- The Little Office
- 1 Mirror of Justice
- 2 The Saviour
- 3 The First Years
- 4 In The Temple
- 5 Nazareth
- 6 The Annunciation
- 7 The Visitation
- 8 The Magnificat
- 9 The Benedictus
- 10 Christmas
- 11 The Magi
- 12 At The Manger
- 13 Nunc Dimittis
- 14 The Presentation
- 15 Flight into Egypt
- 16 The Holy Innocents
- 17 Life at Nazareth
- 18 Jesus in the Temple
- 19 Jesus at labour
- 20 Death of St. Joseph
- 21 Baptism Of Jesus
- 22 Jesus In The Desert
- 23 Calling The Apostles
- 24 Marriage at Cana
- 25 Silence Of The Gospel
- 26 Start Of The Passion
- 27 Foot Of The Cross
- 28 Jesus Laid In The Tomb
- 29 Resurrection
- 30 Ascension, Pentecost
- 31 The Assumption
The Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin. 1.—The Presentation in the Temple.
Like a budding almond branch on which has fallen the light snows of February, comes the double feast of the Presentation and of the Purification. " The lonely heights of Mary's holiness," on which a Saint Jerome meditated with rapture, are tinged, to-day, like snowy Alpine summits at dawn, with the warmth of maternal love. She knows, this Maiden-Mother of the lineage of David, that she is returning to those who blessed her on the day of her espousals, crowned as a mother only is crowned,—returning to those under whose eye she conned the prophecies, and who are still " looking for the redemption of Israel." She knows they will welcome her first-born Son with unspeakable tenderness, unspeakable joy; but will they recognize the Redeemer, promised for four thousand years, in the Babe nestling to her breast, cradled on her arm ?
What could be more tenderly beautiful, more tenderly joyful, than Mary as she stands before the benign high-priest; while Joseph, her spouse, stands beside her, bearing the two turtle-doves which are to redeem this firstborn Son as, truly, a Son of Abraham ? But the question still rises in her heart, " Will they recognize Him who has been promised ?" when a wave of awe, as profound as her joys, floods her soul, thrills every faculty of her mind, as, moving forth from the deep shadows of the porticos of the Temple, comes the aged Simeon—a man upon whom all Israel looks with a hush of veneration; for to him it [has been promised that he "shall not see death before he has seen the Christ of the Lord." And now he advances to the little group of Mary and Joseph; and, taking the Child into his arms, he breaks forth into a hymn of praise, blessing God and saying: " Now Thou dost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy word, in peace; because my eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to the revelation of the Gentiles and to the glory of Thy people, Israel."
Close upon the steps of Simeon comes the prophetess Anna, giving praise to God, and " speaking of the Child to all who are looking for the redemption of Israel." And the holy radiance of Mary's face takes on a rapture which says: " They have seen Him who was to come!"
Ages on ages have come and gone, eternal cycles have been entered upon; but Mary never has forgotten, never will forget, that moment of holy exultation in her virginal maternity ! It is the voice of Simeon which breaks in upon the trance of bliss into which this double recognition of her Son, as truly the Messiah of God, has thrown her soul,—the voice of Simeon, as he spreads his aged hands over this group of three and blesses them ; then speaks to Mary, still folding her Son to her heart, as if a new inspiration had come to his soul: " Behold, this Child is set for the ruin and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted. And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that out of many hearts thoughts may be revealed."
O brief moment of perfect joy—a joy born of heaven without one alloy of earth, and yet as transient as mortal air could make it!
The delicacy with which this narrative is limned by the pen of the Evangelist, Saint Luke, and the tender significance of this first sorrow in the life of the Blessed Virgin, gave this subject a place in the series upon series in the early catacombs. For, contrary to the impression fixed in the minds of so many even among Catholics, the incidents connected with the infancy and childhood of our Lord were dwelt upon by the Christian artists, who wrought out their pious conceptions of these events on the stucco laid over tufa walls before the year 200, or even 100, of the Christian era, in the underground cemetery of a Saint Priscilla or Saint Domitilla, Pretextatus or Saturninus ; precisely as, in later centuries, the apses of the Middle Age churches were enriched by them to the admiration of our own times.
It was from these series of paintings, especially those in Saint Priscilla's Catacomb, in which he was deposited after his death, that Celestine I. caught the inspiration which led him to plan their reproduction on the Arch of Triumph in Santa Maria Maggiore —a plan carried out by his successor, Sixtus III. On this Arch of Triumph the narrative of Saint Luke concerning the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple has been set in the most delicately tinted mosaic, with a vivacity which delights us. The whole scene is enacted in a portico of the Temple. We see Mary, richly attired, bearing her Infant in her arms, Saint Joseph at her side, standing before the high-priest, who is followed by other priests; and toward them are hastening the aged Simeon and devout Anna ; while doves and pigeons, in allusion to the modest offering of Saint Joseph, are seen in a flock at one side. This is on the upper line of scenes represented on the arch opposite the Annunciation, showing how conspicuously the event shone forth to the minds of those Christians of the fifth century ; all of which is sustained by the importance given to the festival itself.
We find in Martigny's " Dictionnaire des Antiquites Chretiennes," under the head of "Immovable Feasts," that "on the 2d of February a feast is celebrated which, in all the martyrologies of the Latins, is entitled Purificatio S. Marice Virginis, et Hipapanti Domini nostri. By this last title, the Greeks designed to keep in memory the meeting of Simeon with our Lord in the Temple. The institution of this festival mounts to the highest antiquity; is distinctly mentioned by Saint Gregory of Nyssa (A.D. 396), and by many other Fathers, whose testimony is united by the Bollandists; and there are very ancient formulas for the blessing of the candles;" by which quotation we see how much stress was laid upon Simeon's recognition of Our Lord, and, we must infer, upon his prophecy of sorrow to Our Lady.
The Byzantine period has left one of its most interesting compositions to illustrate the Presentation. The aged Simeon, standing on a small dais, holds the Divine Child on his hands, as if returning Him to His Mother, toward whom He is stretching forth one little hand; and the Mother responds by extending her own to Him. Saint Joseph bears the turtle-doves at her side; while Saint Anna is seen over the bowed shoulders of Simeon, her hands raised, as if in joy and admiration.
But in the series of pictures representing the life of the Blessed Virgin by Giotto, in the Church of Saint Francis at Assisi, one of his loveliest groups displays the Presentation. The architecture of the Temple's interior affords an imposing background, with every possible adornment; and the grouping is arranged, symmetrically indeed, but effectively. The venerable Simeon, with eyes raised to heaven in thanksgiving, bears the Child in his arms with exceeding love ; while the Babe leans toward its Mother, who stands with outstretched hands to receive Him. Immediately at her side are Saint Joseph and several persons, old and young, attracted by an incident certainly not uncommon, excepting for the remarkable circumstances attending it; for near to Simeon is the prophetess Anna, who is addressing, most earnestly, another group of thoughtful persons; while one has prostrated herself, with her hands stretched forth toward the Child, as if welcoming the Redeemer of Israel. The whole is in Giotto's best manner, without a trace of Byzantine formality.
From this time, every series illustrating the life of the Blessed Virgin—as the twenty-eight compartments in the sanctuary of the Cathedral of Orvieto, or the series by Duccio of Siena—may be understood as giving the Presentation. The German schools do not neglect it; and Van Eyck gives an elegant version of the story without neglecting a single circumstance mentioned in the Scripture narrative. Most certainly we may expect to see it in the several series painted by the immortal Fra Angelico, not only in his choral books and in the cells of San Marco, but on the presses of the sacristy of the Camaldo-line convent; and we do find it.
The ornate arches of Giotto's interior give place to a long avenue of columns, supporting narrow, round arches, which reminds one of a monastic ambulatory, and giving one also a feeling of the deepest serenity. There are no groups in waiting, no lookers-on. Simeon holds the Child—more than this, presses Him to his cheek; wraps Him, as it were, with his aged hands. One can hear him, in tremulous notes, chanting his Dimittis. The Child does not turn from him, as in the picture by Giotto or Van Eyck, in fear; but nestles to the wrinkled cheek, and His eyes almost close under the soothing pressure of that holy embrace. Mary's hands are raised, not to call Him to her, but as if she had just laid her Treasure into Simeon's waiting arms; and her look is one of peace. At her side, or rather following her, is Saint Joseph with the turtle-doves, a sweet smile on his face; for he hears only the welcome given to the Babe, sees only the love which greets Him.
Opposite this group we see Anna, hastening forward, her hands joined in rapture, declaring the coming of Him for whom all Israel is waiting. It is never quite safe to say where the charm lies in one of the Angelicas compositions ; for the charm is over it as a whole, by reason of the spirit which inspired it. One thing is certain : Fra Angelico could never overlook Mary's part in the prophecy, " A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people, Israel;" followed by those words which never ceased to echo in her heart: " Behold, this Child is set for the fall and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted. And thy own soul a sword shall pierce. 0 Simeon knew, when he uttered these words, that the sword at that very moment pierced the Heart of Mary. Fra Angelico feels this—feels that the tender joy which was so justly hers, as we should say, had been disturbed, never more to rest; and all that sympathy which people of the world, even, feel for a first grief, was in the soul of the Angelical.
Therefore, while he gives her an expression of peace, it is the peace of perfect resignation j the repeating of that word by which she accepted her part in the mystery of the Incarnation—" Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to Thy word."
Fra Bartolomeo was a monk, a Dominican monk; but how differently than to the Angelical this scene came before his mind's eye! The Divine Child, in all His beauty, is held on Simeon's arms; one foot rests in Mary's loving palm, and He looks out on the world with one hand raised in blessing, the other on His baby-breast—an enchanting picture of infancy, and that a Divine Infancy. Saint Joseph bears the turtle-doves most gently; one sees also the kneeling figure of a nun ; another figure, standing with an aureole, may be Saint Anna. Simeon himself is most benign, but his eyes look into Mary's as if he were at this very moment speaking to her of this Child, to be "the fall and resurrection of many in Israel, a sign which shall be contradicted ; " while " the sword is to pierce her own soul also;" for there is compassion on his face, and on Mary's the tenderest shade of sorrow.
In a niche on the wall we see Moses with his horns of power, and a scroll in hand, on which is the command which Mary has obeyed with such simplicity, as if she had needed purification after giving birth to the Redeemer who had saved her, from the first moment of her own conception, from any shadow of sin. The picture itself is one of consummate skill, of the most beautiful technique and delicate sentiment; one on which rests the fame of the brother-monk of Fra Angelico and worthy of San Marco.
In the Vatican Gallery is one of Raphael's youthful conceptions, a " Coronation of the Blessed Virgin;" her empty tomb, filled with growing lilies and roses, around which stand the Apostles, wondering. This picture had three smaller pictures attached to it as a predella, or footstool; and one of these gave the Presentation and Purification under a portico of the Temple, with a vista leading to its very interior. When the still young Raphael went to Rome at the call of Julius II., he must have felt a little like wondering at himself to find that he had represented this event more according to the idea of the old artist who had put it in mosaic on the Arch of Triumph in Santa Maria Maggiore, than like any other picture he had ever seen. It is, in fact, wonderfully like while unlike.
The central group gives us the high-priest, who is returning the Child to His Mother, having " done for Him according to the law." Opposite Blessed Mary stands Simeon; and the eyes of the high-priest, like those of Simeon, are bent upon her with the tenderest compassion, while the Child goes to her grieved, and she receives Him grieving. One little hand touches her bosom, the other is raised as if to console her,—as if He were saying: " I know you are grieved for Me, that I must be a contradiction to My generation, a word to be spoken against. And I, My Mother, grieve for you." Never, in one of the school of Siena's tenderest pictures, was there a more sympathetic look between Son and Mother than in this early picture by Raphael.
I often think this Sorrow, or Dolor, might be made the special devotion of the young. How often I have heard them say, how often when young have I said myself: u If I could only know what to expect ! " Everything in the prophecy of Simeon is vague. The when, the how, the what, utterly indefinite—not even an outline to shadow forth its possible circumstances j lying off on the dim horizon, ready to assume shapes too dreadful to imagine. The first sorrow, the altogether indefinite sorrow, it belongs to the young to compassionate Our Lady with all the tenderness and sympathy so natural to youthful, untried hearts. To carry out this idea, the personages on either side of Raphael's central group are young—at least none are old ; and all seem to partake, by their pensive expression, in this first grief of the Mother of a Babe so lovely as to stir envy in all who behold Him.
So far from giving every attractive example of the treatment of this Dolor in art, we have chosen those only which were most significant as to date or character. The subject has never lost its charm for great artists: for those whose inspirations are drawn from sources rich in associations teeming with thought. In our own age, " The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple " has made one of Overbeck's immortal illustrations, forty in number, which should be the treasure-trove of every institution for the young, pouring over the Sacred Text floods of a right understanding and a beauty-loving erudition.
Three arcades, through which come charming distances, frame in the principal group with its accessories. Strongly relieved against the open sky, stands Simeon, bowed with years, bearing lovingly on his arms the gracious Child, and looking adoringly into His eyes; singing softly, as if to himself, his Dimittis. Two young girls kneel before this seemingly temporary altar on which are offered the oblations of the first-born in Israel,—one bearing the turtle-doves, the other a lighted taper. And Mary, Virgin-Mother? Her hands in the mantle that wraps her whole figure, leaving only the beautiful, tender, virgin face, bending pensively like a lily on its stem, the bright aureole over her head, standing between the whole world, which is to contradict Him, and her Divine Son,—shielding the whole group, as it were, by the majesty of her first Dolor !
We see Anna, the aged prophetess, approaching Simeon, her lifted hands welcoming the promised Deliverer of His people; we see groups of mothers and beautiful children. But Mary sees no one: her first Dolor wraps her as closely as does her blue mantle.