Saturday, September 08, 2012

The Nativity of Mary

Antoine Le Nain (1600/1610-1648) and Mathieu Le Nain (1607-1677)
The Nativity of Mary
c. 1645
Oil on canvas
2.200 m. x 1.450 m
Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Paris  (formerly in the Church of St Etienne-du-Mont)

"Les frères Le Nain" were in fact three brothers born near Laon in Northern France but who through time settled in Paris: Antoine, Louis and  Mathieu

Their styles were remarkably similar and it is very difficult to distinguish between the three

The work is not one of their better known. But it is a beautiful painting which should be better known. It has been described as the most beautiful religious painting executed by the brothers

It was originally commissioned to hang over the altar in the Chapelle Saint-Augustin in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Paris

For some reason in 1811 it was moved to the Church of St Etienne-du-Mont and it was only in 1964 was it moved back to Notre Dame where it hangs in the 16th chapel on the right

The painting was regarded by some contemporaries as sacreligious. However all three brothers` works were always for the main part counter-cultural. They were popular with the middle class and were successful. All three were buried in Saint-Sulpice

On the right we see Saint Anne on her bed having just given birth to Mary. Joachim and Anne had according to the pseudo-Gospels waited a long time for a child. Both were advanced in age when Mary was born.

The centrepiece is the suckling of Mary under the attentive eyes of St Joachim. Is the figure who suckles Mary St Anne or a wet nurse ?

The Nativity of Mary is one of the great Marian feasts although you might be hard pushed to realise it

It is a sort of "prologue" to the Incarnation: Mary, like the dawn, ushers in the sun of the "new day", foretelling the joy of the Redeemer.

The greatest monument to today`s feast is of course in Milan. The Duomo is entitled and dedicated to Santa Maria Nascente, the nativity of Mary

Construction began in 1386 and only was completed in the twentieth century

In 1970 Cardinal Colombo, then Archbishop of Milan, explained the significance of the Feast in a Pastoral Letter:

"La nascita della Madonna è il mistero che oggi celebriamo con gioia spirituale.  
I nostri padri hanno dedicato a Maria nascente questo duomo, simbolo marmoreo della Chiesa ambrosiana e hanno posto sulla guglia più alta la Madonnina dorata e fulgente perché di lassù, come sentinella d’amore, con il suo esempio illuminasse e con la sua interces­sione proteggesse tutta quanta la diocesi. 
Perché tanta festa per la nascita di Maria? La risposta è semplice e importante nello stesso tempo. 
Con la venuta di questa bambina una grande novità irrompe nel vecchio mondo. Nella serie delle generazioni umane, lunga carovana di peccatori, si inserisce la prima creatura libera da ogni colpa e da ogni male, da cui nascerà lo stesso liberatore suo e di tutti, dal peccato e dal­la morte."

It was a wholly new event in the history of the world: with the coming of this little girl, there came the first person born free of any fault or sin. This was the person from whom would be born the great liberator of all free from sin and from death

After the Second Vatican Council, there was a significant decline in the devotion accorded to Mary
Pope Paul VI addressed the problem in his Apostolic Exhortation  Marialis Cultus (1974)

The decline was rather surprising in view of the black and white words of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, sections 52 et seq:

"52. ...Joined to Christ the Head and in the unity of fellowship with all His saints, the faithful must in the first place reverence the memory "of the glorious ever Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord Jesus Christ". 
53. The Virgin Mary, who at the message of the angel received the Word of God in her heart and in her body and gave Life to the world, is acknowledged and honoured as being truly the Mother of God and Mother of the Redeemer.  
Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is endowed with the high office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit.  
Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth. At the same time, however, because she belongs to the offspring of Adam she is one with all those who are to be saved. She is "the mother of the members of Christ . . . having cooperated by charity that faithful might be born in the Church, who are members of that Head."  
Wherefore she is hailed as a pre-eminent and singular member of the Church, and as its type and excellent exemplar in faith and charity. The Catholic Church, taught by the Holy Spirit, honours her with filial affection and piety as a most beloved mother."

Pope Paul VI diagnosed a number of reasons for the decline. Mariology was regarded as a form of popular piety and not in accord with the primacy of Scripture.

A similar process followed on in the Anglican Church immediately after the Reformation.

But even in the Anglican Church, Mary was still a figure of devotion and the Feast of the Nativity of Mary was one of the five main Marian feasts celebrated by that Church:

"45 In this context, the English Reformers continued to receive the doctrine of the ancient Church concerning Mary. Their positive teaching about Mary concentrated on her role in the Incarnation: it is summed up in their acceptance of her as the Theotókos, because this was seen to be both scriptural and in accord with ancient common tradition. Following the traditions of the early Church and other Reformers like Martin Luther, the English Reformers such as Latimer (Works, 2:105), Cranmer (Works, 2:60; 2:88) and Jewel (Works, 3:440-441) accepted that Mary was ‘Ever Virgin’. Following Augustine, they showed a reticence about affirming that Mary was a sinner. Their chief concern was to emphasize the unique sinlessness of Christ, and the need of all humankind, including Mary, for a Saviour (cf. Luke 1:47). Articles IX and XV affirmed the universality of human sinfulness. They neither affirmed nor denied the possibility of Mary having been preserved by grace from participation in this general human condition. It is notable that the Book of Common Prayer in the Christmas collect and preface refers to Mary as ‘a pure Virgin’. 
46 From 1561, the calendar of the Church of England (which was reproduced in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer) contained five feasts associated with Mary: Conception of Mary, Nativity of Mary, Annunciation, Visitation, and Purification/Presentation. 
There was, however, no longer a feast of the Assumption (August 15): not only was it understood to lack scriptural warrant, but was also seen as exalting Mary at the expense of Christ. 
Anglican liturgy, as expressed in the successive Books of Common Prayer (1549, 1552, 1559, 1662) when it mentions Mary, gives prominence to her role as the ‘pure Virgin’ from whose ‘substance’ the Son took human nature (cf. Article II). In spite of the diminution of devotion to Mary in the sixteenth century, reverence for her endured in the continued use of the Magnificat in Evening Prayer, and the unchanged dedication of ancient churches and Lady Chapels. 
In the seventeenth century writers such as Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor and Thomas Ken re-appropriated from patristic tradition a fuller appreciation of the place of Mary in the prayers of the believer and of the Church. For example, Andrewes in his Preces Privatae borrowed from Eastern liturgies when he showed a warmth of Marian devotion “Commemorating the all-holy, immaculate, more than blessed mother of God and ever-virgin Mary.” This re-appropriation can be traced into the next century, and into the Oxford Movement of the nineteenth century." 
(Anglican - Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ: The Seattle Statement)

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