The Song of Zechariah

 

Zechariah his father, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied, saying:

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
for he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hand of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke 1:67-79

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, c. 1655, Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, c. 1655, Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena

Zechariah’s Song 

by M. Louise Holert 

Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Luke 1:78,79.

The miracle, significance and implications of John’s birth are brilliantly presented in this tender scene. The miracle of John’s birth is indicated by the elderly Elizabeth – who gave birth “in her old age” – being served in bed by an attendant as the elderly Zechariah, on the left side of the painting, addresses his freshly bathed son.

Murillo captures the moment when Zechariah prophesies to his newborn son, foretelling his mission and message: “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins . . .” The entire text of Zechariah’s Song can be found in Luke 1:68-79.

The painting reflects a biblical worldview, the predominant European worldview prior to the Enlightenment. At the top of the painting cherubs joyfully observe the miraculous event of John’s birth. Murillo unites heaven and earth in this tender scene, reminding us that John “was a man sent from God” (John 1:6).

John has just had his first bath, foreshadowing his mission as the Baptizer. The bath signifies baptism, the spiritual cleansing that will result as people respond to John’s message of repentance for their sins. The white towels, representing purity, are plentiful and central in the painting.

The scope of the painting calls our attention to the key event in the love story of salvation history – the Incarnation. John the Baptist is the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the forerunner of the Messiah. He prepares the way for the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). To fully appreciate the significance of John it is important to know the prophecy of Malachi 4:5, “See I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”

Murillo’s generous use of red has symbolic significance. As red is the church’s colour for martyred saints, Murillo’s use is most likely in connection with John’s martyrdom at the hand of Herod. By symbolically referring to John’s death in this painting of his birth, Murillo also reminds the viewers of the proximity between John’s birth and death and their own.

The dog on the chair in the right-hand corner of the painting represents faithfulness. It is most likely a symbol of John’s faithfulness to his calling as a prophet, which culminated in his martyrdom. The red tablecloth behind the dog reminds us of this.

Zechariah’s song is a helpful model to expand and enrich our own practice of prayer and praise. We might have expected Zechariah’s prophecy to be all about his son, but he begins his song by praising God for his redemption. He briefly addresses his son and prophesies about his future as “a prophet of the Most High” who will “prepare the way” for the Lord. Zechariah concludes his song acknowledging God’s tender mercy “by which the rising sun” has “come to us from heaven . . . to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

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Bartolomé-Esteban MurilloThe Birth of St. John the Baptist, c. 1655, oil on canvas, 145 x 185 cm. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena,CA, USA. Image used by permission.

Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) was the last great painter of the Spanish Golden Age. He created his first successful works – eleven paintings for a Seville convent – around 1645, which led to many commissions. Murillo mainly devoted himself to religious subjects. His models for his large devotional altarpieces, depicting biblical scenes, were often local peasants. In his early career Murillo was deeply influenced by Franciso de Zurbaran, from whom he learned the expressive effect of  light and shade. Another very significant influence on Murillo was the Italian painter Federico Barocci (1526-1612). Murillo, whose art is always gentle and tender, admired Barocci for the pleasing softness of his style.

 

This essay is from the Artway website.  Visit the Frick Collection for a 6-minute video of curator Margaret Iacono discussing this wonderful painting.

Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary

The traditions of the birth and life of the Virgin Mary are derived from the Apocryphal Gospel known as the Protoevangelium of James, written about AD145. In the artworks presented on this page, we see the scene of Mary’s birth by her mother Anne. In the Catholic Church, the Feast of the birth or nativity of Mary is celebrated on September 8. This feast is exactly nine months after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, which commemorates the teaching that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin, though in the normal biological manner.

Birth of the Virgin, Giotto di Bondone, 1304-1306, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy

Birth of the Virgin, Giotto di Bondone, 1304-1306, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy

Giotto di Bondone painted a series of frescoes in the Arena Chapel at Padua, Italy that are considered among the world’s greatest masterpieces. Giotto was among the first artists to break away from the flat, static style of Byzantine and medieval painting  to create innovative works with realistic settings that are early attempts at spatial perspective. This makes him the father of Renaissance art. In this image of the birth of Mary, we can see how he has used an architectural structure to create the illusion of three dimensional space. The heavenly golden background of Byzantine works has been replaced with a blue that suggests the actual sky. The figures show an attempt at modeling and roundness, and especially in the women sitting in the foreground, we can see that there are bodies beneath the clothing. Giotto shows us at least two separate moments from the story, since we see the haloed infant Mary being handed to her mother Anne and also being cared for by the women in the foreground.

 

Nativity of Mary by the Master of the Life of the Virgin, circa 1460, Munich

Nativity of Mary by the Master of the Life of the Virgin, circa 1460, Munich

The Master of the Life of the Virgin, whose identity is disputed, painted a series of eight scenes from the life of Mary including this nativity setting. In it, we see a large bed bedecked with a red coverlet and set beneath an elaborate woven canopy. The newborn infant Mary is being handed to her mother Anne by the attending women. This Northern Renaissance painting shows the brilliant colors, attention to fabrics and surfaces, and delicacy of the figures that we would expect. It also seems to show the influence of the northern masters, Rogier Van der Weyden and Deiric Bouts.

 

Life of the Virgin: 4. The Birth of the Virgin, Albrecht Dürer, 1503 Woodcut, Munich

Life of the Virgin: 4. The Birth of the Virgin, Albrecht Dürer, 1503
Woodcut, Munich

The German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer created a series of 20 woodcuts depicting the Life of the Virgin, which he published in 1511 in book form with poetry by the Benedictine monk Benedictus Chelidonius. We look into the scene of Mary’s birth through an archway, seen at the top of the image. An angel above swings an incense censor, letting us know that we are viewing the sacred. But the crowded scene below seems anything but sacred, and we have to search for the infant Mary and attempt to make some sense of the disorder. St. Anne lays in the bed exhausted from her labor as the attendants offer her food and beverage. The gaggle of woman are all involved in some sort of task that attends midwifery or the relaxation afterwards, and after a search we can see Mary being bathed in the right foreground. This scene is homely and ordinary, and only the angel above lets us know that heaven is breaking into earth.

 

Birth of the Virgin 1661, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Louvre, Paris

Birth of the Virgin by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1661, Louvre, Paris

Murillo, the last of the great painters of Spain’s Golden Age, depicts the religious scene with great tenderness. The baroque treatment in this work shows the influence of the Flemish school and Velázquez on Murillo after his trip to Madrid, a turning point in his career.

 

The birth of Mary is a day of hope and joy that reminds us of the nativity of Jesus. It is through this infant girl that our salvation will be born.

Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Amen.