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.
10 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshipers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin. 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. 4 For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.
5 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired,
but a body hast thou prepared for me; 6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure. 7 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.”
8 When he said above, “Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9then he added, “Lo, I have come to do thy will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,” 17 then he adds,
“I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.”
18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.