More than meets the eye

More than meets the eye

Part I

 

By Canon Jim Foley

On the occasion of my Diamond Jubilee of Ordination I was asked to suggest an image and a text for a souvenir prayer card to mark the occasion. The image I chose is the Madonna and Child by Carlo Dolci (1616-1686) and the text is a quotation from Psalm 73. What follows is an attempt to explain both choices.   First of all the image.

Madonna and Child

In October 1948, during my first few days as a student in Rome, some of the ‘old hands’ invited me to join them to do a bit of shopping, suggesting, ominously, that there would be little time for such trivial pursuits when lectures started. Our first stop was Nazzereno Beretti’s in the Piazza della Minerva, the equivalent of Glasgow’s Carruth’s Grotto in High Street which sadly closed its doors last year. My more experienced companions were forking out what I took to be large sums of money for the items they bought. I soon discovered that a few thousand lira added up to precious little. I was reluctant to leave the shop with one arm as long as the other, so I bought a small ‘holy picture’ featuring Carlo Dolci’s Madonna and Child. I was attracted to it by the fact that the child Jesus actually looked like his mother.

This was my first taste of Rome. It was enhanced by the fact that Beretti’s was situated in one of the most fascinating Piazzas in the city and I would hope to return to that subject at a later date. Some years later, years during which this picture has been part of the collection of such cards, housed in my Breviary (and now in my Kindle), I understood better the implications of this family likeness.

The witness of the New Testament

The Gospels contain convincing evidence for the humanity of Jesus, while not compromising his divinity in any way. On the very first day of his public ministry he enjoyed a meal provided by Simon’s mother-in-law (Mark 1.31). Not long after that he joined Matthew for what could be claimed as his ordination dinner (Mark 2.15-17). He regularly shared meals with those he met along the way, many of them disreputable characters in the eyes of the establishment. On one occasion we learn that he told his disciples to slow down and find a quiet spot to share a meal together in peace and as far away from the crowds as they could get (Mark 6.31). On another occasion he was tired out and sat down for a rest. It was then that he asked a woman from Samaria to give him a drink of water from Jacob’s well to quench his thirst in the heat of the day (John 4.7). Towards the end of his final pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Saint Mark simply states that ‘he was hungry’ and would gladly have eaten some of the fruit of a nearby fig tree (11.12). Unfortunately, like the religion of the Pharisees, it was barren and had nothing to offer.

He likewise experienced the whole range of human emotions. Amongst these there is compassion for those suffering from disability; the blind that were forced to beg if they hoped to survive; the deaf and dumb and the lame that seem destined to remain on the margin of society. For most, their misery was compounded by prejudice and even by their complete segregation (Mark 1.40ff). He experienced exasperation with his disciples who were so slow to understand so much of his example and teaching (Mark 8.17ff). He was prudent and cautious when faced with apparently impossible situations, as when he visited the Temple at the end of his final pilgrimage to the Holy City. St Mark notes that he scrutinised everything carefully but decided to sleep on it till the morning (Mark 11.11). The next day it was a different story. The compassionate human being gave way to the angry reformer as he sent the merchants packing out of the temple (Mark 11.15 ff). Jesus was reduced to tears when told of the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11.35). Throughout his life he could not hide his frustration at the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees.

The most sustained evidence for the genuineness of Jesus’ humanity was his Passion. To see Jesus on his knees at the last supper as he washes his disciples feet (John 13,1 ff), or on his knees again in solitary and anguished prayer in Gethsemane (Mark 14.32ff) is to see him, not only as a creature of God, but as one who acknowledges this to be so.

Saint Luke is able to claim, at the end of a day when his parents had lost track of Jesus in Jerusalem as a child, that ‘he was obedient to them’ and ‘increased in wisdom and favour with God and man’ {2.51f). During those formative years, this wisdom was learned at home with Mary and Joseph and so much of it would be turned to advantage in Jesus’ public ministry many years later

All of this presents us with a human being who shared completely in every human condition and emotion, with the exception of sin.

 

The Witness of Saint Paul

 

Paul, almost in passing, remarks that Jesus was ‘born of a woman’ (Galatians 4.4). He feels that is all he need say to establish the reality and the genuineness of his humanity as he reminds the churches of Galatia of the essence of the Gospel he had preached to them. He was born of a woman. There are echoes of Job 14,1 here:

‘Man that is born of woman

is of few days, and full of trouble.

He comes forth like a flower and withers;

He flees like a shadow, and continues not’  

Elsewhere Paul explores the mystery of the human and the divine natures in Jesus and how the Son of God emptied himself of his divinity to take on human nature with all its limitations. Unlike Job, however, Paul does not leave it there. The glory he had left aside to embrace the human condition was restored with his resurrection and ascension.

Like Mother like Son

If the pen is mightier than the sword, we might be tempted, as we admire Carlo Dolci’s Madonna and Child, to conclude that the artist’s brush is as mighty as the evangelist’s pen. By suggesting the child’s resemblance to his mother Mary, Carlo Dolci makes his contribution to the theology of the Incarnation. He expresses, in his own way, the mystery which has engaged the greatest scholars, and he does so with the stroke of a brush.

There would appear to be more to his portrait of the Madonna and Child than meets the eye.

More than Meets the Eye

Part II

Psalm 73.23-26

  Yet I was always in your presence;

You were holding me by my right hand.

you will guide me by your counsel

and so you will lead me to glory.

 +

What else have I in heaven but you?

Apart from you I want nothing on earth.

My body and my heart faint for joy;

For God is my possession forever.

The above brief extract from Psalm 73 is the passage I chose to include with the card commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of my ordination. Each month it forms part of the Prayer of the Church. Perhaps a brief commentary will help to justify the choice.

The verses of the Psalm which precede this quotation could be described as a lamentation. The poet catalogues the sad times and the many tragedies that had threatened his life but then, with verse 23, he seems to gather strength from the realization that, through it all, God had never let him out of his sight.

The first two lines describe this closeness in terms that suggest the relationship between a father and son.   In fact, they carefully mark the contrast between his previous mood of being abandoned, even by God, and his realisation that this was not the case: ‘Yet, (in spite of all that has happened) I was always in your presence’.   The image of being held by the right hand by God that follows, carries the mind back to one of the most moving scenes described in the old Testament, the relationship between Abraham and his son Isaac making their way ‘hand in hand’ to the place of sacrifice (Genesis 22.6 repeated at 22.8). It also carries our minds forward to the journey of Jesus towards his place of sacrifice under the providence of his heavenly Father even when he was driven to ask ‘ My, God, my God why have you forsaken me’.

‘You will guide me by your counsel’. With verse 24 the psalmist renews his trust in God’s providence to continue to guide his steps. No matter what his fears for the future might be, he is now certain, as he renews his faith, that he is marked out to share in the glory of God himself.

He has come to recognise that he is destined to be with God. There is nothing in this earthy life to detain him (verse 25). His prayer of trust modulates into a prayer of thanksgiving for the supreme gift in store for him: ‘God will be my possession forever’ (v 26).

These few lines would already persuade us to distance ourselves from those who claim that Judaism had no concept of life after death, let alone glory after a life of suffering. In fact, these four verses of Psalm 73 are not far removed from St Paul:1 Corinthians 2.9:

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the heart of man conceived,

what God has prepared for those who love him.

+

Post Script: Among the items of interest in St Peter’s College, Cardross, there was an oil painting of Saint Cecilia, Patron Saint of musicians and choirs. Attached to the back of the painting was a label which attributed the painting to Carlo Dolci. When his attention was drawn to this label the rector, Michael Connolly, got it into his head that an authentic Carlo Dolci, at auction, could solve the seminary’s financial concerns forever. A copy of the painting was sent for an expert opinion. The reply was to the effect that the painting was of interest but also was of little commercial value. It was, in fact, the work of Carlo’s daughter Agnes.

It appears that she was also a talented artist and, before the days of mass production of works of art, she made copies of many of her father’s original works and put them on the market. It takes an expert to tell the difference. On the open market our Agnes Dolci portrait of Saint Cecilia might just have paid for one day’s central heating. Nice try Michael!

Saint Cecilia by Agnes Dolci Nice try Michael!

Saint Cecilia by Agnes Dolci
Nice try Michael!

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