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Legends of the Madonna - The Purification of the Virgin

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. La Purificazione della B. Vergine. Ger. Die Darbringung im Tempel. Die Beschneidung Christi.

After the birth of her Son, Mary was careful to fulfil all the ceremonies of the Mosaic law. As a first-born son, he was to be redeemed by the offering of five shekels, or a pair of young pigeons (in memory of the first-born of Egypt). But previously, being born of the children of Abraham, the infant Christ was submitted to the sanguinary rite which sealed the covenant of Abraham, and received the name of JESUS — " that name before which every knee was to bow," which was to be set above the powers of magic, the mighty rites of sorcerers, the secrets of Memphis, the drugs of Thessaly, the silent and mysterious murmurs of the wise Chaldees, and the spells of Zoroaster ; that name which we should engrave on our hearts and pronounce with our most harmonious accents, and rest our faith on, and place our hopes in, and love with the overflowing of charity, joy, and adoration. (Vide Bishop Taylor's Life of Christ.)

The circumcision and the naming of Christ have many times been painted to express the first of the sorrows of the Virign, being the first of the pangs which her Son was to suffer on earth. But the Presentation in the Temple has been selected with better taste for the same purpose ; and the prophecy of Simeon, " Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also," becomes the first of the Seven Sorrows. It is an undecided point whether the Adoration of the Magi took place thirteen days, or one year and thirteen days after the birth of Christ. In a series of subjects artistically arranged, the Epiphany always precedes, in order of time, that scene in the temple which is sometimes styled the Purification, sometimes the Presentation, and sometimes the Nunc .Dimittis. They are three distinct incidents; but, as far as I can judge, neither the painters themselves, nor those who have named pictures, have been careful to discriminate between them. On a careful examination of various compositions, some of special celebrity, which are styled, in a general way, the Presentation in the Temple, it will appear, I think, that the idea uppermost in the painter's mind has been to represent the prophecy of Simeon.

No doubt, in later times, the whole scene, as a subject of Art, was considered in reference chiefly to the Virgin, and the intention was to express the first of her Seven Sorrows. But in ancient Art, and especially in Greek Art, the character of Simeon assumed a singular significance and importance, which so long as modern Art was influenced by the traditional Byzantine types, modified, in some degree, the arrangement and sentiment of this favorite subject.

It is related that when Ptolemy Philadelphus, about 260 years before Christ, resolved to have the Hebrew Scriptures translated into Greek, for the purpose of placing them in his far-famed library, he dispatched messengers to Eleazar, the High Priest of the Jews, requiring him to send scribes and interpreters learned in the Jewish law to his court in Alexandria. Thereupon Eleazar selected six of the most learned rabbis from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, seventy-two persons in all, and sent them to Egypt, in obedience to the commands of King Ptolemy, and among these was Simeon, a priest, and a man full of learning. And it fell to the lot of Simeon to translate the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when he came to that verse where it is written, "Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son," he began to misdoubt, in his own mind, how this could be possible; and, after long meditation, fearing to give scandal and offence to the Greeks, he rendered the Hebrew word Virgin by a Greek word which signifies merely a young woman; but when he had written it down, behold an angel effaced it, and substituted the right word. Thereupon he wrote it again and again ; and the same thing happened three times ; and he remained astonished and confounded. And while he wondered what this should mean, a ray of divine light penetrated his soul ; it was revealed to him . that the miracle, which, in his human wisdom, he had presumed to doubt, was not only possible, but that he, Simeon, " should not see death till he had seen the Lord's Christ." Therefore he tarried on earth, by the divine will, for nearly three centuries, till that which he had disbelieved had come to pass. He was led by the Spirit to the temple on the very day when Mary came there to present her Son, and to make her offering, and immediately, taking the Child in his arms, he exclaimed, " Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word." And of the Virgin-mother, also, he prophesied sad and glorious things.

Anna the Prophetess, who was standing by, also testified to the presence of the theocratic King ; but she did not take him in her arms, as did Simeon. (Luke ii. 38.) Hence, she was early regarded as a type of the synagogue, which prophesied great things of the Messiah, but, nevertheless, did not embrace him when he appeared, as did the Gentiles.

That these curious legends relative to Simeon and Anna, and their symbolical interpretation, were well known to the old painters, there can be no doubt ; and both were perhaps in the mind of Bishop Taylor when he wrote his eloquent chapter on the Presentation. " There be some," he says, " who wear the name of Christ on their heads, to make a show to the world ; and there be some who have it always in their mouths ; and there be some who carry Christ on their shoulders, as if he were a burthen too heavy to bear; and there be some — woe is me ! — who trample him under their feet : but he is the true Christian, who, like Simeon, embraces Christ, and takes him to his heart."

Now it seems to me that it is distinctly the acknowledgment of Christ by Simeon—that is, Christ received by the Gentiles—which is intended to be placed before us in the very early pictures of the Presentation, or the Nunc. Dimittis, as it is always styled in Greek Art. The appearance of an attendant, bearing the two turtle doves, shows it to be also the so-called Purification of the Virgin. In this antique formal Greek version we have the Presentation exactly according to the pattern described by Didron. The great gold censer is here ; the cupola, at top ; Joseph carrying the two young pigeons, and Anna behind Simeon.

In a celebrated composition by Fra Bartolommeo [Belvedere, Vienna], of which I give a sketch, there is the same disposition of the personages, but an additional female figure. This is not Anna, the mother of the Virgin (as I have heard it said), but probably Mary Salome, who had always attended on the Virgin ever since the Nativity at Bethlehem.

The subject is treated with exquisite simplicity by Francia; we have just the same personages as in the rude Greek model, but disposed with consummate grace. Still, to represent the Child as completely undraped has been considered as a solecism. He ought to stretch out his hands to his mother, and to look as if he understood the portentous words which fore-told his destiny. Sometimes the imagination is assisted by the choice of the accessories ; thus, Fra Bartolommeo has given us, in the background of his group, Moses holding the broken table of the old law ; and Francia represents in the same manner the sacrifice of Abraham ; for thus did Mary bring her Son as an offering. In many pictures Simeon raises his eyes to heaven in gratitude ; but those painters who wish to express the presence of the Divinity in the person of Christ made Simeon looking at the Child, and addressing him as " Lord."

The accompanying sketch is from a beautiful little picture [attributed to Van der Weyden] , in which we have the scene in the true Flemish style. A noble Gothic church represents the temple ; and, besides the sacred personages and Simeon, there are numerous assistants, among them a woman carrying a basket of doves (Salome, I suppose). She wears a singular headdress, composed of a narrow bandage of gold stuff twisted round and round her head till it takes the form of a turban ; and the whole figure is particularly graceful. [Munich Gallery.]

In the picture by Guido a young girl offers two turtle doves, and a boy two pigeons.



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