All you need to know about Magnificat
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Francesco Mancini († 1758), successor of Carlo Maratta († 1713), enjoyed his moment of glory in Rome at a time when the Baroque was expressing its swansong in the form of the Rococo style. Pope Clement XIV († 1774) purchased this Rest during the Flight into Egypt in 1772 to hang in the paintings gallery of the Vatican museums which he had just founded.
This charming work is inspired by a famous episode, “the miracle of the palm tree,” from the Book of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Childhood of the Savior, known also as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Drawing on tradition—including the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James dating back to the 2nd century—this apocryphal Gospel appeared in the 5th century, and was then reworked and enriched until the 12th century. It should be noted that the miracle of the palm tree is also mentioned in the Quran, Surah XIX, Mary, v. 23. Here then is the story according to the apocryphal Gospel: On the third day of the flight into Egypt, Mary was suffering from the scorching heat of the sun. Seeing a palm tree in the distance, she asked Joseph to take her there. As the Holy Family rested under the generous shade of this providential tree, Mary expressed the wish to eat of its fruit. Joseph replied that the high-hanging fruit was out of reach and, moreover, before gathering fruit, he must go in search of water, for their gourds had run dangerously dry. With that, the little child Jesus said to the palm tree, “Bow down and feed my mother with your fruit.” And the palm tree bowed down until Joseph was able to gather its fruit and offer it to Mary and Jesus. Then Jesus said to the tree, “Stand up again, and make the spring that bathes your roots rise up and flow forth.” And immediately, a spring of clear fresh water appeared.
To this basic story, later versions and the theological imagination of artists added other wondrous elements. For example, the palm tree didn’t simply offer dates, but fruit suitable to this earthly trinity that wished to eat of it. Thus, Gérard David painted a luscious bunch of grapes with clear Eucharistic symbolism. Here, as in the famous painting by Barocci on the same theme, it is cherries that Joseph has gathered in the wicker basket lying at Mary’s feet. For heart-shaped red cherries symbolize the Passion of Christ, his blood shed for many, and his pierced heart. Taking another artistic liberty with the apocryphal narrative, Saint Joseph is not depicted as an indifferent old man, but as an attractive young husband fully assuming his role as head of the family.
Let us then enter more deeply in contemplation of this work. In the background, we find an obelisk and a temple whose presence suggests that this episode takes place at the gates of Egypt. The characteristic trunk of the palm tree forms a diagonal around which the scene is constructed. While an archangel holds the crown of the immaculate conception above Mary’s head, two angel-musicians play a celestial hymn: this is clearly the Holy Family. In her hand, Mary holds a cup brimming with water from the miraculous spring. On her lap, the infant Jesus takes a cherry from his father’s hand. The unfathomable depth of the gaze he shares with his father attests to their mutual awareness of the symbolism of this gesture: it is no less than his Passion for the glory of God and the salvation of the world that Jesus grasps and will consummate. And there is the hand of Mary reaching out, as though to prevent her child from doing something foolish. But this isn’t a reflex of maternal instinct who wants to protect her child from all harm. It is the image of the consecration of the Mother of God who will accompany her child’s every act… right to the foot of the cross and the entombment.
The Rest during the Flight into Egypt, Francesco Mancini (1679–1758), Pinacoteca, Vatican, Italy. © 2021, Photo Scala, Florence.
Little is known about the life of medieval Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev (c. 1360–1430), best known for his icon of the Trinity (represented by the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre). To say what makes an iconographer great is not easy, because icons are not simply pieces of art. In the Eastern Christian tradition, icons have a sacramental function—that is, they are physical realities which mediate grace. Icons not only represent a holy event or holy person, but they also make that event or person present to us. For this reason, icons have particular patterns, structures, and conventions. Just as a priest saying Mass is not free to do whatever he wants, but works with certain rubrics and traditions, the iconographer works within a sacred tradition to bring an event or saint to life. An iconographer paints (or “writes”) within those boundaries to subtly enhance, reframe, or highlight various aspects of the established imagery to help us encounter that event or holy person anew. Rublev particularly excels at inviting the viewer in and overcoming any initial feelings of uneasiness towards an icon’s strange composition. Such a style is fitting for an icon, which is not meant to be photo-realistic, but rather to use the things of earth to reveal the things of heaven; and so an icon has both natural and alien qualities.
Although in this brief essay we cannot discuss every detail of Rublev’s Nativity icon, each element is laden with meaning, just like the liturgical gestures in the Mass. As we become more familiar with the language of icons and accustomed to praying with them, we begin to appreciate them more deeply and they can better facilitate our encounter with God.
The Christ Child and the cave
The central feature of the icon is the cave, in which lies the Christ Child. Although in the West we are used to seeing Christ in a wooden stable, tradition (which is supported by archaeological evidence from 1st-century Palestine) holds that animals were typically kept in a cave, and that Christ was born in one such cave in Bethlehem. The visual connection to the tomb of Jesus, however, is crucial. Situating the cave in the heart of a rocky mountain heightens our awareness of the significance of Christ’s burial in the heart of the earth for three days (Mt 12:40). Jesus’ death is not just any death, but a descent into hell for the salvation of the righteous dead. This burial imagery is reinforced by the swaddling clothes of Christ, which resemble burial bindings, and the manger, which is depicted as a stone sarcophagus. The star of Bethlehem shining out of a cloud at the mountain’s peak is, of course, the guiding star in the Nativity story, but it also foreshadows Christ’s glorification at the Transfiguration and again at the Ascension, icons of which often feature a mountain and a shining light, respectively, at the center of the composition. The three Magi visit the cave, as the three myrrh-bearing women visit the tomb in an icon of the Resurrection. The Nativity icon, therefore, shows us immediately the entire purpose for Christ’s coming: to die for the sins of the world, to descend into hell, to rise again, and to ascend to heaven where humanity can now follow him.
Some prophecies concerning Christ and his mission are fittingly represented nearby. The ox and the ass attending Jesus fulfill Isaiah 1:3 (an ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger). They warm the Christ Child with their breath, a fitting homage for the one who gave them breath. Some also identify the shepherd’s animals as grazing on the stump of Jesse, an image for Christ mentioned at the beginning of Isaiah 11, in a description of the true Davidic king.
The Blessed Virgin and the righteous Joseph
Although Christ is of central importance in this icon, Mary reclining on a red mattress is the most visually dominant. Hers is the womb that matches the tomb (i.e., the cave) and completes a kind of visual circle which is the life of Jesus (birth and death). Mary looks peaceful and contemplative, pondering the events in her heart (Lk 2:19). Her posture of ease evokes the tradition that Mary gave birth without labor pains, free as she is from the curse of Eve.
But why is Joseph seemingly so far off? In Western depictions of the Nativity, Joseph is usually standing close by Mary, looking on lovingly at his foster son. It is more common in older Western art as well as in the East, however, to distance Joseph from Mary, in order to depict the virgin birth, and to allow Mary to shine forth as the sole source of Christ’s humanity. The old man wearing furs and standing in front of Joseph represents the devil. As the Gospel of Matthew tells us, Joseph considered divorcing Mary quietly when he first learned of her pregnancy (Mt 1:19). The devil represents the continued attempt to sow confusion about the true identity of Jesus. The Greek words “righteous Joseph” above his halo remind us of his great faith in the midst of this event, and despite the devil’s presence. Mary’s tranquil gaze attaches him to the central scene, reassures him, and indeed invites all of us who have doubts about the wonderful news of Christmas Day.
In the icon of the Nativity, therefore, the shadow of the cross and our human doubts seem to coexist easily with the dominant joy of the image: the announcement of the angels both in the heavens and on earth that Christ is born.
Dr. Elizabeth Klein
Assistant professor of theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colo.
Icon of the Nativity (1405), Andrei Rublev (c. 1360–c. 1430), Annunciation Cathedral, Moscow, Russia. © Niday Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo.