Hans Memling (1435-1494)
The Seven Joys of Mary
Oil on oak wood panel
81.3 x 189.2 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich
There is some dispute about this picture. Not about the artist which is quite beyond doubt. It is about the title and what it is meant to depict.
The old title was and is The Seven Joys of Mary. These "Joys" do not coincide with the Five Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary
The seven joys are usually listed as: The Annunciation, The Nativity of Jesus, The Adoration of the Magi, The Resurrection of Christ, The Ascension of Christ to Heaven, The Pentecost or Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and Mary, and The Coronation of the Virgin in Heaven. There are variants. It was a common theme in medieval devotional painting and literature
The events depicted in Memling`s work all have a Marian joyful theme: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Visit of the Three Wise Men, the escape from the Massacre of the Innocents (and presumably The Flight into Egypt), the Resurrection of Jesus with the appearances of Christ after the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Death and Assumption of Mary
Others have interpreted Memling`s work as The Advent and Triumph of Christ, the story of the Salvation through the Incarnation and the Resurrection. But if that was the case one wonders where are, for example,the depictions of the Baptism of Christ, the Institution of the Eucharist, the Passion and the Crucifixion,
Another title given to the work is The Panorama of the Epiphany. Again that seems to restrict the themes in the painting and undermine or deny the role of Mary in the work.
The Munich Gallery still refers to Memling`s picture as "The Seven Joys of Mary". To deny that the thread to all the images depicted is Mary is to perhaps ignore the obvious.
THe use of the old title is reinforced by the fact that the work was commissioned for the Tanner's Guild Chapel in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges
The donor, Pieter Bultync, is depicted in the painting on the left with his sons, and his wife Katharina van Riebeke is on the right.
One does wonder why some people have denied or continue to deny the obvious theme of the painting
Which leads us on to consider the word "Joy". Especially as last Sunday was "Gaudete Sunday"
Is "joy" different from "happiness"? The French seem to use two words: "joie" and "bonheur". English has two words too: "joy" and "happiness" but the words seem to be used interchangeably
The essence of true "joy" according to the Pope seems to be that it is permanent and not temporary, and that it does not derive by our own acts but from a divine source:
"True joy is not a mere passing state of soul, nor something that is achieved by our own power but is a gift; it is born from the encounter with the living person of Jesus, from making space for him in us, from welcoming the Holy Spirit who guides our life."
One does not readily associate the latter years of Pope Paul VI with Joy. He became very ill, anxious and frail. Yet in 1975 he wrote and published an Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete in Domino (Rejoice in the Lord),
all devoted to an exposition to the theme of Christian Joy
In quite a prophetic passage which Pope Benedict seemed to echo in his Sunday Angelus, Pope Paul VI wrote:
"When he awakens to the world, does not man feel, in addition to the natural desire to understand and take possession of it, the desire to find within it his fulfillment and happiness?
As everyone knows, there are several degrees of this "happiness." Its most noble expression is joy, or "happiness" in the strict sense, when man, on the level of his higher faculties, finds his peace and satisfaction in the possession of a known and loved good.
Thus, man experiences joy when he finds himself in harmony with nature, and especially in the encounter, sharing and communion with other people. All the more does he know spiritual joy or happiness when his spirit enters into possession of God, known and loved as the supreme and immutable good.
Poets, artists, thinkers, but also ordinary men and women, simply disposed to a certain inner light, have been able and still are able, in the times before Christ and in our own time and among us, to experience something of the joy of God.
But how can we ignore the additional fact that joy is always imperfect, fragile and threatened?
By a strange paradox, the consciousness of that which, beyond all passing pleasure, would constitute true happiness, also includes the certainty that there is no perfect happiness. The experience of finiteness, felt by each generation in its turn, obliges one to acknowledge and to plumb the immense gap that always exists between reality and the desire for the infinite.
This paradox, and this difficulty in attaining joy, seem to us particularly acute today. This is the reason for our message.
Technological society has succeeded in multiplying the opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy. For joy comes from another source. It is spiritual.
Money, comfort, hygiene and material security are often not lacking; and yet boredom, depression and sadness unhappily remain the lot of many. These feelings sometimes go as far as anguish and despair, which apparent carefreeness, the frenzies of present good fortune and artificial paradises cannot assuage.
Do people perhaps feel helpless to dominate industrial progress, to plan society in a human way? Does the future perhaps seem too uncertain, human life too threatened? Or is it not perhaps a matter of loneliness, of an unsatisfied thirst for love and for someone's presence, of an ill-defined emptiness? On the contrary, in many regions and sometimes in our midst, the sum of physical and moral sufferings weighs heavily: so many starving people, so many victims of fruitless combats, so many people torn from their homes! These miseries are perhaps not deeper than those of the past but they have taken on a worldwide dimension. They are better known, reported by the mass media—at least as much as the events of good fortune—and they overwhelm people's minds. Often there seems to be no adequate human solution to them."
And so back to the painting.
What the artist has depicted is Mary`s encounters with God: God the Father and the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation, the pregnancy and life with her Son, and the reception by her of The Holy Spirit at Pentecost and then her encounter with the Trinity. A life filled with Grace and by act of Divine Grace
One of the poorest of the poor, fragile and threatened by outside human forces, challenged by the vicissitudes and turmoils, she was and is triumphant filled with holy and everlasting Joy and forever in union with with The Trinity through Her Son.
Pope Paul VI perhaps summed it up best and completely in his Apostolic Exhortation, at a time when after The Second Vatican Council some thought that Mary was being "written out" of the Catholic Church:
"She [Mary], accepting the announcement from on high, the Servant of the Lord, Spouse of the Spirit and Mother of the Eternal Son, manifests her joy before her cousin Elizabeth who celebrates her faith:
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...henceforth all generations will call me blessed."
She has grasped, better than all other creatures, that God accomplishes wonderful things: His name is holy, He shows His mercy, He raises up the humble, He is faithful to His promises.
Not that the apparent course of her life in any way departs from the ordinary, but she meditates on the least signs of God, pondering them in her heart.
Not that she is in any way spared sufferings: she stands, the mother of sorrows, at the foot of the cross, associated in an eminent way with the sacrifice of the innocent Servant.
But she is also open in an unlimited degree to the joy of the resurrection; and she is also taken up, body and soul, into the glory of heaven.
The first of the redeemed, immaculate from the moment of her conception, the incomparable dwelling-place of the Spirit, the pure abode of the Redeemer of mankind, she is at the same time the beloved Daughter of God and, in Christ, the Mother of all.
She is the perfect model of the Church both on earth and in glory. What a marvelous echo the prophetic words about the new Jerusalem find in her wonderful existence as the Virgin of Israel:
"I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garment of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels."
With Christ, she sums up in herself all joys; she lives the perfect joy promised to the Church: Mater plena sanctae laetitiae. And it is with good reason that her children on earth, turning to her who is the mother of hope and of grace, invoke her as the cause of their joy: Causa nostrae laetitiae."