MARY – A MASTERPIECE: ‘The Education of the Virgin’

MARY – A MASTERPIECE: ‘The Education of the Virgin’, an early painting by Diego Velazquez (debatable)

 Today’s painting in consideration is no ordinary artwork. It hit the radar and grabbed the headlines in 2010, heightening public interest and art-politics. The damaged painting titled, ‘The Education of the Virgin’, long relegated to the basement of the Yale University Art Gallery, was reattributed to be the work of the most significant painter of the Spanish Golden Age, Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660). 

Research, healthy scepticism and correspondence followed. The attribution gained international coverage, if not acceptance.  Though the attribution remains inconclusive, the initiation of a discussion on a public platform is in itself alluring. Mirroring the naturalism and the intellectual capacity of the painter of painters, ‘the Education of the Virgin’ does merit genuine research in terms of visual art and faith.

The story of Velazquez life begins in 1599 in the southern Spanish port of Seville. At that time the city was extremely affluent and was the primary port of trade with the new world. It was also a major religious hub employing an army of artisans to decorate its monasteries, Churches and Cathedrals. Velazquez, quite contrary to his contemporaries, was a secular and court painter to King Phillip the IV. His finest mind and his serenest soul embraced life in totality. It is this integrity and fullness that we encounter in today’s masterpiece.

True to artist’ style, the painting is devoid of frills. No landscape, no architecture, no cluttering details. Velazquez sheds off the non-essentials to draw us to the heart of moment. Against the staggering darkness of the room are placed the four protagonists – Joaquim, Anna, Mary and of course the divine messenger who ushers in a heavenly glow that enlightens the minds and the hearts of the protagonists.

In this painting, the artist invites us to traverse far from the ordinary to seek something more momentous and significant. Notice the gestures of the characters. Far from the nuances of the narrative, neither of them appear to be studying the scriptures. Rather they are engrossed in a conversation of glances.

The conversation of glances

In the presence of Divine Providence as the eyes of Joaquim and Anna intertwine, they seem to share an understanding of faith and acceptance. This profound faith is transmitted to their little daughter Mary in a gesture reminiscent of the famous Creation of Man by Michelangelo. As Mary’s index finger meets with that of her dear mother, it heralds the dawn of a New Creation shepherded by a New Adam (Christ) and a New Eve (the Blessed Virgin Mary).

Notice that while Joaquim holds on to a table and to a basket of provisions, Anna daintily holds on to the edge of the scriptures or the Word God. Together, as doting parents, they fulfil Mary’s physical and spiritual needs. Indeed, the painting is a representation of a Holy Family bound by the supreme mystery of love. Joaquim, Anna and their beloved daughter Mary, together resemble a heart that bears witness to the unconditional, everlasting love of God.

Of great significance are the colours of the voluminous draperies of the protagonists. They enhance the liturgical beauty of the painting. While the green robe of Joaquim hails spring, the little rose tunic of the Blessed Virgin delightfully affirms to the virtues of love and charity. On the other hand St. Anne, is celestially clothed in the heavenly colours of blue and gold; her white veil reminiscent of the Virgin’s Immaculate Conception.  

As we move to the immediate foreground of the painting, to our right we notice a cane basket consisting of soft white linen pricked by a needle. This fateful motif prophesizes of the sorrow that would pierce the Virgin’s pure heart during the Passion of her Son Jesus Christ. To our left we encounter two adorable pets, surprisingly muddled together, hushed by a sagely slumber. While the dog represents faithfulness, the pricked ears of the cat stand for prudence and wisdom.

The pets

At the heart of the painting stands the little Blessed Virgin. Quite contrary to popular depiction Mary is not absorbed by her education. Rather she beholds our attentive gaze with innocence, an innocence that treasures wisdom. Mary listens to the Word of God and ponders upon it. She lets the Word capture her being as she conceives the heart-beat of God in her own heart before bearing it in her womb. She questions, reflects and surrenders herself to a greater reality in faith. It is this unfailing faith that Mary seeks to impart as she watches over us through the painting. May Mary’s heart, wonderful and wise, show us the way to Jesus, the living Paradise!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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