Faith through Art: A reflection on ‘The Nativity of the Virgin’
See art at: In preparation for the birth of Mary on Sept. 8, take the time to pray with this three-paneled image painted by an anonymous artist in 1432 for the Collegiate Church of St. Agatha in Asciano, Italy. (Photo in public domain found at www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_of_the_Osservanza_Triptych)
By Norman Farmer
On Sept. 8, the church celebrates the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In light of this celebration, I herein examine this large, luminous and engaging three-paneled image, painted in 1432 for the Collegiate Church of St. Agatha in Asciano, Italy. The anonymous “Master of the Observance” artfully translates “The Nativity of the Virgin” (Sept. 8) from the Liturgy of the Hours and the daily Office of Readings into an unforgettable image.
At a glance the radiance of this new day proclaimed in the Antiphons of Morning Prayer is self-evident: “Come let us celebrate the birth of the Virgin Mary; let us worship her Son, Christ the Lord.” And, “When the most holy Virgin was born, the whole world was made radiant; blessed is the branch and blessed is the stem which bore such holy fruit.”
What we witness in this image is a serene and orderly household, bathed in light and pulsing with unhurried and purposeful activity. As St. Andrew of Crete proclaims about the birth of Mary, “justly, then, do we celebrate this mystery since it signifies for us a double grace. We are led toward the truth, and we are led away from our condition of slavery to the letter of the law.” And “midway between the two stands today’s mystery, at the frontier where types and symbols give way to reality, and the old is replaced by the new … Today, this created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for him who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for the Creator.” With this in mind, let us scrutinize the details of this painting for the spiritual realities that it depicts.
Anna (mother of Mary), visibly aged, raises up in a stately bed that is itself a work of art and reaches eagerly for the water poured by a young lady-in-waiting; her dress, carriage, and impeccable grooming characterize the quiet dignity of this household. In the doorway appears another young woman, more elegant still, carrying a bowl of broth and a roasted fowl. Both exemplify the caring, nurturing nature of the Holy Mother, and by their demeanor visibly define the role that Mary will claim when she characterizes herself as the “handmaid of the Lord.”
For the moment, though, cradled by a nursemaid before a cheerful fire on the hearth, the infant Mary is bathed in an aura of golden light, an image inspired by the responsory in the Office of Readings: “Let us keep with devotion the birth of the blessed Virgin Mary. Her glorious life has shone upon the world.” And the infant, who is destined to be Queen of Heaven, raises her tiny right hand in the sign of blessing that anticipates the coming of her Son.
In an ante-room Joachim (father of Mary) rejoices with an elder over the news of Mary’s birth, which assures his return to the temple now that the law has been satisfied. Two details behind Joachim anticipate the direction of salvation history. The stairway behind Joachim serves as a sign of the temple steps that Mary is said to have climbed unassisted at her presentation but leads only to a darkened space. The archway beyond, though, opens onto a sunlit garden very similar to the one described in the Song of Songs (4:12-16). This prophetic Old Testament passage foresees the fruitfulness of Mary: “A garden enclosed, my sister, my bride, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed … A garden fountain, a well of living water, streams flowing from Lebanon.”
Here in this piece, we are at the heart of the mystery that converts the Jewish house of Joachim to the house of Christ. And the painter makes this point in two more details: the stained-glass window above Anna’s bed and the barrel-vaulted, mosaicked ceilings throughout the house. These architectural features of the future are thus pointing to the blessed fruit that Mary would carry in her womb.
Mary, then, is that “remnant” that St. Paul speaks of in Romans 11:5 and that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) writes about in Daughter of Zion. “The holy remnant signifies that God’s word really brings forth fruit, that God is not the only actor in history, as if history were only his monologue, but that he finds a response that is truly a response. As the holy remnant Mary signifies that in herself Old and New Covenants are really one” (65).