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The Presentation of the Virgin

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. La Presentazione, ove nostra Signora piccioletta sale i gradi del Tempio. Ger. Joachim and Anna weihen ihre Tochter Maria im Tempel. Die Vorstellung der Jungfrau im Tempel. (Nov. 21.)

In the interval between the birth of Mary and her consecration in the temple there is no incident which I can remember as being important or popular as a subject of Art.

It is recorded with what tenderness her mother Anna watched over her, "how she made of her bedchamber a holy place, allowing nothing that was common or unclean to enter in ; " and called to her " certain daughters of Israel, pure and gentle, whom she appointed to attend on her." In some of the early miniature illustrations of the Offices of the Virgin St. Anna thus ministers to her child ; for instance, in a beautiful Greek MS. in the Vatican she is tenderly putting her into a little bed or cradle, and covering her up.

It is not said anywhere that St. Anna instructed her daughter. It has even been regarded as unorthodox to suppose that the Virgin, enriched from her birth, and before her birth, with all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, required instruction from any one. Nevertheless, the subject of the " Education of the Virgin" has been often represented in later times. There is a beautiful example by Murillo (Madrid Gallery) ; while Anna teaches her child to read, angels hover over them with wreaths of roses. Another by Rubens, in which, as it is said, he represented his young wife, Helena Forman. (Musée, Antwerp.) There is also a picture in which St. Anna ministers to her daughter, and is intent on braiding and adorning her long golden hair, while the angels look on with devout admiration. (Vienna, Lichtenstein Gallery.) In all these examples Mary is represented as a girl of ten or twelve years old. Now, as the legend expressly relates that she was three years old when she became an inmate of the temple, such representations must be considered as incorrect.

The narrative thus proceeds : —

" And when the child was three years old, Joachim said, ' Let us invite the daughters of Israel, and they shall take each a taper or a lamp, and attend on her, that the child may not turn back from the temple of the Lord.' And being come to the temple, they placed her on the first step, and she ascended alone all the steps to the altar : and the high priest received her there, kissed her, and blessed her, saying, ' Mary, the Lord bath magnified thy name to all generations, and in thee shall be made known the redemption of the children of Israel.' And being placed before the altar, she danced with her feet, so that all the house of Israel rejoiced with her, and loved her. Then her parents returned home, blessing God because the maiden had not turned back from the temple."

Such is the incident, which, in artistic representation, is sometimes styled the " Dedication," but more generally " THE PRESENTATION OF THE VIRGIN."

It is a subject of great importance, not only as a principal incident in a series of the Life of the Virgin, but because this consecration of Mary to the service of the temple being taken in a general sense, it has often been given in a separate form, particularly for the nunneries. Hence it has happened that we find " The Presentation of the Virgin " among some of the most precious examples of ancient and modern Art.

The motif does not vary. The child Mary, sometimes in a blue, but oftener in a white vesture, with long golden hair, ascends the steps which lead to the porch of the temple, which steps are always fifteen in number. She ought to be an infant of three years of age ; but in many pictures she is represented older, veiled, and with a taper in her hand instead of a lamp, like a young nun; but this is a fault. The " fifteen steps " rest on a passage in Josephus, who says, " between the wall which separated the men from the women, and the great porch of the temple, were fifteen steps ; " and these are the steps which Mary is supposed to ascend.

1. It is sometimes treated with great simplicity ; for in-stance, in the bas-relief by Andrea Orcagna there are only three principal figures — the Virgin in the centre (too old, however), and Joachim and Anna stand on each side. (Florence, Or San Michele.)

In the fresco by Taddeo Gaddi we have the same artless grace, the same dramatic grouping, and the same faults of drawing and perspective, as in the other compartments of the series. (Florence, Baroncelli chapel.)

3. The scene is represented by Ghirlandajo (Florence, S. Maria Novella) with his usual luxury of accessories and accompaniments. The locality is the court of the temple ; on the right a magnificent porch ; the Virgin, a young girl of about nine or ten years old, is seen ascending the steps with a book in her hand ; the priest stretches out his arms to receive her ; behind him is another priest; and " the young virgins who were to be her companions " are advancing joyously to receive her. At the foot of the steps are St. Anna and St. Joachim, and further off a group of women and spectators, who watch the event in attitudes of thanksgiving and joyful sympathy. Two venerable, grand-looking Jews, and two beautiful boys, fill the foreground ; and the figure of the pilgrim resting on the steps is memorable in Art as one of the earliest examples of an undraped figure, accurately and gracefully drawn. The whole composition is full of life and character, and that sort of elegance peculiar to Ghirlandajo.

4. In the composition of Albert Dürer [in the series, " Life of the Virgin "] we see the entrance of the temple on the left, and the child Mary with flowing hair ascending the steps ; behind her stand her parents and other personages, and in front are venders of provisions, doves, etc., which are brought as offerings.

5. The scene as given by Carpaccio appears to me exceedingly graceful. The perfectly childish figure of Mary with her light flowing tresses, the grace with which she kneels on the steps, and the disposition of the attendant figures, are all beautifully conceived. Conspicuous in front is a page holding a unicorn, the ancient emblem of chastity, and often introduced significantly into pictures of the Virgin. [Brera, Milan.]

6. But the most celebrated example is the Presentation by Titian, in the Academy at Venice, originally painted for the church of the Brotherhood of Charity (Scuola della Carità), and still to be seen there — the Carità being now the Academy of Art. This famous picture is so well known through the numerous engravings, that I have not thought it necessary to reproduce it here. In the general arrangement Titian seems to have been indebted to Carpaccio ; but all that is simple and poetical in the latter becomes in Titian's version sumptuous and dramatic. Here Mary does not kneel, but, holding up her light blue drapery, ascends the steps with childish grace and alacrity. The number of portrait-heads adds to the value and interest of the picture. Titian himself is looking up, and near him stands his friend, Andrea de' Franceschi, grand-chancellor of Venice, robed as a Cavalier() di San, Marco. In the fine bearded head of the priest, who stands behind the high priest, we may recognize, I think, the likeness of Cardinal Bembo. In the foreground, instead of the poetical symbol of the unicorn, we have an old woman selling eggs and fowls, as in Albert Durer's print, which must have been well known to Titian. Albert Durer published his " Life of the Virgin " in 1520,1 and Titian painted his picture about 1550. (Venice Academy.)



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