Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Presentation of Mary in the Temple

Bernart van Orley, Presentation of the Virgin,
From a polyptych painted for the Brussels Beguinage
Flemish, 1520
Brussels, Musée du Centre public d'aide sociale

Drawing on earlier writings, like the Protoevangelion of James, the Golden Legend tells us that

“when she had accomplished the time of three years, and had left sucking, they brought her to the temple with offerings. And there was about the temple, after the fifteen psalms of degrees, fifteen steps or degrees to ascend up to the temple, because the temple was high set. And no body might go to the altar of sacrifices that was without, but by the degrees. And then our Lady was set on the lowest step, and mounted up without any help as she had been of perfect age, and when they had performed their offering, they left their daughter in the temple with the other virgins, and they returned into their place. And the Virgin Mary profited every day in all holiness, and was visited daily of angels, and had every day divine visions.”1

Although there is no evidence that any such group of temple virgins existed in Jerusalem the belief that Mary was somehow set aside, even as a child was in existence by the middle of the second century when the Protoevangelion was written.

A feast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary has been celebrated in the Eastern (Greek-speaking) Church since before the end of the first millennium, but it was not introduced into the Western (Latin-speaking) Church until the late 14th century. In the immediate aftermath of the Council of Trent its celebration was abolished by Pope Pius V (1568), but it was reinstituted shortly after by Pope Sixtus V (1585). Currently, the Presentation of the Virgin Mary is celebrated as a memorial on November 21. Since it is based on a non-Biblical source it is not a major feast.

Whatever the fate of the feast may have been, the story of Mary’s presentation and dedication to the service of God has been a significant inspiration to artists and their patrons. There is something fascinating in the theme of a small girl ascending a long staircase, alone, suspended as it were between the familiar world of home and parents and the amazing future that awaited her. And, in the medieval world, where small children were sometimes given to God as oblates in a monastic community, the experience was a lived one for some.

Perhaps most poignant in this sense of the small girl going forth into the future is the illumination from the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry by Jean Colombe, who was chosen to complete the manuscript near the end of the 15th century. Here the tiny Mary is seen in isolation as she climbs the steps toward the waiting clergy, her mother and father left behind. The temple is represented by a Gothic cathedral. The gestures of Anne and Joachim seem to portray both prayerful reverence and sadness. They know that they have vowed her to the service of God and that the angelic messengers told them she would be great, but their expressions suggest that, for all that, they feel the same sadness as any parent does in seeing their little one set out into the world.

Jean Colombe, Presentation of the Virgin
From the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry
French, c. 1485-1480
Chantilly, Musée Condé
MS 65, fol. 137r

Similar emotions seem to pervade the interpretation of the scene by Paolo Uccello in the cathedral of Prato earlier in the 15th century. Here Anne and Joachim stand in prayer to one side of the staircase, while little Mary appears to rush gladly up the steps to the waiting High Priest.  On the right side of the composition some onlookers, clad in 15th-century clothing may include the kneeling donor of the painting.

Paolo Uccello, Presentation of the Virgin
Italian, c.1435
Prato, Cathedral

The vision of Giotto over 100 years earlier shows Anne taking a more active role in the scene. In the fresco from the Arena Chapel, Anne has climbed the steps with the slightly older Mary and, with a gesture that is both encouraging and protective, offers her to the High Priest. Joachim, meanwhile, stands at the bottom of the stairs, along with the servant who carries a basket with their material offering.

Giotto, Presentation of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1304-1306
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel

Fra Carnevale’s 1467 pendant to the Birth of the Virgin reduces the Presentation to an almost unreadable action, set in a vast temple structure that resembles a great early Christian basilica. Mary and Anne appear in the center of the foreground as a grand lady and her teenage daughter.

Fra Carnevale, Presentation of the Virgin
Italian, 1467
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

They are accompanied by an entourage of three other women and two men, as they pass a group of beggars and a dog. Joachim is not included. The building they are about to enter is bustling with figures, predominantly elegantly dressed young men, going about their business or chatting together. It is only in the innermost part of the temple, at the end of more steps (but not a grand staircase) that we can see the tiny figures of the waiting clergy.

In the Tornabuoni Chapel frescoes in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella, Domenico Ghirlandaio similarly sets the action in the midst of much activity. However, his scene is easier to read than Fra Carnevale’s, as it sets Anne and Joachim apart, gives them appropriate clothing and haloes, includes the stairs and makes Mary the center of the painting.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Presentation of the Virgin
Italian, 1486-1490
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

At almost the same time that Vittore Carpaccio was creating the lovely, clear and contemplative vision now in the Brera Gallery in Milan, Albrecht Dürer, in Germany, was creating his image for the Life of the Virgin series of woodcuts.

Vittore Carpaccio, Presentation of the Virgin
Italian, 1504
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Albrecht Dürer, Presentation of the Virgin,
from Life of the Virgin
German, 1503

Dürer’s vision is slightly disturbing. His Mary is shown almost disappearing behind a column, while Anne appears to be completely overcome with emotion. The scene is observed by moneychangers at their tables and sacrificial offerings occupy the front plane of the image.

The culmination of the pre-Trent image of the Presentation of the Virgin is surely Titian’s great painting of 1534, now in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice.

Titian, Presentation of the Virgin
Italian, 1534
Venice, Galleria dell'Accademia
Commissioned for the Scuola della Carità, a Venetian charitable institution, the painting was meant to sit on a long wall pierced by two doors; hence the unusual shape of the painting. Set in an expansive urban setting, the fearless Mary, surrounded by a heavenly light, mounts the stairs toward the waiting High Priest. It is not immediately clear which of the spectators are her parents, but they may be the two people kneeling at the foot of the stairs.  

Just prior to the suppression of the feast of the Presentation by Pope Pius V Daniele da Volterra offered a typically Mannerist composition in which the ostensible subject matter is almost lost in the multiplicity of irrelevant actions. Instead of focusing on the primary actors, Volterra distracts us with multiple unrelated figures that are also ascending and descending the temple stairs, all the while beset by resident beggars. Mary and her parents are seen from a distance only in the upper right corner of the composition.

Daniele da Volterra, Presentation of the Virgin
Italian, 1555
Rome, Church of Santa Trinità dei Monti

Following the reintroduction of the feast paintings on the subject continued to be produced.

The Antwerp Mannerist painter Denys Calvaert, who settled in Bologna, Italy, presents a traditional composition, although with typical Mannerist distortions of proportion and disturbingly tight compression of multiple figures in the compositional space.  In his rendering Mary's role as the new Eve is underscored by the placement of a "relief" image of the Temptation of Adam and Eve in the space at the base of the stairway.

Denys Calvaert, Presentation of the Virgin
Flemish, 1585-1600
Bologna, Pinacoteca Nationale

Pietro Testa's painting of the subject, from the 1640s, seems to represent a combination of Mannerist and classicizing Baroque styles, with its clearly classical figures squeezed into a somewhat contorted space and its fitful, flickering lighting effects.  Here strange figures emerge out of the half-light areas of the image, including the youth carrying the large candlestick.  They may possibly to be read as angels, in addition to the obvious air-borne angels in the upper right.

Pietro Testa, Presentation of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1641-1644
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

In contemporary, classicizing, France, the scene imagined by the 17th-century painter Eustace LeSueur has been stripped to essentials. Instead of multiple actors and much activity, we see an almost everyday scene as Anne escorts her daughter to the temple entrance, as three beggars appeal for alms.

Eustache LeSueur, Presentation of the Virgin
French, c.1641
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

In 18th-century Hungary, the Austrian painter Franz Anton Maulbertsch decorated the ceiling of a portion of the Episcopal residence in the town of Szombathely with a vision that, while harking back to some of the elaborate compositions of the Renaissance, is still simple and easy to read. We can easily identify the High Priest, Mary, Anne and Joachim.
Franz Anton Maulbertsch, Presentation of the Virgin
Austrian, 1782
Szombathely, Episcopal Residence

In late 19th-century Italy Prosper Piatti set his Presentation of the Virgin in a reconstructed space that shows the accumulated knowledge of a century of archaeology and study of middle Eastern culture. It is also the first image I have seen that includes other little girls among the welcoming group at the top of the temple stairs. The glances of Mary and Anne are directed, therefore, not to the High Priest, as in former versions, but toward these youngsters. This is the group that, presumably, Mary is to join. It also, to a certain extent, removes Mary from the supernatural level and places her on the natural level.  She no longer hastens upward to a mysterious, singular future but, like any child on her first day of school, looks to her classmates as her new reality.

Prosper Piatti, Presentation of the Virgin
Italian, 1899
Private Collection
1. The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. First Edition Published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, Edited by F.S. Ellis, Temple Classics, 1900 (Reprinted 1922, 1931.), Vol. 5, pages 47-54.

© M. Duffy, 2011/2012

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