All you need to know about Magnificat
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Giovanni Ambrogio Bevilacqua was a painter from Lombardy (in northern Italy) during the High Renaissance. He was active at more or less the same time as Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) but, unlike his famous contemporary, did not jump with both feet into the artistic revival, applying himself instead to achieving a nice synthesis between realism and symbolism, between Renaissance contributions and the Byzantine, Giottesque, and Gothic elements that characterized Italian art for a thousand years, from the 6th century to the beginning of the 16th.
The work that adorns the cover of your issue of Magnificat is one of the rare remaining examples of an original technique in painting, called Tüchleinfarben in reference to Dürer. The technique consisted of painting in egg tempera directly onto an unvarnished, finely woven linen cloth. This gave the resulting works a very interesting matte texture, but they proved to be fragile and did not withstand the ravages of time well. This technique was used mainly because it was much more economical and practical than painting on coated wood panels. It later disappeared with the advent of oil painting on thicker and prepared linen canvas.
From the heights of heaven, God the Father, emerging from the cloud with an army of cherubim, leans down toward mankind on earth. In front of him, the choir of angels sings the celestial hymn: Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in Terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. “Glory to God in the highest Heavens, and on Earth peace to men, on them His favor rests.”
The celestial worshippers are turned toward the earth!
What is happening, then, on earth? These angels, whose eternal mission is to praise God, are not turned toward him in the highest heavens, but toward the lowest point on earth, plainly contemplating the smallest, most helpless, most naked of the children of men! And on earth, she who is blessed among all women, far from raising her eyes toward heaven, is devoted entirely—O unfathomable mystery—to adoring this newborn child! Her child, certainly, because echoing the song of the angels, her immaculate robe is embroidered in gold with the word “peace.” Now Scripture proclaims that she will be the mother of the Prince of Peace.
And behold, the Almighty takes no offense at the fact that the angels and their queen adore the lowly one. On the contrary, the direction of his gaze and his open hands show not only that he blesses and accepts what is happening, but also that this event is the perfect fulfillment of his holy will. In his left hand he displays the key to this great mystery: his will, which is to be done on earth as it is in heaven, is that the created universe should be placed under the sign of the cross, in other words, should be saved and transfigured by his Only Begotten Son, with him and in him.
At the bottom of the picture, the painter gives us a fine text on which to meditate, the Good News that his work announces. He cites the Gregorian Gradual (response after the Reading) for Masses on feasts in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
Virga Jesse floruit:Virgo Deum et hominem genuit:Pacem Deus reddidit,In se reconcilians ima summis.
A branch of Jesse blossomed:A Virgin gave birth to one who is God and man:God restored Peace,Reconciling in himself the lowliest and the highest.
Thus, what the painter intended to show between the thumb and index finger of the Father’s left hand could well be the image of our humanity, which is called to be perfectly transparent to the divinity of him who was born true God and true man of the Virgin Mary.
Merry Christmas, then, even though all this must happen under the sign of the cross.
Mary, Adoring the Child Jesus (1500–1510), Giovanni Ambrogio Bevilacqua (1474–1516), Gemäldegalerie, Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany. © BPK, Berlin, dist. RMN-GP / Elke Estel / Hans Peter Klut.
In Raphael’s famous School of Athens (c. 1510), the two philosophers at the focal center of the fresco point the viewer in different directions: Plato points up, to the spiritual world beyond what the eye can see, and Aristotle points down, to the material world open to the senses. The host of other figures in the image are all engaged in answering the question their gestures pose: to understand the world, do we begin by looking up, or by looking down?
Some two centuries later, an anonymous painter in Peru thought about this either/or question and decided to answer it: yes. To understand the world, he says, we can’t just look up or just look down—we look to Jesus, the one mediator between God and men (1 Tm 2:5) in whom heaven and earth meet.
Looking to Jesus
One glance at this masterpiece of early modern Peruvian art makes it clear who is at the center of the action: the child Jesus. He is squarely located in the horizontal center of the painting, prominently outlined on one side by negative space to make sure that the eye knows where to go first in this crowded image. But even if the viewer missed it, the painting’s own eyes tell the story: nearly every eye in the image is fixed on Christ, from God the Father and the descending dove of the Holy Spirit, to the cherubic angels in the clouds, to Mary and Joseph, to Saint Augustine and Saint Catherine the Great down in the painting’s lower foreground. And looking to Jesus shows us how to look at the rest of the painting. One hand points up to heaven and the other points down to earth, while his eyes look up to the Father and the Holy Spirit and his Mother at the same time.
Looking up to the Trinity
Following Christ’s hand and eyes upwards shows the dramatic heart of the painting: the Father and the Son gaze at each other in the Holy Spirit. But the painter understands that the love the Persons of the Trinity have for each other is no theological abstraction. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are who they are as an infinite outpouring of love, a communion that neither introduces division nor collapses distinction between the Persons. In the painting, Jesus the Incarnate Son wears a tunic that is identical in color with the Father’s, signaling the communion within the apparent distance between them, just as the Holy Spirit’s co-equal glory becomes manifest in its perfect balance between Father and Son. But the Persons of the Trinity do not keep their love to themselves: the painting shows how their dynamic gaze of love generates light and dark, the earth and what grows on it, as well as the glory of men and women fully alive. To look up at the Trinity is to begin to understand the world They have made for us.
The radiant central column that the painting builds from the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is nonetheless not the image’s only depiction of triune love. The figures of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph physically form a triangle that is completed by the horizontal line of the Holy Spirit’s outstretched wings. The painter shows us Joseph as a new Adam accompanying his wife, Mary, the new Eve, leading Jesus Christ, the perfect and final Adam. Here the Holy Family itself is presented to our eyes as a fruit of the love of the Trinity for the world, and as a living metaphor for understanding that same love. The perfect love that unites Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is made manifest to the eyes in the remarkable golden patterns on their garments, which reflect the Father’s radiant robes without usurping their glory. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph themselves live as a communion of persons—Mary and Joseph pour themselves out in the unrestrained love of their chaste marriage, receiving the infinitely outpoured gift of Jesus Christ’s love. The eternal Son of God did not want to be known as an isolated figure. He wanted to be made known to the world through the communion of personal love that we see most clearly with our own eyes: the family.
This painting is conventionally known as the Double Trinity because of the parallel communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the Holy Family, but perhaps the title Triple Trinity would be more accurate. Following Christ’s hand down to the bottom edge of the painting, we discover that there is yet another triad of personal love proposed for the viewer’s reflection. The figures of Saint Augustine, Saint Catherine, and Jesus likewise form a triangle that visually manifests the saints’ sharing in the love of holiness. Saint Augustine holds his “restless heart” and Saint Catherine holds a heart that is both her own and Christ’s, and their eyes are fixed on him alone.
The painter gives us a subtle and rich visual meditation on the way Christians are invited to share in the divine life. The generative love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit creates the world and human beings to dwell in it, which love in the fullness of time is mirrored in the love of the Holy Family. The Holy Family in turn gives the world Jesus Christ as love outpoured to men and women of every time and place, who are invited to mirror the Trinity’s love in their own hearts. To look at Christ, we have to look up and down at once: and there we see the Double Trinity inviting us, too, to share in the Trinity’s love.
Father Gabriel Torretta, o.p. is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and doctoral student at the University of Chicago, where he studies the history of the theology of beauty in the Carolingian era.
Double Trinity with Saint Augustine and Saint Catherine of Siena, Anonymous (c. 1700–c. 1730), Cusco School, Lima Art Museum, Peru. © akg-images / Album.