May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—
Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?
Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?
Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Throstle above her nested
Cluster of bugle* blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.
All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.
Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp† are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes‡ wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—
This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.
* Bugle, or bugleherb, is a blue-flowering plant in the mint family. † A group of houses standing together in the country; a hamlet; a village. ‡ Bracken ferns.
In the Roman Catholic Church, May is dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and daily devotions to her are encouraged throughout the month. In many parishes, statues of Mary are crowned with flower garlands at this time.
Though I myself do not practice Marian devotion, I have an immense appreciation for her example of faith and for the role she played in salvation history, and I feel a kinship to her as a spiritual foremother. I also find myself drawn to poems and visual art that reflect on her pregnancy, on the Life growing inside her.
Written in 1878 by the Jesuit poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The May Magnificat” muses on the fittingness of May as a designated period of celebration of Mary. In the yearly cycle of the Christian liturgical calendar, Candlemas, which celebrates the presentation of Jesus in the temple as an infant (and Mary’s postpartum purification), is logically dated to February 2, forty days after Christmas, per Leviticus 12:1–4. Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation (the day on which Jesus was conceived), is celebrated March 25, nine months before Christmas. But why, Hopkins wonders, has the church set apart May in particular for Christians to honor Mary?
He determines it’s because in May, the natural world—at least in the northern hemisphere, where he, an Englishman, lived—is bursting into full bloom, reflecting Mary’s own fecundity, her body a superabundant source of life. In late spring there is a certain joyousness in the air, a “universal bliss,” an “ecstasy.” Mammals are gestating and/or giving birth, birds are incubating and hatching, groves and gardens are flowering, and earth seems to be swelling to a fullness. There is “[g]rowth in every thing.”
Hopkins delights in the wealth of spring, all its flora and fauna. He marvels how the azure of heaven is reflected on earth in the tangled nest of a song thrush, and how sunlight dapples the apple and cherry trees. Perhaps Mary learned gladness from such gladsome surroundings, he suggests. And not only that, but as mother, she shared an affinity with Nature, also a mother.
The month of May culminates, on the 31st, with the feast of the Visitation, which marks the pregnant Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Upon their meeting Mary sang a praise song known as the Magnificat, Latin for “[My Soul] Magnifies [the Lord]” (see Luke 1:46–56). She makes large God’s name, celebrating his mercy, strength, and provision and the impending birth of her son, Israel’s Savior and the world’s.
In October 2019 I had the privilege of seeing the internationally touring exhibition Designing the New: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, whose highlight was a large-scale gesso frieze by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, Charles’s artistic collaborator and wife. It was displayed in a narrow hallway behind a plastic screen, so I couldn’t get a shot of the full piece, but here’s a photo provided by the CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection:
All other photos in this post are my own.
Emerging in the 1890s in the industrial heartland of Scotland, the “Glasgow Style” was the only Art Nouveau movement in Great Britain. “When applied to two-dimensional objects, such as book covers, textiles, posters, and stained glass, the Glasgow Style blended elongated and organic lines, personal symbolic languages, and favored motifs to create otherworldly stylized plant and human forms,” writes Alison Brown, curator of Designing the New. It was developed by a small group of young adult friends known as The Four: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret Macdonald, Frances Macdonald, and James Herbert McNair. (Charles and Margaret married in 1900, and Margaret’s sister Frances married James in 1899.)
Margaret’s wide-ranging output included watercolors, graphics, metalwork, and textiles, but her specialization was gesso, a plaster-based medium, which she used to make decorative panels for furniture and interiors. The May Queen was commissioned from her at the turn of the century by Miss Catherine Cranston for one of her famous Ingram Street tea rooms in Glasgow, where it hung above a window in the Ladies’ Luncheon Room until 1971. (It is now preserved at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.) Gloriously textured, it consists of rough burlap stretched over a wooden frame and covered in gesso, glass beads, metallic leaf, and molded paper. “Some of the modeled plaster shapes bear fingerprints, pinched and pressed into the panel’s surface. The outlines of the figures, trees, and plant forms are ‘drawn’ with brown painted string held fast with long steel pins,” Brown writes.
The crowning of a “May Queen,” a girl chosen to personify May Day and preside over its festivities, is a traditional springtime ritual in western Europe. (If you need a visual, think Florence Pugh’s character in Midsommar . . .) So the title of this artwork is most likely a reference to that. However, I get some serious Marian vibes from the central female figure, which are only reinforced when I view the work in light of the Catholic tradition of the “May crowning” of Mary.
And what a resonant pairing it makes with Hopkins’s “The May Magnificat”! It shows a woman in a strong frontal stance, dressed with flowers, haloed in green, supported by a throne-like backing, and enlarged, perhaps, with child. She’s attended by four maidservants or companions.
This could very well be read as Mary of Nazareth, crowned with beauty, blessed by God to bear his Son into the world.
PHOTO ESSAY:“Advent 2020: Comfort My People”: Community development and relief worker Kezia M’Clelland, a child protection in emergencies specialist, works in areas of disaster and conflict. Every December she compiles a set of news photographs published in The Guardian that year, pairing each with an Advent scripture. (I introduced her in a 2017 Advent roundup.) Text and image amplify each other and prompt deeper reflection on the themes of the season as well as an awakening to global crises and/or injustices. The photos in this year’s compilation include a schoolteacher bringing plastic-wrapped hugs to her quarantined students in Rio de Janeiro, flooded roadways in Honduras following Hurricane Eta, a Syrian family from Ariha breaking their Ramadan fast amid the rubble of their home, a Palestinian boy from the Khan Younis refugee camp standing on a pile of scrapped car parts, the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion in August (caused by improperly stored ammonium nitrate), a protester outside Dallas City Hall in the US insisting that all citizens’ presidential election votes be counted, and others.
M’Clelland adds one new photo for each day of Advent and then releases them all in video slideshow form on December 24. Here are her photo compilations from 2019 (“Good News of Great Joy”) and 2018 (“Peace on Earth”):
SONG: “He Who Made the Starry Skies”: For optimal acoustics, three Bruderhof women from the Fox Hill Community in Walden, New York, trek on over to a silo to sing a fifteenth-century processional carol written by the nuns of St. Mary’s, Chester, in England, a medieval nunnery of which nothing now survives. Both the words and music have been preserved in a ca. 1425 manuscript known as The Chester Mysteries. The original is in Latin (and is titled “Qui creavit coelum”), but singers Alina McPherson, Melinda Goodwin, and Coretta Marchant opt for an English translation. I am providing the sheet music here, courtesy of the Bruderhof Historical Archives. [HT: Tamara Hill Murphy]
He who made the starry skies (Lully, lully, lu) Sleeping in a manger lies (Lully, lully, lu) Ruler of all centuries (Lully, lully, lu)
Joseph brings the swaddling clothes (Lully, lully, lu) Mary wraps the babe so mild (Lully, lully, lu) In the manger puts the child (Lully, lully, lu)
Humbly clad, the King of kings (Lully, lully, lu) Joy of heav’n to earth now brings (Lully, lully, lu) Sweet above all earthly things (Lully, lully, lu)
Mary, ask thy little son (Lully, lully, lu) That he give us of his joy (Lully, lully, lu) Now and through eternity (Lully, lully, lu)
The Bruderhof is an Anabaptist Christian movement of more than three thousand people committed to peacemaking, common ownership, and proclamation of the gospel. They have twenty-eight settlements on four continents, made up of families and singles. Perhaps you know them through their publishing house, Plough. Their website reads, “Love your neighbor. Take care of each other. Share everything. Especially in these challenging times, we at the Bruderhof believe that another way of life is possible. We’re not perfect people, but we’re willing to venture everything to build a life where there are no rich or poor. Where everyone is cared for, everyone belongs, and everyone can contribute. We’re pooling all our income, talents, and energy to take care of one another and to reach out to others. We believe that God wants to transform our world, here and now. This takes a life of discipleship, sacrifice and commitment; but when you truly love your neighbor as yourself, peace and justice become a reality. Isn’t that what Jesus came to bring for everyone?”
UPCOMING (ONLINE) CHRISTMAS CONCERTS:
“A Family Holiday Singalong with Dan and Claudia Zanes,”Tuesday, December 15, 6 p.m. EST: Presented by the Lebanon Opera House in New Hampshire, this multicultural concert will feature Christmas, Hanukkah, or New Year’s songs from France, Wales, Germany, America, Puerto Rico, Korea, Tunisia, and Haiti. You can download the set list, which includes lyrics and chords, at the registration link I’ve posted. Dan and Claudia Zanes are a musical couple from Baltimore (my neck of the woods!), and I’ve really enjoyed the daily song videos they’ve been releasing on YouTube since COVID started. Here they are in 2018 with Pauline Jean, singing “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Hanukkah song written by Flory Jagoda in the 1980s in the Judeo-Spanish language known as Ladino. (Update: Concert video available here.)
ARTICLE: “Making Space for a Multicultural Christmas” by Michelle Reyes: “How can each of us celebrate Christmas at the intersection of our faith and our culture, while welcoming differing cultural perspectives on Christ’s birth?” asks Dr. Michelle Reyes, VP of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and editorial director of Pax, in this Gospel Coalition article. She briefly discusses four different cultural traditions that highlight unique aspects of Jesus’s birth narrative: posadas in Central America, Kiahk in Egypt, parols (star-shaped lanterns) in the Philippines, and Día de los Reyes [previously] in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and other Hispanic countries.
PODCAST EPISODE: “God’s Global Family,” BibleProject:BibleProject, a nonprofit ed-tech organization and animation studio, produces one of my favorite podcasts, hosted by biblical scholar Tim Mackie and Jon Collins. (I found episodes 6–11 of their recently wrapped “Character of God” series, on the wrath of God, particularly illuminating.) “Family of God” is the name of the series they’re in now. In this first episode they discuss how Christianity is the most multiethnic religious movement in history, and how our humanity cannot be fully realized without understanding, appreciating, and being connected to the identity of every other culture. I link to it here because it dovetails nicely with the Reyes article and because I want to introduce you to the podcast, if you’re not already familiar with it, but also because Mackie spends time talking about the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, with its many culturally specific portrayals of Mary and Jesus from around the world.
As you know, diversity in biblical imagery, especially images of Jesus, is important to me, so I was delighted to hear this popular podcast tip their hat to this pilgrimage site in Israel that features a range of visual interpretations of the incarnation. You can view a compilation of the church’s national mosaics at BibleWalks.com. Most of them are not of high artistic quality, but I appreciate the initiative of inviting the nations to contribute their own localized representations. Above, I posted three that I particularly like.
DANCE:“Ave Maria”:Queensland Ballet dancers Victor Estévez and Mia Heathcote perform a pas de deux (ballet duet) to the Schubert melody that today is most associated with the prayer “Ave Maria,” which begins, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” These are the words the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary when he came to announce that she would bear in her body the Son of God. Though I can’t say what this duo had in mind when they choreographed the piece, I can’t help but think, given the music choice, of the Annunciation—the Divine coming to dance with humanity, to partner with her for the redemption of the world. The dancing starts thirty-five seconds in.
VISUAL MEDITATION: “Embodied Joy, Serious Joy: Making Room in the Body and Life for New Creation” by Alexandra Davison: I shared a visual meditation by this culture care leader just last week. In this devotional piece based on Luke 1:41–55, Davison discusses two abstract paintings from Louise Henderson’s The Twelve Months series. In October, “Henderson has a cropped representation of a pregnant woman, her belly bright and fruitful as a melon, shines with what Henderson describes from her own pregnancy as ‘bubbles of life circulating in the womb.’ She magnifies joy from its tiniest beginnings both seen and unseen in the mother and the child.” Reflecting on this ebullient image in conjunction with her own pregnancy experience and Mary’s, Davison ends by quoting an adaptation of the Magnificat by songwriter Marcus Walton.
VIDEO INSTALLATION:Mary! by Arent Weevers: One of the primary images or metaphors for the season of Advent is pregnancy—the pregnant Mary awaiting the birth of Jesus, her belly swelling a little more each day, and a world heavy with expectancy, at the threshold of (re)birth. In 2009, media artist and theologian Arent Weevers [previously] created a gorgeous video installation titled Mary!. “Standing in the middle, a heavily pregnant young woman. Her hair partly covers her naked body to her ankles. She peers past you, with no expression on her face. From underneath, a gusty wind begins to blow, wafting her hair slowly upwards into the air. Suddenly, the woman bends slightly forward, her left arm in front of her abdomen, and grimaces painfully. Losing her balance, she falls sideways out of the frame until only black remains.” You can preview the video here. (Because of the nudity, there will be a content warning you have to accept before proceeding.)
Weevers’s art aims to express the paradoxical nature of the human body—its vulnerability and its strength—and in her role as Mary, the actor in this video exemplifies both so well. Gloriously gravid and standing tall at first, the woman looks into the distance and sees the future suffering of her son. She clasps her belly protectively in response, hunching forward as the painful knowledge of his destiny shoots through her.
MAGNIFICAT SERMON (and sketch): “The Love That We Are Made For” by Bob Henry: Bob Henry is an American Quaker pastor who often sketches in preparation for and in response to sermons. In this sermon he delivered December 11, 2016, at Silverton Friends Church in Oregon, he reflects on the oldest and most radical Advent hymn: Mary’s Magnificat. We are so used to thinking of Mary as quiet and demure, but Henry imagines her as “a strong woman with arms flaring, fists raised, wild bodily movements, beads of sweat forming on her brow, and a strong voice throwing down these words from Luke 1:46–55.”
This characterization is expressed in his drawing, which shows a Black Mary, full of faith and fire, surrounded by the words of Joy Cowley’s “Modern Magnificat.” He says the women of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago, where he used to teach Bible, embody for him Mary’s bold declaration of justice, freedom, and hope in today’s world. He challenges us to sing Mary’s song in our own political climates.
Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
You’re so blessed among women,
and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
believed every word would come true!
And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
Because May is Mary’s month, I thought I’d share some photos I took of various artworks of the Virgin that were on display during my last visit to the Dumbarton Oaks Museum. Dumbarton Oaks is a historic estate, fifty-four acres, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, the former residence and gardens of Robert and Mildred Bliss. In 1940 the Blisses bequeathed the estate, and their extensive collections of Byzantine and pre-Columbian art, to Harvard University, who runs it as a museum, research institute, and library. In addition to housing a stellar permanent collection, the museum also hosts special exhibitions throughout the year, including by contemporary artists. (When I was there I saw the wonderful Outside/IN by Martha Jackson Jarvis.)
The six Marian artworks featured below include paintings, sculptures, and a tapestry, and each originated in a different geographic region: present-day Turkey, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, and Spain. All but the first are from the House Collection, on display in the beautifully designed Renaissance-style Music Room.
Stone carving is an uncommon medium for Byzantine icons. While sculpture in the round was typically avoided by the church in the East, at least for devotional use, relief carving, with its closeness to two-dimensionality, was more acceptable, though still much rarer than painted wooden panels.
In this carved icon Mary raises her hands in prayer on behalf of humanity, a type known as the Virgin Hagiosoritissa (Gk. “Intercessor”). Made before the development of the iconostasis, it was probably originally placed inside a church on the left pillar of the bema, or sanctuary, while an image of John the Baptist occupied the right pillar, with Christ at the top center, forming a group known as the Deesis (“Supplication”). These two individuals are traditionally shown as primary intercessors, flanking an enthroned Christ like courtiers, because they were the first to recognize Jesus’s saving role: Mary in her “yes” to Gabriel, John in his in utero jump for joy.
The Greek inscription at the top of the icon, ΜΡ ΘΥ, is shorthand for “Mother of God.”
Bernardo Daddi was the preeminent Florentine painter after Giotto, who had pioneered a new naturalism and may have been Daddi’s teacher. Daddi operated a large and busy workshop, specializing in small-scale paintings and altarpieces commissioned by the well-to-do for their private devotions. While in this panel he uses the traditional Byzantine gold ground, representing the radiance of heaven, he moves toward the Renaissance with individualized facial expressions and depth in space. I love the tenderness of Mary who cuddles her son’s foot as he looks up at her admiringly, climbing over her lap and clutching at her collar.
“This panel was originally the central unit of a triptych, the wings of which are now missing,” writes James N. Carder. “The Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child sits in the center on a high-backed throne. To the left stand Saint Peter, grasping two keys, and Saint Dominic, who wears a Dominican habit and holds a lily. To the right stand Saint James the Great, holding a staff from which hangs a small red purse, and Saint Paul, holding a knife. Behind each group of saints are two angels, and in the gable is a roundel with the bust of Christ making a blessing gesture.”
This similarly tender Madonna and Child image was made two centuries later by the German Late Gothic artist Tilman Riemenschneider, who ran the largest sculpture workshop in Würzburg, producing an enormous number of religious images for churches. Jesus reaches his hand up to cradle his mother’s chin, his shirt swept back in a breeze, and she holds him with great fondness while also confronting the viewer with a contemplative air. She stands on a crescent moon, probably meant to associate her with the Woman of the Apocalypse described in Revelation 12, who gives birth to a male ruler whom the dragon seeks to devour.
Riemenschneider was “highly regarded in Europe for his technical virtuosity in wood and stone and for his sensitive blending of religious subject matter with a deeply felt appreciation for humanity.” He was one of the first sculptors to abandon polychromy (the application of color to sculpture) on selected works, emphasizing the simple beauty of the sculpted material, which in his case was usually lindenwood (aka limewood), alabaster, or sandstone. A wealthy, respected, landowning member of Würzburg society, Riemenschneider served on the municipal council. His high status and artistic career came to an abrupt halt, however, during the German Peasants’ War of 1525, in which he refused to obey an order to fight the revolting peasants and was imprisoned as a result.
From the French Late Gothic, the Music Room has this beautiful little broken Pietà. A Pietà (Ital. “pity, compassion”) is a representation of the dead Christ on the lap of his mourning mother, but here the figure of Christ is no longer intact. At first I assumed this was Mary in prayer or contemplation, but upon looking up the object on the printed key and finding it to be a Passion image, I can now see that the expression she bears is an elegiac one.
Many Christian images throughout history are contextualized to the time and place in which they were made, and this one is no exception. “The Virgin is clothed in a manner contemporary to the portraiture of fifteenth-century noblewomen, with a simple gown tightly fitted above the waist,” writes Kristen Gonzalez. “A mantle is drawn up over her head, underneath which a veil and barbeile partially obscure her head and lower neck. . . . The Virgin’s gown and mantle appear to have been painted blue and edged with gilding,” as the polychrome traces suggest.
“Small-scale tapestries with devotional subject matter were produced during the early modern period and were prized for this purpose throughout Europe, particularly among the elite circle of monarchs, princes, dukes, and the highest ecclesiastic echelons,” writes Elizabeth Cleland. “Part of the appeal of the scale of these devotional tapestries must have been their portability. They could easily be rolled up or folded and transported with other court paraphernalia from one location to another, thereby accompanying their often itinerant royal owners.”
Furthermore, unlike the monumental tapestries that were often part of a cycle and that were more decorative in nature, these smaller ones were intended to function individually, as single works, and in more intimate ways, for personal prayer and reflection. Dumbarton Oaks’ Christ and the Virgin, three feet square, may have hung in a private oratory (prayer room).
James N. Carder describes the image: “Side-by-side are seen the bust-length figures of Christ as Savior (Salvator Mundi), holding a cruciform orb and making a blessing gesture, and the Virgin Mary crowned as Queen of Heaven and with her hands together in prayer before an open book on the ledge. The lower field of the foreground is profusely ornamented with floral (millefleurs) motifs, and above the arches are a row of Gothic ornaments and a cloisonné-like geometric band that are reminiscent of the tops of French enamel reliquaries.”
Lastly, a painting by one of my favorite artists, the Greek-born Spanish Renaissance painter known as El Greco. The Visitation is a common subject in art that refers to the meeting of the pregnant Virgin Mary (shown at the right by El Greco) and her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. El Greco’s Visitation was intended for the Chapel of Isabel de Oballe inside the Church of San Vicente in Toledo, but it’s uncertain whether it was ever installed. Originally the canvas had a circular outline, but at some unknown date it was cut down on all sides.
El Greco’s initial art training was in Byzantine icon painting on the island of what today is Crete, where he was born and which was then under Venetian rule. At age twenty-six he moved to Venice and learned the Italian Mannerist style, and ten years later he left for Spain, where he spent the rest of his life. Characterized by a spiritual fervor and a sort of proto-expressionism, his works were new and unusual and much sought after. The Visitation demonstrates his preference for boldly attenuated figures caught in strong highlighting, abstractions that “emphasize the ethereal and timeless nature of the biblical world,” says Carder.
One of the most celebrated paintings of the Northern Renaissance, Jan van Eyck’s 1430s Annunciation depicts the moment of Christ’s conception in a world of forms that have weight and volume and shade and texture that was largely unprecedented in European painting at the time. The extraordinary realism of the Annunciation—its deep, rich, subtly gradated colors, varied textural details (from hard, polished gems to soft, fragile flower petals and plush velvet), and intricate play of light and shadow—were enabled by the use of oil paint, a medium that was not widely used then. van Eyck’s “virtuoso handling of the medium . . . represented a turning point in its eventual adoption as the major painting medium in Europe in the sixteenth century,” replacing egg tempera.
This three-foot-tall painting probably originally formed the left wing of a triptych, whose other panels, now lost, may have depicted the Nativity or the Adoration of the Magi and the Visitation or the Presentation in the Temple. It likely spent its first centuries in the ducal chapel of a Carthusian monastery in Dijon, then-capital of Burgundy (van Eyck served as court painter to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, from 1425 to 1441), and has since passed through various other rich and powerful hands, including those of King William II of the Netherlands and Czar Nicholas I of Russia. It is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where it is viewed by people from all over the world.
Several iconographic elements in van Eyck’s Annunciation were already standard for the subject: the dove, the lilies, the Bible laid open to Isaiah 7:14. But van Eyck also introduced his own sophisticated program of typological imagery, which plays out in the background frescoes and the niello floor designs, connecting Old and New Testaments—in addition to other innovative touches that we will explore below.
He was also one of the first artists to locate this momentous event inside a church (as opposed to a portico or domestic space), which would become a popular choice in the Low Countries. In her 1999 Art Bulletin article “Van Eyck’s Washington Annunciation: Narrative Time and Metaphoric Tradition,” Carol J. Purtle argues that van Eyck was connecting the Lukan narrative of the Annunciation with the Golden Mass (“Missa Aurea”), a liturgical drama that was popular in the Netherlands at the time. Taking place yearly on Ember Wednesday (the Wednesday following the third Sunday of Advent), the Golden Mass featured a reenactment of the Annunciation, dove and all, by two young choirboys.
There’s much to lavish attention on in this painting, but I’d like to let three poets be our eyes: Pimone Triplett, Terri Witek, and Peter Steele, each of whom has written a poem reflecting on their encounter with the Annunciation by van Eyck. (The vivid poetic description of a work of visual art is known as ekphrasis, and it is an ancient tradition that I’ve seen explode in recent decades.) Notice what the poets notice in the painting as they pore over van Eyck’s artistic choices and their spiritual import. There is some overlap in their discoveries, but the landing point, and even the emphasis, of each poem is unique.
Starts with a stream of gold that’s ridden
by a relentlessly linear dove,
ready to pierce a young girl’s head.
Then, her face, her gaze looking up, out
past the easel and later, past the frame,
eyes raised as if to ask a question. Take
the virgin robe, for instance, which van Eyck has made
to fall luxuriously as a second chance
across the old storyline etched below her.
And, further down, the church’s intricately
strict apse, each floorboard, painstaked as lace, showing here,
David’s lesson in beheading, there Samson’s
tearing down the temple—that history
interrupted by her silken, layered folds:
each blue built up from perfecting the oil.
His favorite signature, “As best I can”
or “As I was able, but not just as I wished.”
Imagine the endless effort: a man
in the distance, deep in the could have been,
who sat before the easel, hours, perhaps,
past his patience for lasting regrets,
flat refusals—the quick-drying water-based
attempts flung around a room.
And how, alone with pigment barrels, chamber pots,
the canvasses stretched, the fire exhumed,
he poured a stream of oil back and forth,
watching it catch the light, change a wooden bowl.
For the sake of making the mundane
seem to marry the mysterious,
her eyes raised—lacquered, slippery wells, caught—
her startled acceptance. Since it’s her choosing
to be chosen that mattered, largest figure
in the frame, the virgin form layered
with gold light, blue, her pale hands open
for the god imagined sick with thin horizon,
and ready to enter thickness now, the body’s
blood, gristle, vertebrae, whorled fingerprint.
The oil spread back and forth. His wrist stiffened.
“As I was able, but not just as I wished.”
So, out to pay the right kind of attention
to detail, as if, in the lengthening
carelessness of cracked roads leading away
from his town, beneath a matted pulp
of the year’s leaves, he wished he could hear
silence taking shape: a weed, say, starting
to split the surface, part vegetal
altar and example of dumb, green change.
Or, say, through the window, a flock of geese
receding, advancing, by turns, as the sky’s gray
sometimes meets the double strength gray of sea,
he might have looked between the shapes,
their invisible lines blooded, some racing ahead,
others falling behind, each filling in, quickly,
empty spaces where the wings once beat.
And still, she looks up, asking to be entered.
So that if she turned away from shadows, wood panels,
chamber pots, winter coats lined against the wall,
he might have looked so far into the difficult
that he finally could believe: behind her gaze,
beneath her brow, under the layers of
shell, salt, finally skin-white, lay the mind
of a mother giving birth to a father
and a son, the flesh—a color, an instant, spared.
Pimone Triplett’s poem explores the physicality of the oil-paint medium, focusing on van Eyck’s innovations in that area and as one who both accepts and transcends his limitations. She refers to the personal motto with which he signed several of his paintings (although not this one): Als ich chan, which means “As best I can.” Even with as advanced a painter’s toolkit as he developed and his great skill, how could he possibly succeed in depicting the holy mysteries?
The physicality of the artist’s studio, too, comments on the Incarnation. Christ came into a world of chamber pots! Triplett describes Jesus’s coming into human being, his traveling those seven thin gold rays of light into the womb of his mother, where he takes on flesh: “the god imagined sick with thin horizon, / and ready to enter thickness now, the body’s // blood, gristle, vertebrae, whorled fingerprint.”
There are also some lovely lines that touch on Mary’s agency (“it’s her choosing / to be chosen that mattered”; “she looks up, asking to be entered”) and her role as the Second Eve, whose obedience leads to the redemption of humanity (her robe “fall[s] luxuriously as a second chance” over the Old Testament story line told in the floor below her).
I’m not entirely sure how to interpret the last stanza. It’s possible that “father” refers to van Eyck as the father of oil painting: his many Marian paintings in this medium cemented his reputation as such, so in that sense Mary gave birth to him as an artist, as well as, of course, to her son Jesus. Shell and salt were ground into pigments to render realistic flesh tones, and the slow drying time of oil paint enabled artists to better blend colors on the canvas, creating subtle variations, and to develop the painting gradually. But why “a color, an instant, spared”? Any thoughts?
“Take a World”by Terri Witek
The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck, 1434–36
Take a world in which each flower’s an Easter lily
and books chivvy open to the place where our names leap.
Then step into the temple where Mary,
gown belled like a Christmas tree angel’s,
speaks with a real one. Their hands negotiate:
Mary is asking why light curls to ribbony rainbow
on the angel’s back while through her own body
it shoots in stiff gold arrows. The angel nods, grins.
Nothing more gorgeous than their drapery-softened
gesticulation, the room’s blue-propped lilies
and plump ottoman. It’s enough to make us think
they’re standing in the world, two women alert
to the heft of their clothes as Mary asks,
“Who, me?”, her eyes sliding sideways to her painter,
master of distraction. She can’t see Jehovah
behind her, his one blazing window, though we can,
we see the room’s whole depth falling into light
as we wait for someone not transfixed by dilemma
who’s standing where we are. As we wait for Joseph.
Terri Witek’s poem focuses on the paradox of the Annunciation’s being both an entirely thisworldly and yet profoundly otherworldly moment. The two figures in van Eyck’s painting have bulk and heft, and their clothes hang on their bodies, subject to the laws of gravity, and yet in the scene they inhabit, everything is so carefully placed, so perfect—so divine. Witek mentions the stained glass window in the back, which shows God in a mandorla, standing underneath his fiery chariot on a globe labeled ASIA and holding an open book and a scepter; the light that comes through this window and fills the room is thus refracted through him who is all-sovereign.
(Note: The iconography in the window is very similar to the type known as Christ in Majesty, though there’s no cross-shape inside the halo; I wonder whether the figure is meant to be Jesus in his then-future exaltation. But the art historians I’ve read identify him, along with Witek, as God the Father. I think a case could be made for either.)
I especially like how Witek points out the contrast between the pleasant, blended, colorful way light interacts with the angel’s wings and the severe, narrow manner in which it comes diving toward Mary—and humorously suggests that Mary’s expansis manibus gesture is her asking why. This observation unpeeled for me an additional layer of van Eyck’s possible meaning: how God’s coming to Mary was direct and piercing. His messenger, sure, has a soft rainbow glow, but the actual implantation of God in the womb happens with a laser focus that sears Mary in ways that will be all the more keenly felt as the years go by (see Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2:34–35).
I got stuck on the last two lines, though: Why do we wait for Joseph? Isn’t he peripheral to the event? And was he not also “transfixed by dilemma” for a time, as he debated whether to say yes or no to God’s plan? So I asked the poet what she had in mind. She said how, standing before the painting, we, like Mary, become transported into this drama that lifts us up to a heavenly plane (I’m paraphrasing here), where we interact vicariously with Gabriel. We need someone to bring us back down to earth, so “we will be glad of Joseph, the human, the touch of the everyday real,” Witek explained to me.
The room “falling into light” describes the painted scene but also the public gallery where the painting is on display, and the name Joseph also has a double meaning, as Witek’s husband’s name is Joseph. In their museum going, his presence sometimes shakes her gently out of her reveries, reminding her that it’s time “to move on to the next painting, though it might not be as gorgeous,” she told me.
“Waiting for the Revolution”by Peter Steele
If love is ‘the bright foreigner’, then here’s
not Amour himself but still
a follower afire, his wings a blend
of peacock and rainbow, the pearled cope
blooming to crimson on its ground of gold,
his hair a downspill from the lock
of a coronet badged with jewels, the fingered sceptre
a rod of crystal, and the smile
something they practise in another country.
This is not wasted on the woman who,
her hands come up from the shell of a robe
which seems to have been steeped in ocean when
darkness and light were still contending,
gazes now from the blaze of being at
van Eyck, the Duke of Burgundy,
a Tsar made out of ice and marble, or
whoever gives the alms of an hour
in minute-hungry fuming Washington.
Outside, a beat or two of an angel’s wings
away on the Capitol is Freedom,
one of the later products of the Bronze
Age, equipped with shield and sword,
a wreath for some earthly use or other, plumes,
an eagle-crested helmet. She eyes
the status quo from her eminence and murmurs,
‘The past is prologue’, a Delphic saying
which she construes as ‘blessed are those in possession’.
I have been in and out of the world worlds,
amphibious and double-hearted,
and still am. The shimmer of July
speaks now for a perpetual
immobility, bronzing the will. The pavement
beneath woman and angel shows
Goliath down and done with, Samson at grips
with a sheltering enslaving place:
and for some want of the white bird of esprit
that plunges goldrayed into the woman’s mind,
I’m in the middle. They say that she
has her consent to the revolution printed
upside down for easier reading
in heaven. It may be so, but I’m guessing that
the words in their reversal figure
a world swung round upon its axis, the all-
clear given to those in quest
of the bright foreigner who lightens angels.
“Waiting for the Revolution” by Peter Steele appears in Plenty: Art into Poetry (Melbourne: Macmillan Art Publishing, 2003).
Peter Steele (1939–2012), a Jesuit priest from Australia, opens and closes his poem with a phrase from a 1849 journal entry by Ralph Waldo Emerson that says, “Love is the bright foreigner, the foreign self.” Steele interprets Jesus as that “bright foreigner” from heaven, Love, Amour, whose light gives angels their light. Those who search for themselves, he suggests implicitly, can find themselves in Jesus, who created them in love and calls them back into that love that is the ground of their being.
Before moving to this conclusion, Steele first relishes the painting’s fabulous details, especially the clothing: Gabriel’s elaborate, brocaded silk cope, with gold embroidery and green fringe, and Mary’s ultramarine robe trimmed in ermine. He also notes the angel’s wry and mysterious smile, an expression that draws me in every time I see this painting.
He considers how Mary’s eyes gazed out first at van Eyck the painter, then at the painting’s various owners over the centuries, and now at any visitor to or resident of Washington, DC, who stands before it in its dimly lit gallery on the National Mall.
Its location in the United States capital city prompts Steele to contrast it with the nearby monument originally known as Freedom Triumphant in War and Peaceor Armed Freedom, an allegorical figure in bronze that crowns the Capitol building. He has Freedom reciting a famous line from act 2, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest—“What’s past is prologue”—spoken by the villainous Anthony in an attempt to convince Sebastian to murder his sleeping father and thus make himself king; the idea is that his whole life up to this point was merely an introduction to the great story that will be underway if he goes through with the plan. (The line is inscribed on the base of Robert Aitken’s sculpture Future, located on the northeast corner of the National Archives Building, which shows a young woman holding an open blank book and contemplating the things to come.) Steele imagines this saying, in the mouth of Freedom, as bearing the subtext “Blessed are those in possession” (or, in its original Latin, Beati sunt possidentes), a proverb popularized by the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in reference to the possession of power and force.
The two government-commissioned artworks and two quotes Steele’s poem references ping around in my mind as I think about how they relate to the Annunciation. The picture of Freedom as a colossal helmeted woman bearing a sword differs from the smaller, quieter way “Freedom” comes to reign in the Christmas story: that is, as a babe in a manger. And the self-protecting, self-aggrandizing path commended by Clausewitz butts heads against the self-emptying ethic at the heart of Christianity. So does the motivation of the Shakespearean character—treacherous, underhanded—who was the first to say, “What’s past is prologue.” But when considered in light of Luke 1 and even the Future sculpture in DC, this “Delphic” (obscure, ambiguous) saying from the Bard can be seen as alluding to Mary’s position at the Annunciation, at the turning point of history. Mary is fated to act; the past has set the stage for her yes, and for all that will happen next. The New Testament is as yet unwritten—until her bravely submissive response to the angel’s invitation sets God’s grand redemption plan, on hold for four hundred years, into motion once again, and what we call “gospel,” good news, arrives on earth at last in the person of Christ.
In van Eyck’s Annunciation, as in many others, the words AVE GRA[TIA] PLENA (“Hail, full of grace”) stream forth from Gabriel’s mouth in gold lettering, to which Mary replies, ECCE ANCILLA D[OMI]NI (“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord” [Luke 1:38]). Amusingly, van Eyck renders her response upside-down, a device he also uses in the Ghent Altarpiece, presumably so that God can read it from heaven. Steele playfully interprets the inversion as signaling the upside-down nature of God’s incoming kingdom; the world has been turned on its head by Mary’s yes—which is why that yes is rotated 180 degrees!
One aspect of this upside-down-ness is how Mary contradicts the aforementioned adage, used in diplomacy, “Blessed are those in possession.” In scripture Mary is called blessed, but not because she seizes or owns or controls anything. Quite the opposite: because she relinquishes her right to go on living a normal, play-it-safe life. And because she is humble, God raises her up, and those like her. (She sings about this in her Magnificat.) That’s not at all to say that Mary is passive or lacks agency. She stands actively with open hands to receive grace, to receive God himself, and to gift him to the world. She “consent[s] to the revolution.”
I’m reminded of the song “Canticle of the Turning,” written by Rory Cooney in 1990 based on Mary’s Magnificat and set to the traditional Irish tune STAR OF THE COUNTY DOWN. Listen to an acoustic performance by Katherine Moore:
“The world is about to turn.”
For a further in-depth look at the symbolic significance of the architecture and objects in Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation—including the wall paintings and windows in the background, the nielli in the floor, the footstool in the foreground, and the missing boards in the ceiling—see Early Netherlandish Painting: The Collections of the National Gallery of Art by John and Oliver Hand and Martha Wolff, pages 76–86: a PDF of the entire book is provided for free download by the National Gallery of Art. See also the NGA’s special webpage for this collection highlight.
So much to share today! Be sure not to miss “Psalm 126” by Drew Miller (a new favorite Advent song) and Matthew Milliner’s excellent presentation on the Virgin Mary in art, which opened an exhibition that’s running in Southern California—both below. (If you only have time to take in a few items from this post, those are the ones I’d recommend.)
We should permit the Nativity stories to remain as strange and bizarre and fantastical and difficult as they in fact are, rather than taming and distilling them down to this one nugget or theme of effusive joy. There is effusive joy in that—it’s simply that that’s not the only thing that characterizes these stories. Unfortunately, most of our canon of Christmas carols or hymns tends to focus on what I would argue is only 50 percent of the Nativity stories. Everything that begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah and goes all the way to, say, Anna and Simeon and the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt . . . it really is one whole story that is being told with these subplots.
I would love to see us create . . . new music that either retells portions that we are already telling but not the whole of it, or we need to tell parts that have not yet been told. . . . Let’s ask ourselves how God is at work in all the minor-key or difficult or dissonant parts of the Nativity stories, not absent from—those are not extraneous to God incarnating himself in Jesus Christ. Those are essential parts of it. And so how can our hymns become ways of praying ourselves into these stories so they can sink deeply into the fibers of our hearts and minds and bodies, and for us to say, “Oh, all the weird and difficult and dissonant parts of our lives are part and parcel of God’s good work,” not, again, on the margins of it, or things we should eschew.
To help deepen and expand the church’s repertoire of Christmas music, Taylor founded, along with a few others, the Christmas Songwriters Project. The Psalms are an inspiration in this task, as they express a joy that is at times quiet and at others raucous, as in the Nativity narratives, and that exists as part of a dynamic constellation of emotions and postures that praise can encompass. Most of us don’t recognize the pure, undistilled happiness that is marketed to us throughout December, Taylor says, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to try to feel it but rather should take a cue from the Psalms and also see the same emotional complexity at work at the beginning of the Gospels:
The Psalms, and I think Christian faith at its heart, can make space for joy and sorrow to exist alongside each other in a way that happiness, as we commonly understand it, cannot, or only with great difficulty. . . . What the psalms of praise do . . . is that in one movement, there’s this effusive joy or a shouting joy or a convivial joy, and then it segues to a quieter joy or a contemplative joy or a yearning, painful kind of joy. . . .
So in the season of Advent, when we look at the characters in scripture—you know, Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and the shepherds and Anna and Simeon—every one of them has this moment, perhaps, of which we could say, “That sounds like joy.” . . . But immediately before or immediately after, it transitions to something else. So does that mean that joy is negated? Is joy squashed? Is joy extinguished? Or is joy able to continue to exist side by side, to subsist, with a continued experience of longing or a sudden moment of sadness?
ART BY SCOTT ERICKSON: This month Portland-based artist Scott Erickson has been posting on Instagram Advent-themed images he has made, along with thoughtful meditations. Some emphasize the bodiliness of the Incarnation, which often gets overlooked, presumably out of a sense of propriety. But “grace comes to us floating in embryonic fluid . . . embedded in the uterine wall of a Middle Eastern teenage woman,” Erickson writes about With Us – With Child, to which one Instagrammer responded, “This is trajectory changing. Thank you for this. Nipples, vaginas, and Jesus CAN coexist!” Another mentioned how she had never seen Mary with a belly button and a linea nigra before. The image reminds us that Jesus was indeed “born of woman” (Gal. 4:4).
Another imaginative image suggests that Christ came to set the world on fire, so to speak. God, who is of old, gives himself to earth as a Jewish babe (“Love has always been FOR GIVENESS,” Erickson writes), sparking a revolution.
LECTIONARY POEMS FOR ADVENT: This year Englewood Review of Books launched a new feature on their website: a weekly post of four to six poems that resonate with the Revised Common Lectionary readings for that week. “We will offer here a broad selection of classic and contemporary poems from diverse poets that stir our imaginations with thoughts of how the biblical text speaks to us in the twenty-first century. We hope that these poems will be fruitful not only for preachers who will be preaching these texts on the coming Sunday, but also for church members in the pews, as a way to prime our minds for encountering the biblical texts.” I’m really enjoying these stellar selections, several of which are new to me.
Mary gave her son everything she had—body, mind, and soul. These three served as the seedbed of his maturation. She surrendered her womb, where Jesus progressed through the various stages of embryonic and fetal development as he took in the nutrients supplied by her blood. Once born, she gave him her body’s milk, and often forwent sleep to attend to his cries, a deprivation all mothers have known. But her provision was more than physical. She also nurtured, with the help of Joseph, his intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth, fulfilling as best she could her parental calling.
O’Donnell’s poem juxtaposes the deity of Christ—in particular, his role as Creator and Sustainer of the universe—with his humanity, highlighting how he is one who both shapes and was shaped. He chose the color of each and every flower, he programmed the angular speed of Earth’s rotation and its atmospheric circulation patterns, he wrote the laws of thermodynamics, he makes energy-rich grain to grow under his vast expanse of sky, and he conducts the choir of Nature: makes the stars to sing in soft duet with the twilight, then cues in the wild avian melodies of the morning. Monumental feats—all these. Testaments to his mastery and might.
And yet as the incarnate boychild Jesus of Nazareth, he sat at his mother’s knee, learning from her the sacred stories of his people, and how to address the Father they had in common (albeit in different senses).