Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted–and you yourself a sword will pierce”. (Lk 2:34-35)
Perhaps some of you have attended a baptism where the infant to be anointed was asleep until the time of the sacramental blessing. This makes one wonder about the baby Jesus at His blessing in the Temple of Jerusalem while He was in the secure and restful care of Mary and Joseph.
Yet there appear to be no artistic representations of the infant Jesus sleeping during His Presentation in the Temple forty days after his birth; in most of these images he appears quite awake and active. There are however, excluding the Presentation theme, some famous paintings of Jesus asleep as an infant. Bellini, Mantegna, and Longhi have all painted lovely works of the baby Jesus sleeping. What all these images show in common is the Blessed Mother adoring and meditating upon her divine son.
We know that the Blessed Mother meditated upon her infant son. St. Luke tells us so at least twice (Lk 2:19 & Lk 2:51). Furthermore, what mother has not found “sleep time” the best time to adore the wonderment of her child? However, after her meeting with the temple prophet Simeon, Mary’s meditations would have been tinged with foreboding for Simeon told her that she, the Mother of God, would also suffer the contradiction of the Son of God, for “you yourself a sword will pierce”. It is this prediction at the Presentation of the Temple, and the Blessed Mother’s consequent reflection upon it, which we examine here on this feast day of the same name.
Thus, we have placed on our bulletin cover a most excellent representation of the sleeping infant Jesus by the Mannerist master Orazio Gentileschi entitled Madonna & Child in a Landscape (1622). Gentileschi was a Tuscan, who moved to Rome, then to Genoa, to France and finally to England where he died in London, once a court painter. He had a daughter, a masterful Baroque painter, Artemisia, who surpassed her father’s imitation of Caravaggio.
In our image, Blessed Mary sits leaning against a broken wall anticipating the fallen Temple (Mk 13:1-2) just as she reflects deeply upon the temple of her son’s body (Jn 2:19). Mary cradles Jesus gently as he rests in her arms and upon her legs. We might just begin and end our meditation here if it were not for Gentileschi’s insight and our present consideration of the words of Simeon.
Gentileschi has painted for us a subtle Pieta; a gentle prevision into the Passion. The head of Jesus is limp and tilted back as in scenes of His Deposition while his feet are crossed as in scenes of His Crucifixion. Jesus is asleep but in a posture depicted when He is taken down from the Cross. This image is tender in beauty, but also in sorrow as Mary feels the first prick of the sword that will penetrate to her Immaculate Heart. She sits after the Presentation in a place of desolation yet wraps her divine son in the gold and lapis colors of her cloth mirrored in the sky above, taking the observer beyond the Passion to the glorious Ascension. This is a sign to us that in only a few weeks we too will be ushered into Christ’s paschal mystery.
-Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services