Luke 2:22–33

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

Commentaries by Roger Ferlo

Works of art by Andrea Mantegna, Duccio and Giovanni Bellini

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Andrea Mantegna

The Presentation in the Temple, c.1455, Tempera on canvas, 77 x 94 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; 29, bpk Bildagentur / Gemaeldegalerie, Berlin / Photo: Christoph Schmidt / Art Resource, NY

Swaddled or Shrouded?

Commentary by Roger Ferlo

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This painting by Andrea Mantegna was probably commissioned to adorn not a church or chapel but a domestic interior. One views the figures in the Presentation story as if through a window. There is a Byzantine stillness here. Mantegna was known for the chiselled quality of his painted figures, often depicted in foreshortened perspective—a kind of sculpture in two dimensions rather than three. The striking verticality of the stiffly swaddled infant directly parallels the equally striking verticality of Simeon’s profile and lengthy beard. Grouped around these two verticals, the remaining figures create two overlapping and geometrically perfect ‘golden sections’—a compositional tour de force underscoring the harmony and joy expressed in Simeon’s song (Blass-Simmen 2018: 42).

The Virgin’s forearm gently protrudes towards the viewer’s side of the virtual window, as do the pillow on which the swaddled child rests, and Simeon’s outstretched left hand. By breaking through the picture plane the artist gives us the impression that his figures share the same space as us. He makes the viewer a direct witness to the action. And the viewer is not alone. Most scholars agree that on the right Mantegna has included his own self-portrait, and on the left, a portrait of Nicolosa Bellini, his new bride. This painting may be intended as a joyful celebration of the birth of Andrea and Nicolosa’s first child, to which the viewer is an invited guest (Rowley 2018: 58–59).

But amidst the painting’s muted colours and strong geometrical structure, this joy seems shadowed by impending loss. The mood is solemn, the emotions inscrutable. Perhaps this is why Nicolosia looks away from the action. The swaddled infant looks away as well, a troubled expression on its face. Those swaddling clothes, so tightly wound, double as a shroud—a hint of this child’s destiny, a harbinger of the cross and tomb. It’s as if Nicolosia knew.



Blass-Simmen, Brigit. 2018. ‘One Cartoon—Two Paintings’, in Bellini/Mantegna: Masterpieces Face-to-FaceThe Presentation in the Temple, ed. by Dario Cimarelli (Milan: Silvani Editoriale), pp. 35-49

Rowley, Neville. 2018. ‘Critical Fortunes and Worldly Vicissitudes in Andrea Mantegna’s Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, Now at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin’, in Bellini/Mantegna: Masterpieces Face-to-Face—The Presentation in the Temple, ed. by Dario Cimarelli (Milan: Silvani Editoriale), pp. 51–61


Presentation in the Temple (from the Maestà), 1308–11, Tempera and gold on panel, 44 x 45 cm, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena; Scala / Art Resource, NY

An Explosion of Colour and Light

Commentary by Roger Ferlo

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In 1311 a huge altarpiece was commissioned from the local Sienese artist, Duccio di Buoninsegna, to adorn the high altar of Siena’s great cathedral. Originally located beneath the dome in the crossing, Duccio’s monumental double-sided polyptych, exceptional in the number and the variety of its panels, and rising perhaps twenty feet above the nave (Conrad 2016: 184), must have stood out dramatically against the black and white marble that still dominates much of the cathedral interior. It would have been an explosion of colour and light.

The entire front of the predella—the horizontal box-like support to the main tier of the altarpiece—was painted with episodes in Jesus’s birth and early childhood, and this exquisite depiction of Luke’s Presentation story occupied the predella’s central position. In the large panel directly above it, the artist installed an immense representation of the Virgin Mary enthroned in glory and surrounded by a vast cloud of witnesses—the famous Maestà—hovering still and glowing like a massive Byzantine icon. 

Small as it is in contrast with the massive Maestà, the Presentation panel at the centre of the predella was not placed there by accident. In contrast with the imperial image soaring above it, the scale and mood of this painting is intimate, personal. A frightened child reaches back to his mother, her hands still outstretched as if ready to take him back. Behind them stands an altar under a marble baldachin, the stonework of its Romanesque arch painted in alternating colours. The pattern recalls the decoration of Siena cathedral itself, but a joyful red has transformed the official Sienese black and white. 

Between the monumental and the intimate, the hieratic and the emotive, these contrasts echo the theological doubleness at the heart of Luke’s account, balancing the joy of Simeon’s song of deliverance (‘For my eyes have seen your salvation’) with the dark warning pronounced just a few verses later. ‘This child is destined for the rising and falling of many’, Simeon will say to Mary, ‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too’ (Luke 2:34–35). No wonder the child—‘a sign that will be opposed’—seeks the arms of his mother, against the sobering backdrop of that glowing altar of sacrifice (Luke 2:33, 35).



Conrad, Jessamyn. 2016. ‘The Meanings of Duccio’s Maestà: Architecture, Painting, Politics, and the Construction of Narrative Time in the Trecento Altarpieces for Siena Cathedral’, PhD Dissertation, Columbia University

Giovanni Bellini

The Presentation in the Temple, c.1460, Tempera on panel, 80 x 105 cm, Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice; Cameraphoto Arte, Venice / Art Resource, NY

A Family Business

Commentary by Roger Ferlo

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The Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini was Andrea Mantegna’s brother-in-law. This work, painted on panel, at first glance looks like an exact copy of Mantegna’s painting of the Presentation (also in this exhibition). Perhaps Bellini admired the painting so much that he sought to learn from it by copying it. There is evidence that he traced the outline of the images directly from the original (Blass-Simmen 2018: 36). But Bellini’s homage to his brother-in-law is also an act of artistic independence—a loosening of the original’s mood and structure. Perhaps we may see in this more a response to the joy of Luke’s narrative than to its shadowed forebodings.

Bellini’s version is wider, more spacious than Mantegna’s. He eliminates Mantegna’s window effect; instead, he places his principal figures behind a simulated marble parapet, stretching across the entire panel. Where Mantegna was a master of line and proportion, Bellini is a master of colour. His colours, though now sadly faded, were originally more vibrant. His lines are more relaxed. There is more room to breathe. Mary’s features are softer, Simeon’s less rigid. Even though the viewer is kept at a distance by that marble parapet, Bellini brings the central encounter right up to the picture plane. Mary’s forearm, the corner of the cushion, and Simeon’s welcoming hands come close to the viewer’s side of the parapet.

Bellini’s version seems less and less icon-like, and more like an incident in progress. He preserves the image of his half-sister Nicolosia looking away from the action, but he adds two additional figures, one on each side of the painting. They closely watch the action at the centre, as if to counter Nicolosia’s anxiety. Bellini preserves the infant’s shroud-like swaddling, but Mary seems more willing to let the child go. She has slightly relaxed her embrace, as if now reconciled to her child’s fate. Once that child has been loosed from his swaddling shroud—like Lazarus risen from the tomb—she too will rejoice with Simeon in this resurrection light.



Blass-Simmen, Brigit. 2018. ‘One Cartoon—Two Paintings’, in Bellini/Mantegna: Masterpieces Face-to-FaceThe Presentation in the Temple, ed. by Dario Cimarelli (Milan: Silvani Editoriale), pp. 35-49

Andrea Mantegna :

The Presentation in the Temple, c.1455 , Tempera on canvas

Duccio :

Presentation in the Temple (from the Maestà), 1308–11 , Tempera and gold on panel

Giovanni Bellini :

The Presentation in the Temple, c.1460 , Tempera on panel

An Act of Holy Ventriloquism

Comparative commentary by Roger Ferlo

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Luke punctuates his nativity story with several stirring set pieces: the song of Mary when she visits her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:46–55); the prophecy of Zechariah, miraculously healed of his inability to speak as he celebrates the birth of his son John the Baptizer (Luke 1:68–79); the song of the angels to the shepherds (Luke 2:14); and the prayer of Simeon (Luke 2:29–32). At such moments, the narrative action draws to a temporary halt. These songs in Luke operate much like a Byzantine icon: an image that distils the ‘and then’, ‘and then’ of the biblical narrative into a timeless moment. The viewer contemplates the divine glory as if through a cosmic window. Time becomes timeless, action is suspended. In the icon, meaning is distilled into line and colour; in Luke’s Gospel, into poetic form and an implied melody.

No wonder Lukan passages like Simeon’s song (traditionally known as the Nunc Dimittis, the Latin text of the opening words) has become so prominent in the history of Christian ritual. When the Nunc Dimittis is sung liturgically, both singers and listeners are witnesses to the scene (like viewers before the icon) and, in an act of holy ventriloquism, virtual participants in the action, taking the part of Mary or Simeon.

One might compare this Lukan alternation of movement and stillness to the alternation between narrative and lyric in a Bach passion. At one moment, the chorus acts the role of the crowd gathered before Pilate (‘Crucify him, Crucify him’, they sing), but then, minutes later, without warning they break into a four-part Lutheran chorale (perhaps originally joined by the Leipzig congregation), reflecting on the emotional impact of the scriptural story in their own lives. Even today, when worshippers sing or hear Simeon’s prayer of joy during an evening service or at a service of burial (and perhaps recall the words of foreboding that follow in vv.33–35), they are thrust (or thrust themselves) into the biblical moment, sharing in—even re-enacting—Simeon’s act of confession and conversion: ‘Now you are dismissing your servant in peace … for my eyes have seen your salvation’.

So imagine what it was like to encounter the dazzling colour and gold leaf of Duccio’s immense altarpiece, glowing aloft against the black and white stonework and the cathedral’s shadowy recesses, like a light to enlighten the nations (see Luke 2:32). You are at once stunned, even intimidated, by the timeless icon-like image of the Virgin and Child in majesty. But then, if you are one of those permitted to draw closer, you realize you are also made privy to the intimate scene of the Presentation, depicted just below. You take in the imploring gesture, so tender and natural, of the Christ child seeking to return to his mother’s arms, the child who is nonetheless the hope of his people Israel. And then, at the rear of the scene, the golden light in the archway invites you to enter into the mystery of the Incarnation, the divine become human, in the eucharistic rite celebrated day by day at the altar below.

On the other hand, to approach Andrea Mantegna’s or Giovanni Bellini’s paintings, displayed as they are today in art galleries framed on a wall or perched on a free-standing easel, is to enter a different kind of space—a space at once more personal (you can be alone with the image), and more intimate (you are at eye-level). Although you are nowhere near a church, standing before each of these works you sense you have been invited into the Temple ritual, the way Luke’s gospel for centuries has moved the reader or hearer of his story to recite Simeon’s words aloud in unison with the prophet. You are present both as a foreign observer, watching through a virtual window or across the barrier of a virtual marble parapet, and yet also as a participating witness in a family event, joining with Mantegna and Nicolosia, and with Bellini’s theatrical extras. (It’s thought that the hovering face of Joseph, central in both paintings, is a portrait of Giovanni’s father Jacopo, Andrea’s father in-law, for whom the painting might originally have been intended; Blass-Simmen 2018: 36).

The brother-in-law artists invite us to enter fully into the scene, empowering us to acknowledge—along with Simeon—that this child, now bound and swaddled, will abandon that shroud in the empty tomb, and that our eyes, too, will have seen our salvation.



Blass-Simmen, Brigit. 2018. ‘One Cartoon—Two Paintings’, in Bellini/Mantegna: Masterpieces Face-to-FaceThe Presentation in the Temple, ed. by Dario Cimarelli (Milan: Silvani Editoriale), pp. 35-49

Conrad, Jessamyn. 2016. ‘The Meanings of Duccio’s Maestà: Architecture, Painting, Politics, and the Construction of Narrative Time in the Trecento Altarpieces for Siena Cathedral’, PhD Dissertation, Columbia University

Next exhibition: Luke 2:34–35

Luke 2:22–33

Revised Standard Version

22 And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, 28he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

29“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,

according to thy word;

30for mine eyes have seen thy salvation

31which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples,

32a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

and for glory to thy people Israel.”

33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him;