Faith through Art: Reflections on The Presentation at Orvieto Cathedral
By Norman Farmer
At Orvieto in central Italy, a city set uniquely and dramatically upon a high mesa in the broad valley where the river Paglia joins the Tiber, the Cathedral dedicated to St. Mary of the Assumption is visible for miles from every point of the compass. On approaching the west entrance, which rises like a vast triptych atop a great altar, one is struck by the way this awe-inspiring facade accommodates itself to human imagination and wonder through the hundreds of figures that Lorenzo Maitani sculpted upon the four massive pillars in the 15th century (see photo below).
Here, even before one crosses the threshold into the place and space of the Divine, the church is already telling and re-telling the Old and New Testament story of our salvation from the creation to Christ-in-Glory. Just to the right of the main door, slightly above eye-level (see photo at top right), it depicts the Gospel story (Lk 2:22-38) of The Presentation (see photo below at right), the Scripture for the liturgy of Candlemas or Purification Day since the 4th century (see Gregory DiPippo’s notes at www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2015/02/liturgical-notes-on-purification-of.html for details).
In the oldest surviving record of a Catholic pilgrimage, the intrepid Spanish nun Egeria writes (circa 381) how “All the priests in Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on February 14 ..., and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Simeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which his parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.”
Of this event, St. Ephrem (d. 373) wrote in his “Homily on Our Lord” that “Simeon the priest, when he took Him up in his arms to present Him before God, understood as he saw Him that He was not presenting Him, but was being himself presented.”
That Simeon himself is the one presented to the Lord instead of the other way around explains the depth and meaning of the episode itself and in particular the Canticle of Simeon that is central to the Gospel for this February day. “For the Son was not presented by the servant to His Father, but the servant was presented by the Son to his Lord,” from whom Simeon now says “Dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, in peace ... for mine own eyes hath seen thy salvation, ... a light to reveal Thee to the nations.”
As one gazes at this scene gleaming in sculpted white marble in the morning sun and then turns upward to the image of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem when he once and for all re-enters the temple, one cannot help but reflect with William Durandus (d. 1296) on the feast called “the meeting,” because in this February solemnity “Anna the prophetess and Simeon met the blessed Mary as she came into the temple to offer her Son [whose] coming into the Church [signifies his coming] into the mind of each faithful soul, which is a spiritual temple.”
Such reflections, arising from this image of Simeon reading the Prophets and then rising to “accept” the blessing Christ who here enters humanity through the “doorway” of the temple, are inspired and sustained by the silent power of this image at the doorway of the Orvieto Cathedral –– a living example of faith reached through art.