Faith through Art: Contemplating Mother, Christ child in 14th century Maesta
By Norman Farmer
Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s (1290-1348) Maesta, painted in the 1330s, quotes numerous Scriptural texts that prophesy, proclaim and explain God’s plan for man’s salvation. Central to these allusions and quotations are St. Paul’s soaring words to the Ephesians: “He [God] destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ ..., [and] he has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in [Christ] as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth” (Eph 1: 3-14). So, too, the Gloria Patria – “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.” And both derive specifically from the prologue of St. John’s Gospel which tells “that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the pre-existent Word and that life, light and divine filiation flow from an acceptance of the story of the unseen God revealed by the incarnate Word” (Francis J. Moloney SDB, Interpretation, The Gospel of John, 1988). Precisely the story the painter tells.
On a dais surrounded by angels, the Holy Mother of God and her infant Son embrace as Isaiah 62:5 foresees: “As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you. And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall God rejoice in you.” Accordingly, before ever appearing in their natural mothers’ wombs Mary Virgin and the Second Person of the Trinity exchange the “kiss of holiness” in the timeless realm of the kingdom of heaven.
Two angels present fleur-di-lis and roses, anticipating the Annunciation to come and the birth of the Word to the Virgin Mary. Two angels support the cushion where Mary sits, foretelling the throne she will assume when she is crowned queen of heaven by the Son whose mutual adoration she shares here. This tiny detail thus establishes the “as-it-was-in-the-beginning” of the narrative this painting tells. Meantime, two angels with thuribles cense the mother and her Son with the fragrance of virtues, while four angel-musicians (the first in Christian sacred art) surround them with the harmonies of heaven.
The foundation for this mystical nuptial is a triad of steps: white, green and red, named for the three theological virtues: faith, hope and love. The angels of those virtues display signs of their spiritual purposes. Faith gazes into a mirror, but instead of a self-image she contemplates the Holy Trinity. Hope gazes toward the pinnacle of a soaring tower while love displays the spear and heart that anticipate “the mystery of the heart of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy) and the fulfillment of Scripture when “They will look upon him whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:33-37).
Stretching into infinity is the heavenly host of all God’s saints. They too pre-exist and await the incarnation, a dozen or so being identifiable as prominent intercessors for mankind after his Ascension. Standing (right), front row, are Benedict (in white), Anthony Abbot, Augustine, and Cerbone (patron saint of Massa Marittima at whose feet are the geese that followed him to Rome when he was wrongly charged with heresy). Higher, stand Matthew (holding his Gospel), Mark and Luke. Opposite, are Catherine (with her wheel), Francis, Nicholas and Basil. Next are Paul (bald, black beard), Peter, and then in the place of highest honor at the Virgin’s right, John. To him Jesus, the preexisting Word, entrusts his Mother –– the Theotokos or God-bearer –– at his death (Jn 19:26).
John, in fact, is the definitive key in this painting to “the mystery hidden from ages past” (Eph 3:9). He holds an open blank book where only a single majuscule is inscribed: a large illuminated “I”. His pen, though, is poised to complete the opening phrase of his Gospel, In principio erat verbum ... at the very instant that the Incarnate Word bounds (Wis 18:14-16) from the timeless divine into created time:“In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was turned toward God, and what God was the Word also was.” Thus John turns his open blank page toward the Word, Who is both the author and the subject of the Fourth Gospel. “He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him and without him nothing was made” – or written. “What took place in him was life, and the life was the light of humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it ... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, the fulness of a gift that is truth. We have gazed upon his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (Moloney, cited above). The Word is before time ever was. It will be when time is no more.
Such are the things Ambrogio Lorenzetti contemplates in the Maesta at Massa Marittima.