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Two, make that three, images for the season

AWOL draws attention to the British Museums interactive on-line presence. Typing Nativity into the search engine brought me to this exquisite ivory panel from 15th-century France. The whole story is there, shepherds and magi, too:And then a friend led me to a passage by Jane Kenyon on the annunciation,

Italian Renaissance painting often shows the Virgin holding her place in the book she was reading when the angel broke in upon her--a curious anachronism as the ur-Mary was unlikely to have been reading a bound book. In any case, Mary stops reading and listens to Gabriel's outlandish news. The lives of God's holy ones are subject to major interruptions. I think of Simone Martini's depiction of the Annunciation. In many paintings of the period Mary draws back from Gabriel in trepidation, but I know of no other picture in which sorrow, fear, and even belligerence appear so clearly. The corners of her mouth turn downward. Get away from me!But love was working in her, and in the faith which overturns fear she replied: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word." How I love Martini's glimpse of Mary in the moments just before she brings herself to say yes.Gabriel's Truth, in A Hundred White Daffodils

Here is Simone Martinis masterpiece (1333), now in the Uffizi. Judge for yourselves:And here, courtesy of John Page, is Duccio's Annunciation of a little earlier:  


Commenting Guidelines

I love Martini's Annunciation. Mary's shrinking from the news shows, I think, that she understands the full weight of what will be expected of her ... and what she will be required to endure to raise her son. There must have been many people who always believed Jesus was merely a bastard. I recently read Mrs. Gaskell's "Ruth," about a woman who bears an illegitimate son in Victorian England. A Methodist minister and his sister take her in. The little boy grows up to be a happy child ... which makes the three adults worry all the more of how the stigma of his birth will stunt his life and shut him out from opportunities. The minister's advice to Ruth strikes me as something Mary might have contemplated:"The world is not everything, Ruth; nor the is the want of men's good opinion and esteem the highest need which man has. Teach [your son] this. You would not wish his life to be one summer's day. You dared not make it so, if you had the power. Teach him to bid a noble Christian welcome to the trials which God sends.... Tell him of the hard and thorny path which was trodden once by the bleeding feet of One. Ruth! Think of the Saviour's life and cruel death, and of his divine faithfulness."

Many thanks for the reminder of the Martini work, and this thread.

The idea of being disturbed by an interruption from something so much bigger than oneself is an idea that could find some resonance today!

I see the shepherds (and sheep), but no magi in that ivory panel. I also see that Mary is lying down for a change, which is nice. The kneeling-in-adoration post-partum posture always strikes me as a bit unlikely. And she even has a nice a tasseled pillow for her head!

I think you're right, Mollie. My first glance was that the figure on the lower right was a King, but now I see that it is probably St. Joseph. In his Mont saint Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams comments on an almost identical representation of the Nativity at Chartres:

On the lintel immediately above the doorway is a succession of smallgroups: first, the Annunciation; Mary stands to receive theArchangel Gabriel, who comes to announce to her that she is chosento be the Mother of God. The second is the Visitation, and in thisscene also Mary stands, but she already wears a crown; at least, theAbbe Bulteau says so, although time has dealt harshly with it. Then,in the centre, follows the Nativity; Mary lies on a low bed,beneath, or before, a sort of table or cradle on which lies theInfant, while Saint Joseph stands at the bed's head. Then the angelappears, directing three shepherds to the spot, filling the rest ofthe space.In correct theology, the Virgin ought not to be represented in bed,for she could not suffer like ordinary women, but her palace atChartres is not much troubled by theology, and to her, as empress-mother, the pain of child-birth was a pleasure which she wanted herpeople to share. The Virgin of Chartres was the greatest of allqueens, but the most womanly of women, as we shall see; and herdouble character is sustained throughout her palace.

Wow. I'm kind of fascinated by the tradition ("correct theology"!) that held that Mary's childbirth had to have been painless, but I'm also glad it's not part of the standard Nativity narrative anymore. Regardless I would think Mary deserves a rest after all she's been through, suffering or no. I remember reading one version of the Nativity -- I think it's from one of the medieval mystery-play cycles -- in which Joseph actually misses the birth, because he goes off in search of some women to assist his laboring wife, and by the time he gets back the baby has arrived -- it was just that easy! It looks like this St. Joseph could be returning from the same errand.

Mollie, that's from the Infancy Gospel of James (but i don't doubt that the tradition survived into later contexts): the labor is especially easy because it never happens: Jesus just appear, and Mary's hymen remains intact! (seriously, Salome does a vaginal exam to prove it)i had to make a copy of the Martini in college--very wonderful.

The Martini has always been my favorite Annunciation. Note particularly the way Gabriel's words -- Ave Maria, gratia plena -- go straight as a laser beam from his mouth to Mary's head and ears.

In some artworks on the Nativity Joseph is pictured as asleep. I wonder why. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Joseph received messages from God in dreams.

It is worthwhile noting that the Eastern Churches' iconography always and still has Mary on a 'royal bed' (which often looks a bit like an air mattress) with the child either by her side or next to her in the manger/crib. This is also true in the Western Church up till the time of Saint Birgitta of Sweden (14th century). Birgitta (or Bridget) mentioned in her "Revelations" that she saw the Virgin kneeling before the manger/crib with a candle in her hand worshiping her child. The lit candle was understood as a 'symbolic understanding' of the method of the birth of the child leaving his Mother an intact Virgin (passing like a glowing light from her womb). It is under the influence of these texts ("Revelations) that one begins to see images with the Virgin kneeling before the crib, so not before the mid 14th century. One therefore can easily 'date' Nativity images in the West as 'before and after' Birgitta.

How times change. I have a little calendar by Warhol. The Nativity drawing shows Mary and Joseph kneeling in prayer at either end of the crib, where the baby Jesus lies on the straw, happily hugging the big fat cat that lies on top of Him.Inclines me to believe that Warhol actually did go to Mass daily and serve in soup kitchens regularly.

I've never understood how Mary is praised for saying yes to God when the request was made by an angel.Did she know the angel Gabriel was before her? If she knew he was an angel then isn't that astounding experience suffiicent for any human to say yes to?If an angel appeared to me-that would be the end of all trepidation since I now know that spirits exist and hence what was faith in God is now confirmation.If she did not know he was an angel -that's different but I'd love to have that explained. The appearance of an angel is treated like it's irrelevant - a mere messenger-when in actuality such a supernatural experience would alters the experience of being human for anyone-no?

Typo alert.

"Angel," of course, means "messenger," and so in the biblical accounts of appearances of angels, it's usually understood that their message is from God so that to say Yes to their word is to say Yes to God. These wonderful paintings are visualizations of an intensely personal and intimate encounter with God.

Mary was taken aback by Gabriel's first wordsas who would not be?and she thought, "What sort of greeting is this?" (Luke 1:29) He probably didn't have wings or a halo. They came later, I think, as a convention in painting to show us less spiritually attuned souls what was going on. And he said nothing about his own identity, although he spoke as one who knows the truth. So he was just a messenger, albeit with a momentous messsage. For her part, Mary did not ask for ID. She did have a reasonable question about implementation, and when she understood that nothing was required of her but acceptance, she gave it freely, explaining simply that she was the servant (literally, the slave) of the Lord.

I often wonder if what we characterize today as a flash of inspiration or recognition, or the acceptance of a seemly overwhelming obligation, might in the past have been characterized by the appearance of an angel. While we seem to be good these days at cross-cultural understanding (when we put our minds to it), I think we sometimes lack a cross-temporal imagination, having a hard time imagining what it must have been like to experience life in the past. Phenomena are characterized differently in different times yet I wonder how different they actually are.

I once attended a meeting at Notre Dame of people who were both believing Christians and first-class scientists. One of the Protestant participants told a story that included a moment when in an airport God spoke to him and told him to go speak to a man unknown to him, and the encounter was a significant moment for both of them. I've always been sorry that I did not ask him what it was like to hear God talking to him and telling him things. I've never had an experience I would describe in such terms, and I would like to know what it's like.

I guess I get it;"a flash of inspiration or regognition".Does that mean Mary did not actually see an angel but had an inner experience of believing that she was called to be the mother of the Lord?It was in her mind this experience? Is that it?[like when God spoke to the man in the airport?]And because we[via the gospel writers] believe in the incarnation -a sort of reverse engineering [in the annunciation gospel] is used to give a plausible theological narrative,consistent with what is already present in the old testament scripture, of jesus's conception? is that it? This flash of recognition or inspiration resonates with me.When i first started working-for the post office many years ago, i am retired now- I was a lapsed catholic and had been so since my teens. I was new at the job and did not know any one and felt rather nervous .The place was noisy and the work was uncomfortable. I was sorting the mail and all of a sudden someone came up to me and handed me a letter addressed to me. [some junk mail or bill -iIbelieve]. She said my name -which surprised me as she was not my supervisor and did not work on the floor with me. Her voice was gentle and kind. I thanked her and looked at her and noticed she was wearing a crucifix .In that moment I felt and I knew that I wanted to go back to the church-to be connected to God again. It was a flash- a moment of knowing I wanted and needed God. Psychologically one can say that because I was in a stressful situation and someone spoke to me in a gentle kind voice-I regressed to a memory of childhood faith. Sure-that's true .It is also true that in that moment-the sound of her voice and the sight of the crucifix around her neck -gave me not just a sense of peace but a knowledge that what I wanted was to be connected again to Jesus Christ.I did come back to the church shortly after that[after a few other experiences similar to that].

Rose-ellen, you may have had a modern-day angelic experience ;-)One of the most fascinating (if slightly whacky) books I've ever read is calledThe Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. He basically says that until two or so millennia before Christ, humans weren't what we think of as fully self-conscious (e.g., me thinking about me, that person you talk to when you talk to yourself). Rather, they were just conscious, and the right brain told the left brain what to do via voices. Then, life got too complex for this to continue to work, so self-consciousness arose via the use of language, in particular metaphor. He shows the evolution by looking at the Iliad and the Odyssey, charting how self-reflection appears in the narrative over time. He does the same thing with the Old Testament, showing how both self-reflection (and the nature of God) evolved over time. That's a really brief and not very good summary, but you get the idea. Fascinating stuff. It's also fascinating to imagine the creation story saying something similar, with humans taking a bite "from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." Sounds like the acquisition of self-reflection to me!Here it is at Amazon, with tons of reviews, which give a better feel for the book:

Rose-EllenThanks for sharing your personal, beautiful experience. I think too often too many of us are closed, and unable to hear or see such graceful events. We can frequently dismiss it in psychological interpretation, but that wouldn't be very faithful would it? Good for you.Shayne A LaBudda

Rose-Ellen, of course the incident can be given a psychological interpretation, but why would God not use such means to reach out to you as well? Both can be simultaneously true, the natural and the supernatural, can't they? In that way, a person who does not want to see such a sign of grace is free to ignore it, and a person who is open to it can benefit from it.

Rose-Ellen --Thank you for sharing your story. Unfortunately, too many people these days won't admit that such events are even possible. They're taken in by the claims of some scientists that the only thing that is real is what is material and that the larws of nature cannot be broken. There are even many believers who will grant that God created the world out of nothing, but then they say that He can't create exceptions to His own physical laws. How narrow-minded!True, it is not all that hard to fool ourselves about these events. On the other hand, sometimes it is hard *not* to believe there are exceptions. So that is another question for those theological epistemologists I'm always talking about: How can we distinguish the fake miracles from the real ones?

"... the claims of some scientists that the only thing that is real is what is material and that the larws of nature cannot be broken."Some scientists may claim that. But I think the commoner view is more modest: that science restricts itself to study of the natural world and has no competence beyond it.

John Prior, does that mean that you yield expertise of the natural world to science? That if they say it is impossible that a stinking Lazarus was raised up by the voice of Jesus 4 days after death, then it did not happen?

No, Claire, I was saying that scrupulous scientists will only say that they don't know of any natural process by which that could have happened, which accords very well with the Christian belief.

Jphn P. --I must beg to differ with you. A study of scientists as early as 1914 showed that 58% of scientists were agnostics. Later in the century the influence of the logical positivists became even stronger, so I suspect that the proportion of agnostic/atheist among everyday scientists has become even larger. There was also a more recent study which showed that something like 98% of the most admired scientists today are agnostic/atheists. (Sorry, I haven been able to track down that study on the net.)Philosophy of science since the "Enlightenment has been moving toward atheistic/agnotic materialism, towards the posit ion that the only kind of reality is material reality, and scientists study it experimentally. With the logical positivists in the 20-s-30's this school of thought became extremely dominant among the most respected scientists (including Nobel Prize winners). There have been some exceptions, the big ones being Einstein and Wittgenstein (who was a great logician besides great philosopher of language). Einstein thought that there is an intelligence which orders the world (but he didn't believe n a personal God). Wittgenstein believe in "the mystical" and eventually asked to talk to a priest as he lay dying, and his friends had him buried at a Mass. There have been a few other notable exceptions, including David Bohm an John Polkinghorne. HOWEVER ------- Thoma;s Nagel, a highly respected philosopher of scientist -- AND an atheist -- very recently published his "Mind and Cosmos" which asserts that materialism cannot account for the process of evolution which has resulted in consciousness, ergo there is something besides matter in the world. Nagel has caused a furor in philosophy because of it. It is being reviewed all over the place, not just in philosophy journals, because he is really the first non-religious person to challenge the Enlightenment. (Or that's how I see him :-) Here's a review of his book in Public Discourse; Neither Darwin Nor God? | Public DiscoursePlease forgive my typing. Bad eyesight today.

Oopw == that address didn't com out rihy. Try this:

Ann O,Scientists have personal beliefs just as other people have, and it may well be that most of them today do not believe in God. But that is not a scientific conclusion. The hypothesis that God exists or that there is a supernatural order of being entirely distinct from the natural universe is neither verifiable nor falsifiable by scientific methods. God is, after all, said to be transcendent. The most that can be said, I think, is that it is no longer necessary to posit an Aeolus to account for the blowing wind or a Zeus to explain a lightning strike. There are still many natural mysteries. But suppose in the future everything about the workings of the world becomes known, and all can be explained without invoking God. Would that mean that he does not exist? No, it might only mean that he has a light hand on the world, and chooses for his own reasons to be known by faith and by love only, as many believe in him and love him today.I say again that science itself (if not every scientist) is modest. It strives to learn what it can in the workaday world and leaves to other disciplines the high knowledge of unseen realms.

John Prior: You wrote: "I say again that science itself (if not every scientist) is modest. It strives to learn what it can in the workaday world and leaves to other disciplines the high knowledge of unseen realms.""Science itself," of course, does not exist, much less "strive" or "leave". Scientists do exist, and some of them "strive" and some of them "leave".

I am sorry to learn that science does not exist, and that the canons of science, the community of scientists, and the work they do cannot for brevity be called science. But I doubt that I am the first or will be the last to make that mistake.


About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.