. There's an interview with him here, and if you do a Google image search, you can see more of the illuminations.

I find myself a bit jealous of anyone who has the time to do such a thing, but then I wonder if I would take advantage of it if I had it. I probably would not. I like to think that given the time, I would write something here everyday, but I frequently waste the time when I have it. I remember before I worked, though, that I was always making something: sewing, embroidering, or knitting--nothing anywhere near this lovely, but it was very satisfying. I hope that someday I can get back to that. 


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

If It Delays . . .

From today's reading from Isaiah:
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea.
For some reason that image of the knowledge of the Lord filling the earth as water covering the sea  really struck me this morning. When water covers something, there is no escape, it flows into every little nook and cranny, slipping under the doors, finding the tiniest cracks. It reminds me of a dream I had once in which I was in a city that was flooded up to about my waist, but there wasn't any sense of there being anything wrong. The water was very clear and full of light, and calm. At first, when I read the verse it evoked a very peaceful scene like the one in the dream, but then again, water, like the knowledge of the Lord, can sometimes come in violent ways.

I have always loved Edward Hicks's renditions of the Peaceable Kingdom. He was a Quaker who lived in Pennsylvania in the late 18th/early 19th century. I've read that he thought that America was the coming of the peaceable kingdom, and that the treaty between William Penn and the Indians was a beginning of that kingdom. 

Hicks painted that scene over and over again. Here are a few more versions.

I'm not sure what to make of this guy.

Even his pictures of life in Pennsylvania reflected his belief that the kingdom was making itself known.

Unfortunately, Hicks was wrong. The kingdom did not arrive with the advent of the new land, except in the hearts of those who had already received it. And we are still waiting, entering into that season when we wait in joyful hope.
For the vision is a witness for the appointed time, a testimony to the end; it will not disappoint. If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. Habakkuk 2:3