THE CHRISTMAS CANVAS: ‘The Presentation at the Temple’ by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1342)
Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290 – 1348) was a medieval Italian painter of the Sienese school of art. Inspired by the Byzantine and the Classical genre, he developed a unique and absorbing style of painting. Disembarking from the rigid Gothic, he experimented with different kinds of perspectives, physiognomy and the illusion of depth. His artistic spirit sniffs soul through today’s canvas.
‘The Presentation at the Temple’ visually narrates to us an event from the early years of the life of Christ. The painting is housed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. A masterpiece indeed, it was painted for the Chapel of San Crescenzio in the transept of the Cathedral of Siena. The painting illustrates an extra-ordinary interaction of artistic and liturgical details, an encounter between the old and the new.
A presentation ceremony in Jerusalem was accompanied by certain traditional prescriptions. The first: according to the Hebrew law after birthing a son a woman is considered impure for forty days. At the end of this period inorder to get rid of the impurity she has to bring an offering to the temple. The second: Every first born human or animal belongs to God. Thus inorder to win redemption, a clean animal would have to be sacrificed.
In conjunction to the Hebrew rituals, forty days after giving birth, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to present him to the Lord. As they enter the solemnity of the temple, they are in for a surprise. Among the great coming and going of busy priests and anxious people stand the two elderly and devout Simeon and Anna. Simeon leans forward to hold Christ Child in his arms.
It is at this moment that Ambrogio captures the climax. Simeon and Anna, through their prophetic gaze contemplate on the light of God and recognize the Redeemer in their midst. Simeon’s raises his hands thanking God for fulfilling their long awaiting while Anna, the eighty four year old prophetesses, points to us the Messiah. In her left hand she holds the prophetic scroll citing the Gospel of Luke. Symbolically she indicates the Word of God, now made flesh.
These revelations leave Mary astonished. Dressed in a red cloak and blue mantle, she dwells on the mystery of God in her heart. The seamless cloth she holds echoes the shroud in which Jesus would be buried. Right behind Mary are perhaps her two attendants. St Joseph stands at the far left of the canvas, heeding the words of the prophets.
What is highly intriguing is the portrayal of Christ child. Ambrogio was one of the first artists to depict Jesus as a baby. His toes curl up; he wiggles and sucks his fingers. Resembling a new born he peers upwards attempting to gain focus. Swaddled and confined by the drapery he squirms. This depiction of Christ child was a departure from the Medieval and Byzantine traditions where Jesus is often represented as a mature toddler.
It is hard not to miss the pleasing prominence of architecture in this painting. The interior and exterior of the canvas is re-emphasized as a Church. Observe the Gothic environment, the receding apse, the alluring nave, the fabulous Corinthian columns, the starry vaults, the converging marble floor and the exquisite decorative painting. Three angels hold bulbous swags connecting the trefoil ogival arches. The swags signify an abundance of life that is won through Jesus Christ.
At the back of the protagonist is poised the High Priest at the altar of sacrifice. He holds onto the fire two turtle doves, the prescribed sacrifice offered by the Holy Family for redemption. Nonetheless, through Simeon’s words, did Mary realise that it was not the two turtle doves but her baby boy who would prove to be the perfect sacrifice, the spotless victim to save men from their sins? Did she know that her yes would win us salvation?
This absolute obedience to the will of God and the impeding redemption is re-emphasized by Ambrogio through the figures of Moses and Joshua. They stand on the capitals of the two Corinth pillars flanking either ends of the Altar of Sacrifice. While Moses represents obedience and fulfilment of the law, Joshua reiterates the victory and salvation won through obedience. In fact the very name Joshua is derived from the root Hebrew term Yeshua which means ‘the Lord saves’. This also connotes the name of Jesus.
Thought provoking is the placement of the figure of Christ in a mandorla directly above the high priest and the altar of sacrifice. Through this Ambrogio re-establishes the priesthood of Christ, the high priest after the order of Melchizedek. But this High Priest will offer not the sacrifice of turtle doves and lambs but will offer Himself for the atonement of sins. Instead of being redeemed by the sacrifice, Christ by his death would redeem others. This then is the ultimate meaning of Christmas, the incarnation of the Son of God!
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Goregaon, Mumbai
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