Mother of God, But Still a Mama

February 9, 2016

Annibale Carracci, The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist ('The Montalto Madonna'), about 1600 (National Gallery, London)

Annibale Carracci,
The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, about 1600
(National Gallery, London)

I’m just back from London, where I spent many delightful hours at the National Gallery. This little painting caught my eye, which is little wonder because Carracci does that.

The motif is the Holy Family—the mother Mary, the baby Jesus, and Saint Joseph. It’s a traditional theme in Christian art, typically used to promote modeling one’s own family after this mostly divine one. Here, though, John the Baptist is included as well. That’s not unusual and he does fit the theme (we was a cousin of Mary and Jesus), but it does shift the meaning of the motif, especially in this painting.

The first thing I notice is how the figures of Mary and Jesus are so tightly tied together. They are turned toward each other and their heads are gently touching. Mary’s arm and Jesus’ arm and leg make a strong rectilinear shape emphasizing their unity, and their garments, particularly Mary’s robe, enclose them. We instantly understand that these two are lovingly bonded.

Both, however, glance to the outside. Jesus looks over his shoulder toward his earthly father, Joseph. What is happening between them is hard to identify—the way Joseph leans in is not playful or even loving exactly, but it’s not threatening either. He looks curious, like he is puzzling over this baby, maybe because of something he just read in that book. Jesus, for his part, looks a little wary.

Mary’s glance is much easier to identify. It seems like the infant John has tugged on her robe, causing her to look back. She is very much aware of what John represents, which is the knowledge that her baby—this Jesus—will be the Messiah. Carracci underscores this by putting the characteristic cruciform staff in John’s hand. Instinctively, Mary turns away from John, shielding Jesus from that message, that cross. Who can blame her?

This pair seems pushed from both sides. The sweet bond between mother and son seems disrupted by indications of what is to come. Both the traditional Jewish scriptures and the soon-to-be prophet John foreshadow how this is all going to end.

Yes, we should all be thrilled that the Messiah is come, but at the moment he’s just a baby. Can’t all the prophecy just wait a little?

But, no. Here’s Ash Wednesday.

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