The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
8 September 2013
We beseech thee, O Lord, bestow upon us thy servants the gift of they heavenly grace: that as our salvation began by the childbearing of the blessed Virgin, so this devout solemnity of her Nativity may afford us an increase of peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever.
Last week I used E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howard’s End and its epigram, “Only connect...” as a way into the thorny issues of pride and humility. I suggested that forging connections across our differences, breaking out of the walls that close us in, and connecting with others breaks down pride and leads to real humility, the sense that we live interconnected lives, interconnected at the core with God, with Love. In passing I also mentioned that Only Connect was the title an important book by my doctoral supervisor, John Shearman.(1) In that work Shearman suggests that the connection between the spectator and a painting or sculpture is an essential aspect in making meaning of that work of art. All works of art exist in relationship with their audience: both their original beholder(s) and those who encounter them again, perhaps centuries later and in a wholly different context. This is the power of art and literature: to engage people in a dialogue about important subjects, subjects that get at the deepest meaning of the cosmos.
One of my favourite paintings—and you hear about these from time to time—is a depiction of the birth of the Virgin by the fifteenth-century Florentine painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio (click here to see image below). It is a fresco painted high on the walls of the chancel of the principal Domenican Church in Florence, Santa Maria Novella. It is part of a series of frescos of the life of the Virgin that decorate the walls of the chapel, commissioned by Medici banker Giovanni Tornabuoni round about 1485. The scene is set in a lavish contemporary Florentine palace, decorated with classical friezes and grotesque ornament. Saint Anne, Mary’s mother, is reclining on an elegant, raised bed, while her servants tend to little Mary and prepare to wash her. Fashionable Florentine women seem to have just entered the room to visit Anne and her new child. One of these women is most likely a depiction of one of Tornabuoni’s own daughters.
This is not the humble scene that we might imagine. The Golden Legend, the widely read medieval book of saints’ lives, describes Mary’s parents as “righteous, [who] walked without reproach in all the commandments of the Lord; ... [who] divided all their goods in three parts, one part being reserved for the temple, one for transient strangers and the poor, and the third part of their own needs and that of their own household.”(2) In fact, our texts say nothing of the setting of Mary’s birth nor its exact circumstances. Again the Golden Legend reports that after Joachim and Anna discovered Anna was pregnant, “they adored God and went to their own home, joyfully awaiting the fulfilment of the divine promise. Anna conceived and brought forth a daughter and they called her name Mary.”(3) That is all we get from this highly popular text, the one that takes its source from the principal legendary of Mary’s life. And yet this story has had enormous pull on the imagination of all who heard it.
This left Ghirlandaio and other artists a great deal of room to create images that would further enhance the faithful’s sense of connection to the story. Ghirlandaio, therefore, chose to portray Joachim and Anna’s home as being like that of his patron. He portrayed the holy family as social equals of those who would be the principal audience for the paintings. One could suggest that this was a gesture of flattery on the part of the artist. I would, however, argue against this interpretation. I believe firmly that the choice to portray the birth of the Virgin in a contemporary setting, surrounded by recognisable objects, and people known to the patron forges a real connection between the world of the past and the world of the present. No longer is the story of Mary’s birth a fairytale taken from pious legend. Now is given the stamp of verisimilitude, of reality, of authenticity. It now looks like a birth that a spectator would recognise, perhaps like the birth of his or her own daughter. This is now an event, an occasion, a moment of the sacred entering into our world that looks as if it could have really happened, happened to these very people in their own age. It is a technique that makes the past present and vividly relates the viewer to events that would otherwise seem remote. It evokes a powerful form of memory that engages us in a palpable relationship with the past here in the present moment.
The Nativity of the Virgin which we celebrate today is recorded nowhere in the Bible. It has been, however, celebrated as a feast day for centuries and there is a very ancient line of texts that have been preserved by the Church, while not as scripture, but as sacred, that tell this story. Christians have found meaning in the very sketchily drawn notices of this event. We have found meaning in the story of the divinely ordained, but none-the-less human and earthy birth of a girl who would be the bearer into the world of Our Lord. We have sought to flesh out this simple birth record and imagine it in ways that are meaningful to us today, in our own time.
Perhaps the painting you commission of the Birth of the Virgin would be different from Giovanni Tornabuoni’s. Perhaps you would not have it take place in your apartment, surrounded by your things and your own friends and family. Perhaps you would prefer something different. Make no mistake, however, Tornabuoni’s and Ghirlandaio’s choices were made with the same intention in mind as you would have: to create an image of this long ago event, this event preserved in one or two lines of text, that resonates for us today, that connects us to this story, and shows us that these sacred events happen to real people in real places and take place in real time, take place in history.
It is into history that God acts. It is into creation that God inserts himself and his loving purpose. This is the radical importance of the Incarnation. Mary effected in the Nativity of Our Lord the classic instance of God acting into history, into time and space, and thereby shows us that it is here, in time and space, where it matters how we care for each other and how we treat each other. It is here, on this earth that this girl grew-up to take on such an amazing task and be the Mary who proclaims the profound love and justice of the Magnificat, who bore from her own vulnerable human body love itself, the very self-expression of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Augustine of Hippo, 28 August 2013
1. John Shearman, Only Connect: Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance, A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1988 (Princeton: University Press, 1992).
2. Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings in the Saints, trans. by William Granger Ryan (Princeton: University Press, 1993), 2, 151
3. Voragine-Ryan 1993, 2, 152
© 2013 Andrew Charles Blume