Rorate Caeli

Candlemas in Art : A pictorial Presentation - by Maureen Mullarkey

by Rorate Contributor
Maureen Mullarkey

In the Latin Church, Christmastide reaches its canonical end today, on Candlemas. The name comes to us from the ancient custom of blessing candles in church this day for distribution to the congregation. Celebrated in the early Church simply as the Feast of the Fortieth Day, it is rich in liturgical significance and resonant with history. Candlemas is a double feast that binds Christian faith to its Judaic roots in the very act of proclaiming Jesus as a light for the Gentiles and, in the jubilant words of the Canticle of Simeon, “the glory of Thy people Israel.”

Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Luttrell Psalter (14th C.)

We know the story. In obedience to Jewish law, Mary—young Miriam—takes her weeks-old son to temple to undergo ritual purification on the day required of mothers of sons. The Book of Leviticus is firm: “She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled.”

At the same time, she and her husband perform the ancient pidyon haben, or redemption of the first born. It is the mitvah by which “the first born [male] who openeth the womb” is consecrated to the Lord. The biblical demand has the ring of a—quite reasonable—quid pro quo:

Every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem. And it will come to pass that if your son asks you in the future, saying, “What is this?” you shall say to him, “With a mighty hand did God take us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And it came to pass when Pharaoh was too stubborn to let us out, God slew every firstborn in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 13:13-16)

While in temple, the family meets Simeon, an elderly devout who lived with the Holy Spirit’s promise that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah. How he must have haunted the temple, each day a round of expectation and frustration. Finally, the old man meets a couple he has not seen before. In that instant, he recognizes the consummation of his longing in the child they carry. He asks to take the infant into his arms and, with prophetic joy, cries “my eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples.” His exultant prayer is the last of the three great New Testament canticles, after the Magnificat (Canticle of Mary) and the Benedictus (Canticle of Zachary).

Anonymous. Presentation in the Temple (c. 1420). Konstanz.

The Presentation has prompted some of the most delightful images in the long history of Church art. The fourteenth century was particularly generous in engaging depictions of a very human baby—True Man—born for us one stunning day in Bethlehem. Two distinctive features mark the art of the era:
the inclusion of an altar, symbolic of sacrifice, and an obviously reluctant infant.

Bartolo di Fredi. Presentation of Christ in the Temple (1353). Louvre, Paris.

The altar might be set center stage or only glimpsed in the background. It might be liturgically draped or left bare, the hint of a killing stone. Actors in the scene could be as few as three: Mary, her baby, and Simeon. Most often though, Joseph stands by, stage right, with the ceremonial offering of two turtle doves in a basket. Sometimes the prophetess Anna appears, usually on the opposite side. A throng of onlookers—extras—might be brought in for design purposes. What remain constant and prominent are the stylized gestures of an infant naturally resistant to being handled by strangers.

In the di Fredi panel above, Jesus is no miniature deity. He will not let go of his mother’s hand. Clearly, the baby does not want to be surrendered to this unknown graybeard. Similarly, in the manuscript image below, Jesus hangs on to his mother’s shoulder as she hands him to Simeon. The child keeps his back to this stranger, turning his head with a look that is anything but pleased:

Manuscript Illumination (14th C.) Cantonal Library, Aarau.

An insistent tug on the maternal shoulder, so frequent among the medievals, is largely absent from later images. Perhaps that conventional gesture was too quotidian for Renaissance painters. Madonna and child enthroned, madonna and child with angels, a beatific bambino with hand raised in an adult gesture of benediction—these suited Renaissance sensibility more than the homely intimacy of a child gripping his mother for protection from the unfamiliar.

Accustomed as we are to the greater naturalism of Renaissance drawing, we can miss the emotional realism of bodily gestures in earlier art. In this detail of a larger mosaic illustrating scenes from Mary’s life, the infant arches backward to avoid, as best he can, the embrace of an eager Simeon leaning toward him. Simeon might kiss the babe if he could, but little Jesus wants none of it.

Pietro Cavallini. Presentation in the Temple (14th C.). S. Maria in Trastevere, Rome

Medieval piety, so sensitive to the physical sufferings of Christ, was equally alert to the incarnate ordinariness of his domestic life. The Middle Ages did not shy from imagining Jesus toddling about in a wooden walker (surprisingly similar to those in use today), playing on the floor, helping his father at a workbench, or getting in Mary’s way while she tries to knit. (Yes, and she could knit in the round according to a Gothic panel by Master Bertram of Minden!).

This lively fresco below, emblematic of medieval warmth toward prosaic detail, is one of my favorites. Jesus is a transliteration of the Hebrew name Yeshua, spelled Joshua in English. Mary and Joseph named their son after the successor to Moses, a great general who crossed the Jordan, defeated the Canaanites, and brought down the walls of Jericho. Here, the namesake of a warrior experiences a first skirmish—the struggle to get back to his mother:

Giovanni Baleison. Presentation of Christ in the Temple (1492), La Brique, FR

The Baleison Presentation above is unusual in showing Simeon holding Jesus with bare hands. Almost always, he is seen receiving the child with hands covered by his own mantle or a separate cloth. Some art historians attribute this iconic tradition to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, part of New Testament apocrypha, which states that Simeon took the child “up into his cloak and kissed his feet.”

But could there be a symbolic reason, one that derives from the early practice of receiving the Eucharist in the hand? Joseph Jungmann’s The Mass of the Roman Rite records various rules for lay communicants, including the washing or covering of hands with a cloth before taking the Host. Perhaps a liturgist can say for sure. Meanwhile, I like the thought that Simeon, standing bail for each of us, should acknowledge his own unworthiness by keeping his hands under a piece of fabric.

Medieval intuition of the drama of the Incarnation joined the mystical and the mundane with a sympathetic tether. Let us leave the last image in the command of the mystical as it informs a mosaic on a church built in the Greek style by an Orthodox attaché to the Norman court in Sicily. This time, the infant, poised to leave his mother, stretches his arms across the triumphal arch to an advancing Simeon. Wordless, it is a luminous telling of man’s search for God in response to God’s yearning for man.

Anonymous. Presentation (12th C). Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, Palermo

Detail: Left side of the arch