“The Presentation of Christ in the Temple”, Andrea Mantegna, c.1454, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche, Museen su Berlin.
This painting must have had some personal meaning for Mantegna. It dates from around the time of his marriage to Nicolosia, who was a Bellini. The two figures behind are thought to be Mantegna and his wife. The pose of the mother and child might be derived from an icon where their mouths are close enough to share the same breath. It is like a frieze but one in which the narrative moves from right to left. Simeon has just given her back the child and she receives him with Simeon’s words ringing in her ears. The Virgins her arm on the illusionistic frame as the child who she and Simeon hold enters the viewer’s world. It is not inconceivable that this was meant to hang above an altar, perhaps in a private chapel. If so imagine how it would look in candlelight, enhancing the illusion that the Virgin and Child are just at a window opening unto our space. This fictional frame has been described as both lens and stage. It is as if we are given a window unto the sacred event, whilst the same event breaks into our world, offering meaning and insight into our own lives. And so this is meaningful for us as we celebrate the Presentation of the Lord, holding lighted candles out to be blessed. At the time, a new devotional movement, which became known as Devotio Moderna, had arrived south of the Alps and tracts such as “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas A Kempis (1418-27) were widely read and they greatly influenced the devout, whether literate or illiterate. This movement emphasised a more personal connection with Christ and with his mother. Readers were urged to imagine the gospel scene and meditate on it. The child cries out as Christ would on the cross , and his swaddling bands suggests a shroud. Childbirth was a risky business both before and after, for both mother and child. Could this work have been painted to mark the safe delivery of their first child and before which Masses could be offered in thanksgiving?
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