The importance of the annunciation to medieval and Renaissance Florentines is best reflected in the fact that until 1750 the beginning of the new year corresponded directly to the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25. Leonardo’s Annunciation, probably commissioned for the monastery of Monte Oliveto outside Florence, depicts the initial moment of encounter between Gabriel and Mary, when Gabriel announces to Mary: “The Lord is with you!” (in the Vulgate: Dominus tecum). Mary is seated behind a lectern, which is best understood as an altar, underscoring her priestly role. On the lectern rests a book whose fluttering pages (presumably stirred by the rush of Gabriel’s arrival) are stilled by Mary’s fingers. The 13th-century Meditations on the Life of Christ (written by a Franciscan monk in Tuscany) suggests that at the moment Gabriel appeared, Mary may have been reading Isaiah 7:14, a passage traditionally understood as a prophecy of the virginal birth. The lily that Gabriel holds is a symbol of Mary’s purity.
The transfigured Christ is miraculously lifted above Mount Tabor between Moses (on the right) and Elijah (on the left). James, Peter and John (from left to right) react to the blinding light and powerful drama occurring above them. Raphael is often called the great assimilator of the High Renaissance style, and the work exhibits the expected characteristics of balance, proportion and symmetry. The transfiguration appears in the upper half of the large altar painting (13'4" × 9'2") while the story of the possessed boy (which follows the story of the transfiguration in Matthew 17) inhabits the earthly realm. This is the last piece of art that Raphael worked on before his death on Good Friday, April 6, 1520, at age 37. It was brought from his studio in Rome and placed above his bier during the funeral in the Pantheon. The painting was originally commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici for the Cathedral of Narbonne, France. He established a competition between Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo, a Venetian artist, and Raphael may have included the rendering of the possessed boy to outdo Sebastiano.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti created a profound visual interpretation of Jesus’ presentation in the temple. The viewer’s eyes (along with the eyes of most of the figures) are drawn to the character of Simeon, an older, bearded man, holding the Christ child in his arms. Mary holds the child’s white blanket, but her attention is directed to the child. Two women behind her look at Simeon, the only figure whose clothing depicts movement. Joseph seems to have just stopped a gesture with his hand. Likewise, the High Priest’s sacrificial act is arrested. Just as Luke combined two separate rituals, the purification and the presentation, into a single event (2:22–40), so Ambrogio telescoped two separate elements in the narrative, Simeon’s song (Nunc Dimittis) and Anna’s prophecy, into a single epiphany. While Anna is holding her prophetic scroll (which begins with the words et haec ipsa hora, “at that moment”), Simeon opens his mouth to speak. For Ambrogio, his patrons and his audience, this event was not simply a historical moment preserved in time. The viewer is invited to proclaim with Simeon: “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation!”
The adoration of the shepherds was a very popular theme north of the Alps in the 15th century. Domenico Ghirlandaio learned about the subject in 1483 when Thomas Portinari, a Medici representative working in Flanders, brought a work by Hugo van der Goes to Florence. The Florentines favored the Epiphany scene of the Adoration of the Magi because in medieval Florence Epiphany was celebrated on the same day (January 6) as the baptism of Christ, and John the Baptist was the patron saint of Florence. The birth of the Messiah, according to Luke, has the power to lift up the lowly, the despised and the violent (1:52). The occupation of shepherds may have conjured up an image of a despised and potentially violent group (see Josephus, The Jewish War). However, by their actions these rustic shepherds align themselves with a more positive portrait of the good shepherd—an image already evoked by the mention of the city of David, for David, of course, was himself a shepherd before becoming king. The Christ Child lies before a prominently placed Roman sarcophagus that foreshadows his death and that bears an inscription foretelling his birth.
Isaiah’s beautiful vision of peace in Isaiah 2 is the Old Testament lesson for the first Sunday of Advent. Evgeniy Vuchetich powerfully and evocatively captures Isaiah’s vision in this bronze statue. It stands in the garden of the United Nations, a gift from the Soviet Union in 1959. In the midst of the cold war, the gift was regarded by some as a propagandistic ploy by the Soviets.
Paul Gauguin strove to depict the simple, direct faith of a group of women from Pont-Aven, a rural community in Brittany, France. His style, based on pre-Renaissance sources, is devoid of linear perspective and conventional organization. In the foreground, the Breton women, dressed in their Sunday garb and kneeling in prayer, are envisioning the sermon that they just heard. They transform a common cow into a vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God (Gen. 32:22–31). A tree limb placed diagonally across the expressive red background separates the cow from the struggling figures and serves as a visual representation of the river Jabbok. The Pont-Aven women learn from the sermon that the life of faith can be a struggle. Jacob wrestles at Jabbok and gets both a limp and a blessing.
Rembrandt captures the pathos of the initial encounter between an aged, loving father and his wayward son. The painter’s attention to detail creates the mood and emotional tone of the composition. The prodigal’s head is shorn; his clothes are nothing more than rags; and his left shoe has disintegrated, leaving his exposed foot as a metonym for the tender and vulnerable state in which he has returned. In the shadows, servants observe the scene, and in the foreground, the elder brother watches with arms folded in disapproval over the unconditional grace shown to a wastrel. Rembrandt has telescoped the father’s separate encounters with his two sons into one event. Like Jesus’ parable, the painting is open-ended: Will the older brother walk away from this intimate scene of reconciliation or will he join in this celebration? What would we do?
A woman searches for a lost coin in a dark room. The frantic nature of her search is displayed by the overturned furniture and the clothing strewn across the floor. This painting was the first in a cycle of paintings on parables by the Italian Baroque artist Domenico Fetti. In Luke, the parable of the lost coin is sandwiched between two traditional images of God’s redemptive activity—the “good shepherd” and “the loving father.” Cyril of Alexandria suggests a christological interpretation for the image: “That we then who had fallen, and, so to speak, been lost, have been found by Christ . . . by the Wisdom of God the Father, which is the Son” (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke, Homily 106). By the time Fetti paints the parable, this christological interpretation had given way to an ecclesial one in which the woman represents not Christ but the church: “Who are these three, the father, the shepherd, the woman? Who if not God the Father, Christ, and the Church? . . . The Church searches out like a mother” (Ambrose’s Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 7.207–8).
Mary and Martha are often portrayed as being in conflict with one another during Christ’s visit to their home. Martha is traditionally depicted hurrying around preparing food and drink to make Christ comfortable while Mary sits at the feet of Christ learning. But in this painting by the Florentine artist Alessandro Allori, dated 1603, both women are attentive to Christ and are in harmony. Allori, a second-generation Mannerist who was known for his brilliant color palette, elegant profiles and elaborately stylized garments, identifies the roles of the women. Martha has a tray with glasses, ready to quench the thirst of Christ. She represents, in the history of interpretation, the vita activa. Mary, representing the vita contemplativa, is kneeling and leans toward Christ as she steadies herself on a book (presumably the Bible), emblematic of her studious devotion. St. Ambrose observed: “Virtue does not have a single form. In the example of Martha and Mary, there is added the busy devotion of the one and the pious attention of the other to the Word of God” (Exposition of the Gospel of Luke). Still, Christ gestures toward Mary, a reminder that Mary’s is “the better part,” because actions—even acts of Christian charity and hospitality—if they are to be sustained, follow being. What we do flows naturally from who we are.
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