Presentation in the Temple by Bernardino Luini

Bernardino Luini

Presentation in the Temple, 1525, Fresco, Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of Miracles, Saronno [Varese], Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of Miracles, Saronno, Italy / Photo © Mauro Ranzani / Bridgeman Images

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Sacrifice, No; a Body Yes

Commentary by

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.

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