Kindly created for us by Professor Rosemary Mitchell.
Lorenzetti’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple
The seasons and feasts surrounding Christmas put a strong emphasis on waiting for God’s revelation. We begin with Advent, a season of waiting – and we finish with Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This is a moment when the fact that the waiting is over, that Christ has come, is acknowledged. In Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s representation of the scene, the passage of time – past, present, future – is integral to the image: we are compelled to take stock of our faith and ourselves early in this new year. We find ourselves in a magnificent temple, modelled clearly on medieval gothic churches and cathedrals in Lorenzetti’s native Tuscany: this would have made the scene very contemporary, very of the moment, for its original viewers. Mary has brought her baby to the temple for the ritual purification of women which was required by Jewish law. This was supposed to take place forty days after the birth of a boy child; it was largely about purifying the mother, so she could enter the temple again. In Luke’s account, the gospel-writer combines it with another ceremony, the redemption of the first-born son, who was regarded as consecrated to God. We see no money changing hands, however, which means that this child remains dedicated to God, in a distinct foreshadowing of Christ’s priestly ministry.
For Jesus’s family, though, the quiet ceremony is interrupted. A devout and righteous man, Simeon, has been told by the Holy Spirit that he will not die until he has seen the Messiah, the king for whom the Jewish community were waiting. Guided by the Spirit into the temple, he meets the holy family, takes the baby Jesus in his arms, and praises God. This is the moment depicted in Lorenzetti’s painting. Simeon’s song, known as the ‘Nunc Dimittis’, is rendered beautifully in the words of the Book of Common Prayer: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; to be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel’. This is the inspiration for the central rite of Candlemas – the lighting of candles to remind ourselves of the light that is shining in the darkness to show everyone the way to God.
But Simeon’s is not the only surprise appearance in the painting. An elderly prophet called Anna who spends most of her time worshipping God in the temple is already present there, and she joins the party too. She appears to the right of Simeon, holding a scroll with the Latin text of Luke 2: 38, which describes her response to her encounter with the infant Christ. ‘At that moment, she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’.
Simeon and Anna are both devout Jewish people who have been praying and waiting for the revelation of God, the Messiah, for a long time. Lorenzetti makes us reflect on the long period of waiting among the Jewish community, and to see how Jesus is the final fulfilment of the Israelite’s ancient relationship with God, of the law and the prophets. At the top of the painting we see the figures of Moses, the great law-giver of the Old Testament, and the prophet Malachi, whose brief book is the last prophetic text of the Hebrew scriptures. Each – like Anna – is bearing a scroll. Moses’s scroll carries a quotation from chapter 12 of Leviticus, which describes the purification ritual, and the animal sacrifices required as part of it. It’s a carefully chosen verse: ‘If she [the mother] cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons …’. The painting shows the two doves or pigeons on the altar, with a priest standing ready with a knife: Mary and Joseph are clearly not rich enough to afford a lamb! But nevertheless, unknowingly, they are bringing a lamb for sacrifice: Jesus himself, the Lamb of God. So the verse makes us not only think of the Israelite past, the age of the law and the prophets, but also the future of Christ’s redemptive death upon the Cross. The prophet Malachi also carries a significant scroll. The quotation here is from the book of Malachi 3:1: ‘See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the LORD whom you seek will suddenly appear in his temple’. In other words – and here he is! This verse points to the dramatic present in which God has appeared in his temple in the form of the baby Jesus right now.
The painting makes us look back over the long period during the Israelites have been waiting for the Messiah, the long-expected king. Jesus is the fulfilment of the law and the prophets, God’s final revelation of himself to his chosen people. But it also makes us look forward to the sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the cross, and to Christ’s final triumph as ruler of all. Above the main arch, we see a representation which is surely Christ in glory, attended by angels, and blessing us all – it is modelled on the Byzantine image of Christ Pantocrator, the one who sustains and rules over everything. Here is God transcendent and omnipotent. But nevertheless, our eyes tend to focus on the baby, who is unusually realistic for a holy child in a medieval painting. He has unfocused eyes, he sucks his fingers and he has plump, fidgety, rosy toes. In the present, here and now, this is Jesus, a very human baby, God with us, in the dark days of February.
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