The image of the Madonna and Child is timeless and its Christmas story still speaks to us across the millennia.
The depiction of the Madonna and Child you see here is an 18th century copy of the 16th century oil on panel by the Renaissance Mannerist Francesco Salviati (1510-1563) which hangs in the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence. Salviati (also known as Francesco de’ Rossi) was born and worked in Florence. His apprenticeship concluded under the remarkable Andrea del Sarto in 1529-1530. In 1531 he left for Rome where he was reunited with his former Florentine master Baccio Bandinelli. Together they worked on the frescoes depicting the Life of John the Baptist in the Palazzo Salviati for Cardinal Giovanni Salviati whose surname Francesco took on.
In the 16th century, as in earlier times, paintings, frescoes and carvings often contained complex iconography and were frequently used as teaching tools. In this depiction, the Christ Child embraces the Virgin Mary. His right hand is raised in a symbol of blessing as his mother supports him. Mary holds in her hands a veil symbolising their innocence and obedience to God’s will. To the right in the sky above them a winged angel holds a cross alluding to God’s plan for the redemption of humankind through the Crucifixion which is to come. The stylized landscape frames the Marian blue of her cloak. The expressions and gestures of this devoted mother and her child, combined with the delicacy of line and composition, create an effect which is extraordinarily naturalistic and tender.
The painter’s scene is filled with rhythm and beauty, allowing us at once to discern love and authority. Mary’s response to God’s calling and love is acceptance, obedience and service. Her example continues to inspire us.
As you read this I and millions of other Christians across the country will be preparing to celebrate that very first Christmas when God came among us as a baby in a manger. His parents were displaced and without their home.
People over the ages have often talked of value in terms of the material; by this standard, Mary and Joseph had little and yet they knew that they had been richly blessed. They shared the gift of their child with the world. This gift was so precious, so valuable that even the heavenly host of angels rejoiced and praised God. What was being celebrated was love.
Most of us have been expectantly preparing for Christmas as we anticipate the arrival of loved ones, or journey, like Mary and Joseph, to our ancestral homes (whether grand or modest). These shared moments will be particularly precious after the separation caused by Covid-19. Our processions towards Christmas day will be different and particular this year.
As we give and receive gifts this Christmas I hope that like Mary and Joseph we will be inspired to share what we have with the world through acts of generosity, kindness and concern for the needs of others, especially the displaced and the homeless. The message of Christmas is that true value is defined by love and service to others.
It remains for me to wish you and those you love a very happy and blessed Christmas. Keep safe.