Murillo - The Holy Family
( Originally Published 1902 )
The Sanctity of Human Love
AT the very time when the person of our Lord is being most remorselessly investigated and criticised, His teachings and His influence are finding an ampler place in the lives and the affections of men. The more earnest the attempt to disprove His unique characteristics, the more vitally He is found to be related to the happiness and progress of the race. One might as well try to eliminate from light its power of producing color and beauty as to take out of history the work which Jesus has accomplished, or to separate from the forces which are leading civilization His inspirations, which are the chief causes of benefit and blessing in this modern world. Above the broad and monotonous plains of humanity Jesus rises like some Matterhorn, and He is no more seriously affected by speculations concerning His origin, and essential being, than is that gigantic mountain-peak by studies as to the formation of its rocks or the steady sweep of its glaciers.
Jesus has moulded or modified all the institutions of men. He is no more at home in the Church than in the State, in the cathedral than in the family. Whichever way we turn we come face to face with Him. Are we swayed by superstition in this ? It is hard to believe that superstition could continue, and become more commanding, in the blaze of so much light and for so many years. The vital forces of civilization are not born of ignorance and superstition, although they may grow in the midst of such an environment. If Jesus, or any other man, long retains his place in these days as an intellectual and spiritual leader, it is because He has something which the world needs. Masses of people cannot be permanently deluded. Art, literature, oratory, laws, penal institutions, society, the family, and the State have all received from Jesus their finest inspirations, and at the consummation of history they will unite in placing on His head the many crowns.
In no department of life is the influence of Jesus more apparent than in art. His story has possessed an exquisite fascination for great masters from the earliest Christian centuries to the present time. Among the best-known pictures in recent years produced in Paris are two by countrymen of ours : " The Crucifixion," by the younger George Inness ; and " The Raising of Lazarus," by Mr. Tanner, a colored man. The former has now found a home in America, and the latter was purchased by the French Government for the gallery of the LuxomBourg. The preeminent pictures in all the European galleries are variations on the life of our Lord. Are we in Dresden? It is the "Sistine Madonna." Are we in Florence? It is the "Madonna della Sedia." Are we in London? It is "The Holy Family." Are we in Rome? It is " The Transfiguration." Are we in Milan? It is " The Last Supper." Are we in Paris? It is "The Assumption of the Virgin." Are we in Antwerp ? It is " The Descent from the Cross." Are we in Madrid? It is " The Ascension." The story of Jesus is perennially attractive to artists; and in that fact there is deep significance, for artists find their noblest inspirations in realities, rather than in dreams. The profoundest philosophy may be pure speculation, like "The Republic ; " the most magnificent poetry may be pure imagination, like " Paradise Lost ; " but the noblest art is always loyal to objective reality.
The most beautiful painting in the National Gallery in London has long seemed to me to be Murillo's " Holy Family." It is not large, like Raphael's "Sistine Ma-donna," and it has no exceptional advantage in its location ; but it shines in the midst of all that galaxy of pictures as the planet Venus shines amidst the other stars in the wintry sky when one is near to the equator. If it were possible for me to put Murillo's work into words, I could offer my friends no better gift. But words can convey color and expression no more than they can carry perfume. I offer only a rude sketch of what is too ethereal for analysis.
In the foreground are the figures of Joseph and Mary, and standing between them, slightly elevated, is the child Jesus. Joseph looks straight at the observer; but Mary, with such an air of absorbed love as not many persons, even among women, are capable of, is looking at Jesus, whom the parents hold by either hand. The Child wears a loose robe ; His hair falls to His shoulders, and His eyes are turned neither toward His mother nor toward Joseph, but upward, as if He actually saw what the artist has endeavored to suggest—the Heavenly Father surrounded by choirs of cherubim who fill the spaces with light and joy and song. Just above the head of Jesus hovers a dove, the emblem of the Holy Spirit.
To appreciate the exquisite naturalness and strength of the picture one must look long into the eyes of Mary and into the face of her Child. Murillo was a Spaniard, and the first artist, I believe, who dared to brave tradition and, true to nature, to represent Mary as the Jewess she was, with dark hair and eyes, Among the faces of the Madonnas in the galleries of the world this one, it seems to me, best combines physical beauty with lofty spirituality. The artist's model is said to have been his own daughter Francesca. Happy the father of such a daughter !
Murillo was born in Seville in 1617, and died in 1682. Of the artists of Spain he is one of the greatest, and of all the painters of the world few are better entitled to immortal fame. Among his other works which are well known are " St. Elizabeth of Hungary," " The Virgin Appearing to St. Fran-cis," and that miracle of beauty in the Louvre, " The Immaculate Conception," for which, in 1852, the fabulous sum of about $520,000 was paid, probably the largest price ever brought by a single picture. In all Murillo's paintings of the Madonna and Child, the faces of the Virgin and Jesus are essentially the same; and that is as it should be, for no true artist could ascribe to Him other than his own highest ideals of spiritual beauty, and those ideals would not materially change within a few years.
A study of this canvas, which sometimes seems as if it must have been painted in heaven, suggests certain thoughts, which may or may not have been in the mind of the artist, but which are the truths that I will try to interpret to my readers.
The face of Jesus in " The Holy Family," unlike His face in the "Sistine Madonna," where the eyes speak of preternatural vision, is that of a typical child. His features have a touch of seriousness and just a hint of premature age, but otherwise he appears to be what any healthy child should be. Jesus is represented in the Gospels as having been a thoughtful, natural boy, who grew as others grow, who was made strong by exercise, and who probably indulged in the sports and pastimes of children. There came to him now and then dim intimations of the future, but similar intimations have come to others. Mozart had already heard the "heavenly harmonies" when, at four years of age, he startled the monks by an apparently intuitive knowledge of the organ; and Murillo himself felt that he was an artist when he was not much older. It would have been strange indeed if Jesus had been denied such anticipations of what his future was to be.
The typical child was not a little angel—not a precocious creature who in boyhood bore the burdens and thought the thoughts of manhood, but, possessed of infinite possibilities and dimly conscious of larger spheres beyond, he came to his strength and power along the slow and often wearisome path of growth. To human eyes most children are essentially alike. They resemble one another far more than do adults. A dozen small boys standing side by side, if they happen to be of about the same height and complexion, are difficult to distinguish ; but when the years have done their work—when the lines in those faces have been deepened, when the form of those features has been fixed, when the eyes have assumed their final expression—there is no difficulty in distinguishing between them, however much alike they may have been in their cradles. Experience rather than birth is the chief cause of the differences between men. That is readily granted by every student of heredity. If children of contrasted parentage are reared in the same environment they will usually resemble one another. A change of surroundings brings out characteristics which otherwise might have remained undeveloped. In every child there is something which allies him to the boy Jesus. If all were reared in an atmosphere of perfect truth and love, all might approach the stature of Jesus.
But let us return to that little child in the picture of Murillo. What do we see? A boy resembling others of his age, who suggests what all boys were intended to be, and would be if they were surrounded by the influences and training which would develop only what is best in them. The gospels tell us that Jesus was prepared for His ministry as we are prepared for ours. He was made perfect through suffering. He grew in wisdom and stature. Intellectually and physically He was different at twelve from what He was at six years of age, and was a far larger and loftier character at thirty than He was at twelve. Forgetting for the moment the story of the Annunciation, when Mary looked into the eyes of Jesus at the time the artist has chosen for his picture she had no more reason, so far as we can see, to think her son would be the world's Saviour than we have to dream such dreams of our children. God may have some service for the little ones that other mothers' arms enshrine, as holy even as the mission of Jesus, when He became the Christ and was selected in a unique sense to be the revelation of God. Great is the mystery of childhood. When we deal with men we are dealing with what is in a measure fixed; when we approach children we draw near to those who are still in the plastic age. How solemn are the du-ties and privileges of a parent ! The artist paints what exists, or what has existed, in some of its relations or combinations ; the parent helps to determine character and des-tiny. Jesus, as the typical child, is the revelation to the world of the infinite possibilities of childhood.
In Murillo's picture the child is central, but almost equally attractive are Joseph and Mary. For simple and spiritual beauty the face of Mary is unsurpassed in art. The group together suggests the Holy Family, or the ideal family. We are accustomed to speak of Jesus as the typical man; the artist has gone farther and given us a typical family. Here is the doctrine of the Trinity in a form concerning which there is never any controversy—husband, wife, child, one in the bonds of love. Every family ought to be as holy as that into which Jesus was born. His influence on domestic life has been the most potent of the forces which have differentiated the households of to-day from those of two thousand years ago. He has glorified woman as wife and mother, and almost created the modern home. Where His teachings are observed the family is hallowed and secure ; where they are neglected it is occasionally sacred, but the sanctity is without security.
One of the most beautiful phrases ever heard on this earth is "the Holy Family." What makes a family holy ? Not the presence of a child in any unique sense divine, but the presence of that of which the child is the symbol, namely, love—pure, unselfish, and deathless. " Love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God." The basis of holiness is love. Some things are too exquisitely beautiful for analysis. The process destroys the beauty. You may analyze a lily; you will know more, but what will remain of the flower when the analysis is complete ? Knowledge of how an object exists is not essential to appreciation of its worth. Some things may be more accurately described than analyzed, and hints are sometimes more truthful even than descriptions.
A wife died, in a home into which no child had ever been born, and two years after the husband died also; and his pastor, as he stood beside the silent form of his friend, said : "He has sobbed himself to sleep." That sentence revealed the life of one household.
Charles Kingsley was a brave, chivalrous spirit, who delighted in action quite as much as in meditation. He was once asked if he believed that we should recognize our friends after death. His answer revealed a whole life-history : " If my wife is my wife and I am Charles Kingsley we shall surely know one another there."
I have sometimes thought that the finest dedication ever written for any book is that of Principal Fairbairn in his monumental work entitled "The Place of Christ in Mod-ern Theology." It is as follows : " This book is dedicated to my wife, whose quiet helpfulness and fair companionship have made the twenty-five years of our wedded life years of happy labor and gracious peace."
Did even Robert Browning ever write anything more exquisite than his tribute to Mrs. Browning? After speaking of how the world regarded her, he adds :
Ah, but that's the world's side, there's the wonder ;
When the late Dr. William M. Taylor, of the Broadway Tabernacle, was making an address before the council called for his installation in New York, after stating his theological beliefs, he spoke of (I think) three little graves on the other side of the sea, and added words like these : "And I have been preaching out of that experience ever since."
One day there entered the cabin of a ferry-boat on the North River a coarsely dressed Italian. In the appearance of the man there was nothing attractive, but two little children kept close to him as if they knew in whom they trusted, while in his arms he carried a baby that was evidently ill. No mother was ever more tender. On arriving at the city, he entered a car and sat down in a corner, with one child on each side, and the baby snuggling against his face. The look of appreciation on the faces of the men and women who witnessed the sight was as reverential as is often seen be-fore a shrine, or in a cathedral. The roughness of the man was sanctified by his affection for the children. Holy families are found wherever the domestic bond is pure, unselfish, Christ-like love ; wherever the one treasure is affection which cannot be destroyed ; where parents reverence their children as the dearest gifts of God ; and where children serve their parents with a devotion and fidelity that are like nothing so much as religion. Where true love is, there is a "holy family "—whether there be any child or not. And may we not go even farther, and add—where such love is, and where it is guarded as the divinest thing on this earth, there is the very essence of the "holy family," even if the earthly desire for companionship and parenthood has thus far been denied. The holy things are not those which at special times come down out of heaven from God, but those with which our lives are daily filled. Every star is as sacred as that which shone above Bethlehem ; every child is intended to be what the Christ-child was; and every family has possibilities like those of that family in Nazareth.
Above the figures of the Holy Family in Murillo's painting, unseen by Joseph and Mary, and only dimly apprehended by the boy Jesus, in glory ineffable, is the face of the Heavenly Father graciously looking down on that earthly home, while all the spaces of the air are filled with cherubim singing for joy over that which they are be-holding below. Such is the artist's dream. But is it altogether a dream? Did not our Lord say that "their angels do always be-hold the face of my Father which is in heaven? " Is there not something prophetic in the wide-spread conviction of a deep and constant interest on the part of the gods, or the one God, in all that takes place on the earth ? Did not Jesus say, Ye are of more value than many sparrows?" If God cares for lilies and birds, will He not guard the interests of men? Was there not much truth in the old faith—I will not call it a superstition—that every man had a guardian angel who always followed him, seeking his welfare ? I am inclined to think that what was thus symbolized is true ; that angels of God (they may be those whom we have loved on the earth—I do not know) do watch over all men in their toils and trials; that they are the messengers of Him who can forget or overlook us no more than we can neglect or forget our dear ones. There is an unseen universe, and it is near to every man. Such is the teaching of science as well as of revelation. In that universe there are colors which our eyes cannot see, sounds which our ears are too dull to hear, and per-fumes too delicate for our coarse senses to detect. If there are unseen colors, sounds, and perfumes, why not also beings too spiritual for our physical sight to discern, but not too ethereal for the companionship of our spirits? Whether demonstrable or not, such is the teaching of Scripture, and such has been the faith of millions in all ages. "Are not their angels ministering spirits, sent forth to minister to such as shall be the heirs of salvation?" Did not angels herald the advent of Jesus? Did not an-gels appear unto Him in the garden? Do we not sing:
Hark ! hark, my soul ! Angelic songs are swelling
But some find belief in the unseen to be difficult, if not impossible. They say : " We do not understand. We would believe, but we cannot." Yet those very persons find no difficulty in believing that there are inhabit-ants on far-away stars; sometimes they even intimate that dwellers on the nearer planets may be signalling to the earth. Is it harder to believe that beings too ethereal for our mortal eyes may dwell on the earth, than that the stars are the abodes of intelligent creatures? Murillo has fittingly expressed a truth which will never be given up, although it may never be demonstrated by a logical process or discerned by the senses.
Divine Providence presides over all human affairs. No man " walks with aimless feet." History is not a series of accidents. Every life is a plan of God, even though human freedom may sadly interfere with that plan. On the earth we serve one another, and the more nearly perfect the one who is served, the swifter and gladder the service becomes; so, when our loved ones pass from the limitations of the body, it is not reasonable to suppose that they lose human interest. Rather let us believe that, under freer conditions, they continue in the sacred ministry of love and sacrifice. We dare to believe that death does not destroy the wish to serve but only changes the mode in which our faculties operate. As Murillo has represented the Father and the shining ones looking down on the Holy Family in Nazareth, so, we will believe, they hold watch over all the families of the earth, and, by secret intimations and loving ministries, seek to win them from the things that perish toward the worthier joys which are celestial and with-out end.
Have not many in times of great gladness or great sorrow caught the accents of a voice that is still, or felt as in a dream the touch of a vanished hand? It was not all a dream. If ever there were angels, there are angels now. If they ever cared for the welfare of mortals, they are seeking their welfare now. The earth is not so dark that God, and those who dwell with Him, cannot see what is being enacted here. The nearer we get to one another in sympathy the more impossible seems any spiritual separation; and the nearer one gets to God the more intense is the realization that He besets us behind and before, and that His mercy and ministry alike are everlasting.
Two pictures lie before me on my desk. One is a photograph of Murillo's "Holy Family," the other a photograph of the younger George Inness's "Crucifixion." The former I have already tried to describe. The latter also is a great painting. In the fore-ground is a curious crowd from Jerusalem; in the shadows of the distance lies the city itself; the heavens are black with lurid clouds ; not far away are mounted soldiers keeping back the inquisitive people ; on the hill in the distance are the crosses; on the right hangs one thief, and on the left an-other ; but there is no third cross. In its place is a blaze of light from which a rainbow rises and throws its splendor far over the blackness of the sky. From the home in Nazareth to that "green hill outside the city wall " was only about thirty years, counting by time, but how vast was the distance when measured by experience ! If life is measured by heart-throbs, there was a whole eternity between Bethlehem and Cal-vary.
But events must always be considered in their relations if their meaning is to be understood. Beside these two pictures should be placed Raphael's idealization of " The Ascension," in which, with supernal art, the master has attempted to depict the disciples gazing into heaven as their Lord disappears in the glory.
The beauty and innocence of a holy family where love is supreme do not prophesy all there is in life. The eyes may not be sharp enough to see the distant shadows, but they are beginning to gather. No child can be forever held by his parents' hands. Sometime he must stand alone, and then, if not before, the struggle will begin. Sooner or later the cross rises in the way of all who live. It cannot be escaped. It is impartial, and meets prince and peasant alike. It should be allowed to make us neither passionate nor pessimistic. We look upon the face of a sweet, pure boy, and the knowledge of what is before him makes us rebellious and angry. But that is only be-cause we do not look far enough. The bane of our thinking is that it is not thorough. A little light shows objects in distortion; fuller light reveals them as they actually are. If we think only of the cross in the distance, life appears to be an awful irony; but if we look beyond the cross to the resurrection and the ascension, and do not allow ourselves to believe that any true human life is completed until it is thus glorified, then existence itself becomes a blessing.
These three pictures show the progress of human experience. At first all are children; and if all could remain children they would be much alike, innocent and weak, until the end. But life necessitates growth, growth involves struggle, pruning, overcoming of obstacles, the gradual accumulation of grace and strength. Among men, growth is attended by misunderstanding, sorrow, pain, but ever also by increased achievement. And why so much struggle, suffering, and achievement, only to die ? Why, indeed? Better no growth than growth, simply for destruction. But death is not the end.
" There is no death ;- -what seems so is transition."
"Thy brother shall rise again." God cannot be confined in the grave ; neither can a child of God. So the cross is followed by resurrection and ascension. The Holy Child, the Man made perfect through suffering, the apparent eclipse of hope, and the final bursting of the bands in unhindered progress, symbolize the stages through which men move toward Him whom they may forever approach, but whose glory can never be fully appreciated or fathomed.
The Holy Child, the ideal family, the unseen ministry, the dawn, the sun setting and the sun rising again, what are these but successive stages in the revelation of God to man? The summit of knowledge is the revelation of God. But the highest knowledge is never well communicated by words; the only medium for its expression is life. You may discourse in a learned way about love, but the humblest youth, who clasps by the hand the maiden of his choice, knows more about its mysteries than even a divine revelation in words alone could convey.
God cannot be described. Definitions are only hints revealing what is hidden as well as what is disclosed. God is holy : what is holiness? He only begins to know who has begun to overcome evil and to be pure. God is love. He knows best what that is who best has learned to love in the only way possible for men, namely, by loving another human being like himself. We begin existence as children with infinite possibilities, and our chief problem is to have growth in stature matched by growth in the knowledge and appropriation of God. He who receives God manifests God. The boy Jesus thus grew, and day by day was filled according to His powers with the divine. In His childhood He reflected all of God that a child could—which was very little ; only innocence, not strength. Then came the silent years. That was the period of His preparation. If there had been any-thing unique in those processes of making perfect, it is probable that the world would not have been left in darkness concerning them. At length the preparation was complete, and the glory could be reflected. Then the veil was removed, and the world beheld in a man all it could know of the character of God.
There had been many other revelations. In the glory of nature, its meadows and mountains, its seas and storms, God's wisdom and majesty had appeared ; but it required a true human life to interpret to men the divine character. By the process of growth that Man was prepared ; and in the Child, in the family, in the unseen ministry, but, most of all, in the years that we have called the sunset, when He moved toward His death, is manifested the eternal nature of the Father, who forever lives, not to be ministered unto, but to minister; whose love not even what men call death can fully express; who cannot die, and whose children cannot die. In Jesus we see pure humanity full of Deity, as a bay is full of the ocean, or the noon of light; the bay is not the ocean, and the noon is not the sun; but the one shows what the ocean is, and the other what the universal splendor is. Other men, if they were as good and pure as He, might be as full of God and equally reflect Him ; but they are not as good and pure, and do not so reflect Him. The same sun shines on a tarnished and on a polished reflector, but the effect is not the same. The same God who dwelt in Jesus dwells in all men; but all do not equally show forth the brightness of the Father's glory.
These thoughts are suggested by the study of one of the noblest productions of human art. In this picture are immortal messages concerning the typical child, the ideal family, and above both, watching over them and never leaving them, the unseen ministry of the Eternal Father and the angels of God. This Child's life had its dawn and its sunset; but the sunset, with its cross and death, was followed by a new dawn of resurrection and ascension. And such is the divine order. The sublimest revelations always come through the processes of living. Art, music, speech, alike fail when the elemental truths must have utterance. Even the Gospels are only the records of what Jesus lived, and taught be-cause he lived.
" The life was the light of men." The Holy Gospels were condensed in the Holy Family.