Pentecost Sunday

Today we celebrate Pentecost Sunday:

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven
staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,
but they were confused
because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
“Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God.”

Acts 2:1-1

Over the past nine days we’ve viewed images of this event as we prayed the Pentecost Novena. Our final image today is from a magnificent carved Altarpiece with paintings attached to its wings that can only be seen when the Altarpiece is opened for display.

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When I’ve given presentations on the art of the Annunciation, the painting that is most universally admired is the version by the African American artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner (b.1859-1937). People appreciate it perhaps because of its realism, the beauty of its warm golden light, and the humanity and humility with which Tanner portrayed the teenaged Mary.

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

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The Holy Family


Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast
of Passover,
and when he was twelve years old,
they went up according to festival custom.
After they had completed its days, as they were returning,
the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem,
but his parents did not know it.
Thinking that he was in the caravan,
they journeyed for a day
and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,
but not finding him,
they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.
After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting in the midst of the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions,
and all who heard him were astounded
at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him,
they were astonished,
and his mother said to him,
“Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
And he said to them,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor
before God and man.

Luke 2:41-52

Disputation with the Doctors, Duccio do Buoninsegna,

Disputation with the Doctors, Duccio do Buoninsegna, 1308-1311, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena


Duccio’s known works are on wood panel, painted in egg tempera and embellished with gold leaf. Different from his contemporaries and artists before him, Duccio was a master of tempera and managed to conquer the medium with delicacy and precision. Duccio’s style was similar to Byzantine art in some ways, with its gold backgrounds and familiar religious scenes but also different and more experimental. His paintings are warm with color, and inviting. His pieces held a high level of beauty with delicate details, sometimes inlaid with jewels and almost ornamental fabrics. Duccio was also noted for his complex organization of space. Characters were organized specifically and purposefully. In his Rucellai Madonna c. 1285 the viewer can see all of these qualities at play. Duccio began to break down the sharp lines of Byzantine art, and soften the figures. He used modeling (playing with light and dark colors) to reveal the figures underneath the heavy drapery; hands, faces, and feet became more rounded and three-dimensional.

Duccio was also one of the first painters to put figures in architectural settings. He began to explore and investigate depth and space. He also had a refined attention to emotion, not seen in other painters at this time. The characters interact tenderly, and softly with each other, it is no longer Christ and the Virgin, it is mother and child. With this he flirts with naturalism but his paintings are still awe inspiring. Duccio’s figures seem to be out of this world and heavenly; existing elsewhere with beautiful colors, soft hair, gracefulness and draped in textures not available to mere humans. His influence can be seen in the work of many other painters, including Simone Martini and the brothers Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti.


For a meditation on this reading and a lovely prayer by Pope Francis, please visit Integrated Catholic Life.


In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment, 
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth 
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, 
because he was of the house and family of David, 
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child, 
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, 
because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields 
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them 
and the glory of the Lord shone around them, 
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy 
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David 
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: 
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes 
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Luke 2:1-14

Nativity, Giotto Di Bondone, 1305, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy

Nativity, Giotto Di Bondone, 1305, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy

The art of Giotto Di Bondone lies between the flat Byzantine medieval style and the revolutionary art of the Renaissance and he is often called the Father of Renaissance art. He boldly experimented with naturalism, modeling, and perspective; he painted blue skies instead of gold and used other color more freely; he included naturalistic scenery; and he used shading to indicate volume. Perhaps most importantly, Giotto often showed the intense emotions of the moment in the faces he painted.

Giotto painted a scene of the Nativity in the Scrovegni Chapel, also known as the Arena Chapel, in Padua, in a fresco cycle regarded as his masterpiece. The layout in this scene is similar to Byzantine icons of the nativity but the artist has given it his own charm. We see the Holy Family within a lean-to set against a rocky hillside, with Mary, lying on a makeshift bed on a rock ledge, being handed the swaddled infant Jesus by an attendant. We are immediately drawn to the gaze shared between Mary and Jesus, as they stare intently at each other. Joseph is often depicted as seen here, with his head on his hand as if weary from their long journey. An angel announces the birth to the shepherds at right, while more angels fly above, looking up to heaven with their hands held in praise.

Notice the flaking of the blue paint on Mary’s garment and the sky. The patron and owner of this chapel, Scrovegni, insisted that in some areas Giotto overpaint with blue to highlight the extravagance of the chapel, since the blue is a very costly pigment made of lapis lazuli. Unfortunately, though, the technique used, secco or dry fresco, rather than true fresco that bonds with the wet plaster, has led to the paint flaking away over time.

The ox and the ass shown at left are not included in the biblical text, but they are seen in our earliest depictions of the Nativity, such as this 4th century Roman sarcophagus from Milan.


Detail from the "Sarcofago di Stilicone" ("Stilicho's sarcophagus") ca 4th c., Sant'Ambrogio Basilica, Milan, Italy

Detail from the “Sarcofago di Stilicone” (“Stilicho’s sarcophagus”) ca 4th c., Sant’Ambrogio Basilica, Milan, Italy


Nativity, Giotto, 1311-20, fresco San Francesco, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy

Nativity, Giotto, 1311-20, fresco
San Francesco, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy

Giotto is thought by many scholars to have also painted the Nativity scene above for the fresco cycle in the church of Saint Francis in Assisi. We see three scenes side by side that are parts of a progressive narrative. The center foreground shows the newborn Jesus being swaddled after bathing while Joseph looks on from the left, weary or thoughtful. Mary lies on her makeshift bed holding the swaddled infant, upon whom golden beams of light come down from above. At the right, the angel announces the birth of the savior to shepherds, and we have the requisite animals in attendance. More angels above and below indicate that heaven has broken into the earthly realm to celebrate this miraculous event, the birth of God as man.

Though I was first inclined to attribute this work to Giotto, after studying it and comparing it with his Scrovegni Chapel paintings, I’ve come to agree with those who argue against a Giotto attribution. The figures lack the emotional intensity we see in the first Nativity scene; the angels are arrayed quite statically, with none of the lively variety of the other painting; the modeling and scenery seem rather flat. If this was actually painted by Giotto himself after the Arena Chapel, surely he would have developed and refined his technique even further. What do you think?

Regardless of artist, though, in both paintings there is that gaze between Mary and Jesus. In the Arena Chapel image, Mary is receiving her baby into her arms for the first time. How great must her awe have been, knowing that the mystery of God made flesh was there in her loving hands, held against her adoring breast!? Imagine the overwhelming love that swells in her heart as she sees him gazing back at her!

I invite you now to imagine yourself in this scene. Who are you?

  • Are you Mary, staring adoringly at the Savior of the world, this tiny and helpless babe in your arms?
  • Are you Joseph, weary and detached?
  • Are you a shepherd, just hearing the Good News and trying to grasp what it means?
  • Perhaps you’re an angel, proclaiming the Good News for all to hear!
  • Or are you the baby, being held, nursed, and gazed upon with love by your mother Mary?

Choose one and sit with it for a few minutes. Let the experience penetrate deeply so that you can relate to Jesus in a meaningful and personal way. Allow your heart and mind to become immersed in the overwhelming mystery of the Incarnation.

Glory to God in the highest! May there be peace on earth and goodwill among men.

Merry Christmas.

Couple Seeks Safety

Song by Brian McLaren

Not Welcome Here

A couple showed up last Sunday at church
They hoped we could help in their spiritual search
Their marriage is legal but our leaders say
It’s morally wrong so they sent them away and said …
Not welcome here, Not welcome here.
We have our beliefs to which we adhere
It’s a dangerous world. There’s much we should fear
So people like you are not welcome here.

A family showed up at border control
We want our kids to be safe. They said. That is our goal.
We’re homeless and hungry and frightened and poor
And our country is ravaged by hatred and war. We said
Not welcome here, not welcome here
How do we know if you are sincere?
It’s a dangerous world. There’s much we should fear
So people like you are not welcome here.

A couple rode in from some other town.
The woman was pregnant. They both looked worn down.
You know how things are. What else could I say?
I shut the door tight and sent them away.
Not welcome here. Not welcome here.
You know times are tough. Please don’t interfere.
It’s a dangerous world. There’s much we should fear.
So people like you are not welcome here.
Sometimes I wonder how it would be
If the tables were turned and instead it was me
A different religion or color of skin
A refugee hoping to be welcomed in …
You’re welcome here. You’re welcome here.
You’re safe here with us. You have nothing to fear.
It’s a dangerous world, but be of good cheer.
There’s a place here for you, and you’re welcome here.
You can hear the song and read about it here.


Saint Joseph Seeks a Lodging in Bethlehem, James Tissot, 1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum of Art

Saint Joseph Seeks a Lodging in Bethlehem, James Tissot, 1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum of Art


About Tissot’s painting:

In the biblical narrative, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth but must journey to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of Joseph’s family, to be counted in a census imposed by the Romans. On their arrival in the town, Joseph searches for lodgings without success. Tissot contrasts Joseph’s anxious plea—calling up to townspeople in hopes of finding accommodation—with the Virgin Mary’s quiet resignation.

Tissot’s expeditions to the Middle East in the 1880s provided rich source material for his watercolor compositions. The thick masonry walls and labyrinthine alleys of Jaffa, an ancient port city near modern Tel Aviv in Israel, serve here, with minor revisions, as the backdrop of Bethlehem.

The Visitation

Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”

Luke 1:39-45


The Visitation, Mariotto Alberti, 1503, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The Visitation,
Mariotto Alberti, 1503, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Mariotto Alberti’s painting of the Visitation, is considered to be the masterpiece of a relatively minor Renaissance artist. In this work we see the harmony and realism, luminous colors, volumetric modelling of the figures, and architectural perspective of the High Renaissance.  In Giorgio Vasari’s  Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1550, he wrote of the artist:

Mariotto was a most restless person and carnal in the affairs of love and apt to the art of living, and, taking a dislike to the studies and brain-wracking necessary to painting, being also often stung by the tongues of other painters, as is their way, he resolved to give himself to a less laborious and more jovial profession, and so opened the most lovely hostelry outside the Porta San Gallo, and at the sign of the Dragon at the Ponte Vecchioa tavern and inn. This life he led for many months, saying that he had taken up an art that was without muscles, foreshortening or perspective and, better still, without faultfinding, and that the art that he had given up imitated flesh and blood, but this one created flesh and blood; in this if you had good wine you heard yourself praised, but in that every day you were blamed. But at last the low life became an annoyance to him, and, filled with remorse, he returned to painting.


The Visitation, ca. 1310, Anonymous German, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Visitation, ca. 1310, Attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance, German,
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York

This delightful sculpture, less than two feet tall, comes from the Met:

“This representation of Mary and Elizabeth’s joyous meeting comes from the Dominican convent of Katharinenthal, in the Lake Constance region of present-day Switzerland. Carved of walnut, with the original paint and gilding almost completely preserved, the figures of Mary and Elizabeth are each inset with crystal-covered cavities through which images of their infants may originally have been seen. The representation of the Visitation, incorporating images of the unborn Christ and John the Baptist, is found with some frequency in late medieval works from German-speaking lands.”


Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life, Dieric Bouts (Flemish), Ca. 1445, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life,
Dieric Bouts (Flemish),
Ca. 1445,
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Dieric Bouts is one of my favorite artists of the Northern Renaissance. This polyptych, a four-part altarpiece, shows the Annunciation, Visitation, Adoration of Angels, and the Adoration of the Magi.

The architectural frames of the panels are based on Rogier Van der Weyden’s Miraflores Triptych in Berlin; it evokes the entrance to a Gothic portico, and alludes to the New Law that is brought about with the birth of Christ.

The biblical passages in the archivolts strengthen this idea:

  • in the first panel, showing the Annunciation, the framing arch is decorated with the story of Adam and Eve;
  • in the central panel, the arches of the Visitation and the Nativity show scenes from the Passion of Christ;
  • in the Epiphany, the arc is decorated with episodes which followed the Resurrection, alluding to the universality of Christianity.
Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life Dieric Bouts (Flemish) Ca. 1445 Museo del Prado, Madrid

Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life
Dieric Bouts (Flemish)
Ca. 1445
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Van der Weyden’s influence is clearest in the Visitation, but Bouts also draws on the art of Van Eyck in his concern for light and color, while his interest in landscape denotes  the influence of his native Holland. Bouts never saw the Holy Land but he is known for including landscapes of his native countryside in his works, as we see here.

In the Visitation, note the age difference between the two women, with Mary radiantly youthful and Elizabeth wrinkled with age. I love the way they tenderly touch each others’ pregnant belly, such a loving and intimate gesture.

That gesture helped me make a connection with the story that I hadn’t experienced before. Imagine yourself in the scene and that you are touching the Virgin Mary’s pregnant belly; feel the baby inside her move and kick. Imagine your startled joy, just as John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb!  This encounter makes Elizabeth sing out her praise; what sort of praise is breaking forth from you?

Our Lady of Guadalupe

There is perhaps no more familiar and beloved image of the Virgin Mary than Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast day we celebrate today. Known as the Patroness of the Americas, and given the additional titles Empress of the Americas and Protectress of Unborn Children by Pope John Paul II in 1999, her origins are shrouded in layers of uncertain claims and disputed evidence. Despite these doubts, however, the story of the miraculous origin of the image has remained enshrined in popular belief and Catholic tradition.

On December 9, 1531, the indigenous peasant Juan Diego encountered a young woman on the hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City, who spoke to him in his native tongue telling him that she was the Virgin Mary and that he should ask the bishop to build her a church at that spot. When he dutifully relayed this message to Archbishop Zumárraga, he was told to go back and ask the lady for a sign. When Juan Diego told her that he needed a miraculous sign, she told him to pick some of the roses growing there on the normally barren hill. She arranged the flowers for him in his cloak, or tilma, and when he released the roses onto the ground before the bishop, the image of the Virgin was revealed on the tilma.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, (1531?) painted fabric, Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in México City

Our Lady of Guadalupe, (1531?) painted fabric, Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in México City

The image today, with painted additions, is framed and hung in the place of honor on the wall behind the altar in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. We see a dark-haired, olive-skinned young woman, dressed in a tunic and mantle, surrounded by a mandorla and standing on a crescent moon held aloft by an angel among the clouds. She gazes downward and clasps her hands in prayer.


Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Tepeyac Hill, Mexico City.

Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Tepeyac Hill, Mexico City.

The basilica that houses the tilma is the second church constructed here, next to the same hill where Juan Diego received his vision.  The site of this Marian shrine, the hill at Tepeyac, was once devoted to several indigenous goddesses known as Tonantzin, a generic term which means “our revered mother.” Spanish missionaries placed Christian shrines over many native religious sites. The first basilica here was completed in 1709, but its foundations later began to sink into the ground, a reminder that Mexico City was built upon the drained bed of Lake Texcoco, former site of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. The curved modern basilica, finished in 1976, can hold 50,000 people and receives several million visitors each year, making it one of the most visited sacred sites in the world. Visitors to the church who want to see the image of the Virgin must form a line and progress in single file on a people mover located behind and below the altar area, unseen by those attending mass. The icon is then seen above you in its ornate frame as you glide by it.

Our Lady of Guadalupe seen from the people mover below, Mexico City.

Our Lady of Guadalupe seen from the people mover below, Mexico City.

Despite the distance from the image, it is quite an experience. Even before you enter the church, as you make your way across the plaza to reach the basilica, faithful pilgrims can sometimes be seen moving forward on their knees and with hands clasped in prayer, making their way piously through the sacred space in order to gain the blessing of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.

Pilgrims to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Pilgrims to the Virgin of Guadalupe.


Plaza Mariana with new and old Basilicas of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City.

Plaza Mariana with new and old Basilicas of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City.


Artists have painted many reproductions of the tilma image for use at other churches and for sale on the art market. One of the earliest of these, seen below, was painted by Manuel de Arellano in 1691.

Virgin of Guadalupe by Manuel de Arellano, after the original, 1691, oil on canvas 181.45 x 123.38 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Virgin of Guadalupe by Manuel de Arellano, after the original, 1691, oil on canvas 181.45 x 123.38 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In addition to his interpretation of the image of the tilma, Arellano has surrounded the figure with flowers and included vignettes at each corner that narrate the story of Juan Diego’s encounter with the Virgin. Also in the collection at LACMA is this curious version created with shells in a technique known as enconchado (concha means shell in Spanish).

Virgin of Guadalupe, Miguel González, c. 1698, oil and shell on canvas.

Virgin of Guadalupe, Miguel González, c. 1698, Oil on canvas on wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl (enconchado), 124.46 x 95.25 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


Several years ago my brother gave me the gift of this contemporary painting of Our Lady by an unknown artist, which I treasure.

My VoG


As the patron saint of Mexico, the beloved figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe has become ubiquitous in Latin American culture. Artists have copied and reinterpreted the image in a huge variety of media, from paintings and candles to wall murals, tattoos, and beach towels. Any medium you can think of likely has been used to recreate her image.



John and VoG towel


Our Lady of Guadalupe has countless churches and schools named for her. A multitude of scholarly articles discuss various aspects of her history and significance, and her image has been used by the liberation theology movement, the United Farm Workers, and at recent immigration rallies. She even has a Tumblr site and an Etsy page. She is truly a ubiquitous icon that is both sacred and secular. If you would like more information about the Virgin of Guadalupe, the article on Wikipedia is quite good to start with. And here is a prayer to her:

Our Lady of Guadalupe,
Mystical Rose,
make intercession for holy Church,
protect the sovereign Pontiff,
help all those who invoke you in their necessities,
and since you are the ever Virgin Mary
and Mother of the true God,
obtain for us from your most holy Son
the grace of keeping our faith,
of sweet hope in the midst of the bitterness of life
of burning charity, and the precious gift
of final perseverance.


Now I think I’ll go browse through that Etsy page!


Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin

December 8th is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which commemorates that Mary, out of all people ever born, was created by God to be “full of grace” and, thus, a fitting vessel to bear the Son of God. The Feast is often confused with the Virgin conception and birth of Jesus. Today’s reading is the Annunciation.

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:26-38

One of my favorite paintings of this scene (and there are soooo many!!) is from a delightful early Northern Renaissance altarpiece, now in the Met. Be sure to click on it to enlarge it so you can check out the tiny Jesus flying down on the ray of light toward Mary! I love this image of our Lord eagerly coming from heaven to be our Savior! As you contemplate this painting, consider what it means to you that Jesus, with full knowledge of the cup that would be given to him, still came for us, descending into the Blessed womb that was prepared for him.


The Merode Altarpiece, workshop of Robert Camping, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Merode Altarpiece, workshop of Robert Campin, 1427-32, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Having just entered the room, the angel Gabriel is about to tell the Virgin Mary that she will be the mother of Jesus. The golden rays pouring in through the left oculus carry a miniature figure with a cross. On the right wing, Joseph, who is betrothed to the Virgin, works in his carpenter’s shop, drilling holes in a board. The mousetraps on the bench and in the shop window opening onto the street are thought to allude to references in the writings of Saint Augustine identifying the cross as the devil’s mousetrap. On the left wing, the kneeling donor appears to witness the central scene through the open door. His wife kneels behind him, and a town messenger stands at the garden gate. The owners would have purchased the triptych to use in private prayer. An image of Christ’s conception in an interior not unlike the one in which they lived also may have reinforced their hope for their own children.
One of the most celebrated early Netherlandish paintings—particularly for its detailed observation, rich imagery, and superb condition—this triptych belongs to a group of paintings associated with the Tournai workshop of Robert Campin (ca. 1375–1444), sometimes called the Master of Flémalle. Documents indicate that he hired at least two assistants, the young Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1400–1464) and Jacques Daret (ca. 1404–1468). Stylistic and technical evidence suggests that the altarpiece was executed in phases. The Annunciation, which follows a slightly earlier workshop composition, probably was not commissioned. Shortly thereafter, the male donor ordered the wings, which appear to have been painted by two artists. At a later point, in the 1430s, presumably following the donor’s marriage, the portraits of his wife and of the messenger were added. The windows of the central panel, originally covered with gold leaf, were painted with a blue sky, and the armorial shields were added afterward.

Madonna Lactans

While Jesus was speaking,
a woman from the crowd called out and said to him,
“Blessed is the womb that carried you
and the breasts at which you nursed.”
He replied, “Rather, blessed are those
who hear the word of God and observe it.”

Luke 11:27-28

The image of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus is known as Madonna Lactans, from the Latin words for milk and suckle; the lesser known Greek term is Galactotrofousa. This depiction was used in some of the earliest Christian art and may have been partially inspired from abundant Ancient Egyptian images of the goddess Isis nursing Horus, such as this one.

Isis Suckling Horus, bronze statuette, 1070–656 B.C., Egypt, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Isis Suckling Horus, bronze statuette, 1070–656 B.C., Egypt, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although possibly based in pagan images of deity, the image of Jesus nursing at his mother’s breast emphasizes his humanity while at the same time pointing to the exalted role of Mary as the Mother of God. For Catholics, this reveals the fleshly importance of the incarnation of the Son of God. Just as Christ receives his earthly sustenance from the body of his mother Mary, so we receive our spiritual sustenance from his body and blood in the Eucharist. The Virgin’s milk signifies the blood of Christ on the cross and in the Eucharist. For more on this idea, read this article.

Do a google search and you’ll see hundreds of images of the Madonna Lactans, but today I’ve chosen just a few of my favorites.  The first image is the earliest one known from the Catacomb of Priscilla and dates to about the 3rd century. Although fragmentary, you can still clearly see the iconography that would remain fairly constant for this devotional image, with the infant Jesus turning to look out at the viewer while suckling from Mary.

Mary nursing Jesus, ca. 3rd c., Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome

Mary nursing Jesus, ca. 3rd c., Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome

Our next image is a mosaic from the facade of Santa Maria Trastevere in Rome, a marvelous church in which I spent quite a bit of time one hot summer while staying at the American Academy on the nearby Janiculum Hill. This Byzantine-style image shows the breastfeeding Mary enthroned, with Virgins bringing offerings from either side.

Madonna Lactans Enthroned, mosaic, 1290-1310, Santa Maria Trastevere, Rome

Madonna Lactans Enthroned, mosaic, 1290-1310, Santa Maria Trastevere, Rome


Jan Van Eyck is another favorite of mine. Once again we see the nursing Mary enthroned. Be sure to click on the image to see the enlarged version, where you can examine Van Eyck’s splendid fabrics and details more closely.

Lucca Madonna, Jan van Eyck, 1436, Oil on panel, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt

Lucca Madonna, Jan van Eyck, 1437, Oil on panel, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt

From the museum website:

“The Lucca Madonna served her unknown patron as a medium of private devotion. The painting cleverly takes the viewer right into the depicted room, making him part of the affectionately rendered intimate situation. This impression is created by the special manner in which the artist has configured the space: like the walls on either side and the vaulted ceiling, the tile floor and the carpet appear to continue into the viewer’s side of the picture’s surface. The effect is heightened by the suggestive painterly description of the various materials and surfaces – the skin, hair, fabric, carpet, walls, glass, water, metal, tiles and wood.

However natural in appearance, the scene is also full of symbolic references. The fruit in the Christ child’s hand, for example, alludes to the Fall of Man, the consequences of which are overcome through the incarnation of God. The throne with its lion decorations symbolizes not only the judgement seat of the proverbially just king Solomon, an ancestor to Christ, but also the Last Judgement. Already famous far and wide during his lifetime, Jan van Eyck – court painter to the dukes of Burgundy – died in 1441. He had painted the “Lucca Madonna” just a few years earlier, a work whose mastery and consistency of concept and execution we still find captivating to this day. Incidentally, the name by which the painting is known goes back to one of its previous owners: in the nineteenth century it was in the possession of the Duke of Lucca in Tuscany.”

The next painting seems so bizarre to me, I simply had to include it. One wonders whether the artist had ever seen an actual breast or if they had plastic surgery secrets in 15th Century France! Seriously though, I love how the painted whiteness of the skin makes Mary and Jesus appear like marble statues and contrasts so beautifully with the red and blue angels. Note how Fouquet has painted some glossy areas on the angels as if they are reflecting the light shining from the luminous mother and divine child.

Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, Jean Fouquet, 1452, oil on panel, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium

Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, Jean Fouquet, 1452, oil on panel, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium

This is what the museum says about this rather surreal image:

“This painting is the jewel in the crown of the Royal Museum’s collection. Although it has a strikingly modern feel, it was produced by French court painter Jean Fouquet as long ago as 1452. It was commissioned by Etienne Chevalier, treasurer to the French King Charles VII. The Virgin Mary is depicted here as the Queen of Heaven, with the infant Jesus on her lap. The blue and red angels behind her richly decorated throne contrast strongly with the paleness of Mary and her child.
It is believed that Agnes Sorel, the mistress of Charles VII, modelled for the Virgin. She is dressed according to the fashion of the day. Her cloak and depilated hair line emphasise her eminence. The laced waist accentuates her bared breast and gives the composition an almost erotic quality. However, this was certainly not Fouquet’s intention when he produced the painting several centuries ago. It was quite simply a rendering of the Virgo Lactans, or the lactating virgin. She was supposed to highlight the worldly status of Jesus by showing that he, like all other children, was breastfed by his mother. The colours of the angels are most likely not coincidental. The three blue cherubs are believed to represent purity and air, while the six red seraphs are thought to symbolise love and fire. On closer scrutiny, it appears that just one group of angels actually touches Mary’s throne.”


I could find no other information about this adorable ivory figurine. Here we see Jesus as a toddler, eagerly standing on Mary’s lap and suckling for all he’s worth! Though his head isn’t turned towards us, note the little foot at an unnatural angle, indicating that he is, indeed, conscious of us.

Virgo Lactans, Anonymous French sculptor, ivory figurine

Virgo Lactans, Anonymous French sculptor, ivory figurine


The image of the Madonna Lactans remained popular until the Council of Trent discouraged any depictions of nudity in the sixteenth century. Interestingly, this concern about nudity may have been prompted by the creation of the printing press. In a 2012 article, author David Gibson writes:

“With the advent of movable type, historians say, came the ability to mass-market pornography, which promoted the sexualization of women’s bodies in the popular imagination. What’s more, the printing press enabled the wider circulation of anatomical drawings for medical purposes, which in turn contributed to the demystification of the body. Both undermined traditional views of the body as a reflection of the divine. 

The other major consequence of this new technology, of course, was the mass-marketing of the Bible and the rise of a Protestantism that encouraged a focus on the text of the Scriptures and discouraged the use of images and “Catholic” practices like devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints.

The cultural shift was so great that even Catholics soon came to regard the breast as an “inappropriate” image for churches. Instead, the sacrifice of the cross – the suffering Jesus – became the dominant motif of Christianity while the Nativity was sanitized into a Hallmark card.”


There are quite a few other images of the nursing Mary and Jesus at this link, or if you google “Madonna Lactans” you can find your favorites.