The cover of the month

Human Love Elevated to the Divine by Pierre-Marie Dumont

Bernardino Luini is best known as the alter ego of Leonardo da Vinci. And, it is true, for a long time their works were attributed one to the other and vice versa. But, in fact, painting on canvas formed only a marginal part of Luini’s oeuvre: he was primarily a frescoist. Since on the one hand most of his frescoes have been lost and, on the other hand, Leonardo’s work has since attained mythic status, posterity remembers only of Luini what can challenge Leonardo.

Thank God, a remarkable ensemble of frescoes by Luini has been saved and is today in the collection of the Brera Museum (Milan). Its theme is the marriage of the Virgin Mary. The element presented here on the cover of your Magnificat dates to 1520. We find Mary and Joseph at the head of a wedding procession following the celebration of their marriage. This stunning work lends credence to his contemporaries’ judgment that Luini’s free and fertile genius had attained unparalleled heights in the art of the fresco, an unforgiving medium that allows for no hesitation or second thoughts. And it is in this that, between the carefully calculated, refined, and subtle perfectionism of Leonardo’s painting and the lively, playful, imaginative art of Luini, it must be said, there lies a great chasm.

The very free naturalism Luini allows himself in depicting the future parents of Jesus is startling, even for this period of the Renaissance when artists enjoyed such great latitude, as evidenced in the nudes of the Sistine Chapel (1512). In a departure from traditional iconography, which represents Joseph as an elderly man, always at arm’s length from and in the shadow of Mary, Luini dares to depict a couple of similar age, one as attractive as the other, who clearly seek to share the joy of their marriage as newlyweds in love. Such is Joseph’s happiness that the smile that enlivens and lights up his face radiates his joy. The gaze he gives his bride is one of the most beautiful declarations of love in the history of painting. Mary’s face however retains an expression of the unique mystery of her destiny. We read there that dimension of interiority specific to her who, rather than displaying her emotions and expressing her feelings, kept them in her heart and gave thanks to God. Yet it is just that reserve that renders her love for Joseph, which we see in her eyes and read on the delicate set of her lips, all the more profound and moving.

With Saint John Paul II, we may go on to contemplate this wonderful artistic expression of the working of the Holy Spirit through which, according to Vatican II, “in Christian marriage, human love is elevated to the rank of divine love”: “At the culmination of the history of salvation, when God reveals his love for humanity through the gift of the Word, it is precisely the marriage of Mary and Joseph that brings to realization in full ‘freedom’ the ‘spousal gift of self’ in receiving and expressing such a love.” 

Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary after the wedding (1520–1521), Bernardino Luini (c. 1480–1532), Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy. © Bridgeman Images.