A Willing Victim from His Birth
A New Way
Commentary by Timothy Verdon
This painting of the Pisan school shows Mary indicating the Christ Child with her right hand. She is thus a Madonna Hodegetria, a Madonna who indicates the ‘way’ (hē hodos) which Christ claims to be in his words: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me’ (John 14:6). He would pronounce those words the night before he was crucified, and the ‘way’ in question is thus related to his Passion and death.
A still clearer assertion that Christ’s human body is a ‘way’ also appears in the letter to the Hebrews, when the author states that the Saviour entered the heavenly sanctuary ‘by the new and living way which he opened for us … that is his flesh’ (Hebrews 10:20).
Our Madonna Hodegetria carries all this back to Jesus’s infancy, leaving no doubt that the ‘way’ Mary indicates in her Son is indeed his death. At the viewer’s right, just behind the Christ Child, are four Passion-related scenes to which the Virgin’s gesturing hand necessarily conducts our gaze (reading from top to bottom): The Kiss of Judas, The Flagellation, The Carrying of the Cross, and The Deposition. The entire panel thus illustrates the willingness to accept death that Christ had from infancy on, as reported in Hebrews 10:4–10. What is more, the artist shows the Child tracing a sign of the cross in benediction with his right hand, while in his left he holds a scroll, sign that he is the Word made flesh (John 1:14).
The fact that it is his mother who, pointing, reveals the purpose of Christ’s incarnation, reminds us that from his infancy she knew he was destined to be ‘a sign that is spoken against’ and that ‘a sword’ would ‘pierce’ her own soul as well (Luke 2:34–35).
For This Was I Born
Commentary by Timothy Verdon
This cross-shaped object is a stauroteca—a reliquary for fragments of Christ’s cross—and its iconography, comprising six scenes from the Gospel infancy narratives and the Baptism of Christ, clearly insists on the intimate relationship suggested in Hebrews 10:4–10 between the Saviour’s coming into the world and his later sacrifice of his life on Calvary.
The Nativity, at the point of intersection of the vertical and horizontal arms of the cross, perfectly illustrates the phrase attributed to Christ:
Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired,
but a body hast thou prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,’
as it is written of me in the roll of the book. (vv.5–7)
This is followed by the author’s affirmation: ‘[a]nd by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’ (v.10).
The criminal charge against Christ, recorded on the placard affixed to his cross, was that he had declared himself to be ‘King of the Jews’. In examining him before his condemnation to be crucified, Pontius Pilate had asked him directly whether he was a king (see John 18:33). The positioning of the Nativity at the centre of the cross alludes to Jesus’s response to this question: ‘For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth’ (John 18:37).
The scene of Christ’s baptism is included because, during his ministry, he spoke of his impending passion and death as another baptism (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). The anonymous artist has shown the thirty-year old Christ as a child, however, in order to link this scene too to the affirmation that Christ’s willingness to accept bodily death was clear from the earliest stages of his life.
Sacrifice, No; a Body Yes
Commentary by Timothy Verdon
Bernardino Luini’s fresco depicts the Presentation in the Temple, when Simeon, ‘a righteous and devout’ man who looked forward to the ‘consolation of Israel’, took the baby Jesus from his mother and, holding the child in his arms, called him ‘a light for revelation for the Gentiles’, prophesying the future opposition to Jesus’s message and telling Mary that a sword would pierce her soul as well (Luke 2:22–35). An aged prophetess, Anna, also spoke of the Child on that occasion (Luke 2:36–38). Luini situates these four figures—Mary, Anna, the Christ Child, and Simeon—at the centre of his figural composition in a magnificent Renaissance ‘temple’.
He then amplifies the scene’s meaning in the spirit of Hebrews 10:4–10, showing Simeon in the vestments of the Jewish high priest, among whose duties was that of performing sacrifices of expiation (Leviticus 9:7), and placing the altar of sacrifice right behind the old man. This altar, covered with a clean linen cloth, suggests a parallel between the bloody sacrifices in the ancient temple and the Church’s ‘sacrifice of the Mass’, in which Christ’s body and blood are offered in a sacramental manner.
But instead of the adult Jesus, crucified at thirty-three years of age, Luini shows the new-born baby, whose future death was foretold by Simeon ‘the priest’ and here is visualized in the altar, above which Luini positions a marble ‘altarpiece’ illustrating the sin of Adam and Eve, origin of the human sinfulness which makes expiatory sacrifices necessary.
Finally, in the altarpiece tympanum, he shows Moses with the tablets of the Law, in allusion to St Paul’s assertion that ‘God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law’ (Galatians 4:4–5). Hebrews 10:4–10 states that in offering his body as soon as he came into the world, Christ replaced the first Law with a second, that of self-giving love.
Enrico di Tedice [attrib.] :
Madonna Hodegetria (Madonna Hodigitria), Mid 13th century , Tempera and gold on panel
Unknown artist, Roman workshop [?] :
Enamelled cross of Paschal I (Reliquary of the True Cross), c.817–24 , Gilded copper and cloisonné enamels
Bernardino Luini :
Presentation in the Temple, 1525 , Fresco
To Make the Crucifixion Possible
Commentary by Timothy Verdon
In the Virgin’s womb he assumed a mortal flesh, and in that mortal flesh completed his passion. (Leo the Great Tract. 48.1)
There are obvious chronological and cultural differences between these three works. However, they have similarities of interpretation that shed light on how the passage to which they refer, Hebrews 10 (and especially vv.4–10), was read across the seven centuries of Western Christian tradition, from the Iconoclast controversy to the Lutheran Reform in the early sixteenth century.
The first and most significant is a clear sense of relationship between the Incarnation and the Passion: between the moment when Christ ‘came into the world’ (Hebrews 10:5) and that in which he left it. The placement of the Nativity at the epicentre of Paschal I’s cross (817–824); Mary in the Hodegetria Madonna (mid-thirteenth century) indicating both the Child and his future death; and the proximity of the infant in Simeon’s arms to the altar behind Simeon in Bernardino Luini’s fresco (1525), all illustrate the theology of Hebrews 10:4–10 and remind us of Leo the Great’s succinct formula:
The only reason for which the Son of God was born was to make the crucifixion possible. (Tract. 48.1)
Another common feature of these works is the transversal reading of the passage from Hebrews, which colours various subjects. In the Cross of Paschal I, these subjects encompass the Annunciation (since the ‘reason’ for Christ’s taking flesh was to die in the flesh); the Visitation (at which moment John the Baptist, future prophet of Christ’s sacrifice, exulted); the Adoration of the Magi (for the gift of myrrh symbolized Christ’s burial); the Presentation in the Temple (when Simeon prophesied the future hostility to Christ); and the Baptism (sign of the other, still-to-come ‘baptism’ of the Passion). The scene in the left arm of the cross, Joseph and Mary’s Journey to Bethlehem, recalls that there would be ‘no place for them in the inn’ (Luke 2:7), suggesting the exclusion to which the Child was destined from birth; and the depiction of Christ as a child, in the Baptism, underlines that although this anticipation of the Passion took place in early adulthood it is related to the Saviour’s childhood acceptance of his future death.
The Madonna Hodegetria makes clear how, in the great period of Marian theology and iconography, the ‘sword’ prophesied by Simeon was read as her maternal awareness of the Passion from her Son’s childhood on. The scroll in the Child’s left hand and his blessing right hand reassert once again the bond between Incarnation and Passion (both Incarnation and Passion are the intertwined subjects of prophecy and both are inseparably conduits of blessing). Meanwhile, the improbable maturity of little Jesus in this painting—his intelligent gaze and high, furrowed, brow—suggest the Child’s full awareness of what awaits him. It is moreover useful to note that, reading the painting from left to right, this self-aware Child is seen before the much smaller images of himself as an adult in the Passion scenes at our right, as if to insist that the later unfolding of events depended on his acceptance of death when he ‘came into the world’ (Hebrews 10:5).
Finally, in Luini’s fresco, several additional references point to Christ’s future Passion: the young man with a lamb on his shoulders behind the woman bearing a basket with two turtle doves, reminds us that the doves were an offering for sin, or to purify a woman who had given birth, in substitution for the preferred animal of sacrifice, which was a lamb (Leviticus 5:7; 12:8). The lamb or turtle doves were offered in token of a first-born child’s consecration to YHWH (Exodus 13:1), required by God of the Chosen People in the book of Exodus a mere thirty-one verses after YHWH ‘smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 12:29). The sacrifice of the lamb thus took the place of sacrificing the first-born son, but in Christ’s case the terrible original sense of Scripture would be fulfilled, for he became the Lamb of God. This new fullness of the ancient Law is suggested by St Joseph, in the left foreground—a figure of the Church—who indicates the Christ Child to a woman with an overturned book, who represents the Synagogue. And Simeon’s prophecy of hostility toward Christ is confirmed by the scene in the middle distance, above the youth with the lamb: the Flight into Egypt, when Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus fled Herod’s persecution.
Leo the Great. Tract. 48. 1973. Leo Magnus Tractatus septem et nonaginta, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 138A, ed. by Antoine Chavasse (Turnhout: Brepols), pp. 279–280
Verdon, Timothy. 2005. Mary in Western Art, Pope John Paul cultural center, Washington D.C. (New York: Hudson Hills Press)
_____. 2006. Cristo nell’arte europea, (Milan: Monadori Electa Spa)
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