Faith through Art: Praying with the light, joy of the Mother of God

Antonello da Messina painted this portrait of Mary in 1477. (Public domain photo)

By Norman Farmer

In this serene and spiritually transcendent portrait, painted around 1477 by Antonello da Messina, Mary appears alone at a bare wooden table. Before her upon a simple wooden lectern is an open book, its pages riffled as though by a passing breath of air. Modestly, as though momentarily surprised, she gathers her cloak over her heart with her left hand. With her right she gestures in a manner both compelling and enigmatic while looking toward a light that streams obliquely upon her from a source slightly above the table-top, illumining the backs of her fingers and the letter “M” inscribed upon the raised page of the book. Curiously, while it illumines the cloak the form of an elegant blue triangle cascading across her shoulders and framing her unforgettably beautiful face, the light casts no shadows upon the empty black space beyond her. It is she, not the background, that absorbs –– and reflects –– the light!
The painting, then, is as much about light as it is about Mary. Scripture explains why. In the account of the Creation, light –– primordial light –– is second only to the creation of heaven and earth, which (lacking light) is but “a formless wasteland,” an “abyss” of darkness: “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light ... [and] God then separated the light from the darkness” (Gen 1: 3-4). Light is thus the defining feature of everything that follows. 
Similarly, when “the only begotten Son of God” comes “down from heaven” and “by the Holy Spirit [is] incarnate of the Virgin Mary,” primordial light is once more the defining feature of the unfathomable mystery that St. John describes, “What came to be through [God] was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:3-5). Having expressed the primacy of light, Antonello allows it to highlight the union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in this momentous New Creation, symbolized by the trinitarian shape of Mary’s cloak, the symbol of her own boundless faith. “For just as the cloak covers everything and everything is enclosed in it, man can likewise comprehend and attain all things by faith” (St. Birgitta of Sweden).
This painting is also all about joy. Not the spontaneous exuberance associated with jollity or merriment. Rather, it is the rejoicing invoked by the Annunciate Angel’s address to Our Lady of Grace: “Rejoice, full of grace ...” “This proclamation of joy at the coming of the Messiah is an invitation to joy, a deep joy, announcing the end of the sadness that there is in the world,” said Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2012. 
In this most intimate and humbly understated of paintings, Antonello expresses the first hint of the joy that commences in the soul of Mary through a miniscule detail that is far easier to see in the original painting than in a reproduction. At the upper right corner of Mary’s mouth, he paints an all but invisible shadow through a gentle tap of his brush: the minute contraction of a single facial muscle that signals the first of the Joyful Mysteries.
At this, the fluttering pages of the book and Mary’s enigmatic gesture become joyously intelligible. Just as the “breath” of the Holy Spirit moved on the first day across the waters (Gen 1: 2), so here does the word, the “inspiration” of the Holy Spirit riffle the pages of the Testament, coming now to be newly “written.” This is why the light of divine life illumines the letter “M” on that upraised page. 
Here, in the instant that endures for eternity, the Blessed Virgin commences her never-ending canticle of praise and prayer: “Magníficat ánima mea Dóminum” –– “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” The gesture that accompanies Mary’s unqualified acceptance of God’s presence among men in the person of his Son has long been characterized as “the most perfect depiction of a human hand in art!” And the foregoing “visio divina” tells us why. Not only did Antonello da Messina discern the spiritual magnitude of the Incarnation, but by allowing his hand to follow the guidance of his soul’s eye, he gave us a new way to see and to imagine the union of the divine nature of the Son of God with human nature in the person of Jesus Christ.
More can still be said about this masterpiece of theological art. Ongoing research, for example, leads scholars to believe that Antonello’s actual model for the Virgin Mother was probably the much beloved and venerated St. Eustochia Calafato of Messina, a contemporary of the artist, a Poor Clare and an abbess, who was beatified by Pope Pius VI in 1782 and canonized in 1988 by St. John Paul II. In this painting, art and life as well as the divine and the human seamlessly overlap and merge according to the will and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.