Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at All Saints’, Cuddesdon, on Sunday 3rd February 2019.
In the National Gallery at the moment there is a wonderful exhibition of the work of two leading Renaissance artists: Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini which I was lucky enough to go and see last Friday. The exhibition places works of these two men side by side and shows just how much they were influenced by each other regardless of the fact that their backgrounds were very different. Mantegna was the son of a carpenter from the tiny village of Padua while Bellini was born into the genteel world of the Venetian artistic elite. The two families came together when Mantegna married Bellini’s sister Nicolosia and though Mantegna went off to the court of Mantua the artistic conversation if not rivalry continued between the brothers-in-law.
Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the paintings which Mantegna and Bellini made to depict the events of Candlemas, when Christ is presented in the Temple in accordance with the laws of the Lord. The exhibition literally places these two representations side by side so that we can see the extent of their similarity but also notice the differences. Each in turn were painted as icons for meditation. They are to help the observer engage with the events of the scriptural narrative on a deep spiritual level.
So let us together explore these two great works of art and discern what they have to reveal for us of the events of Candlemas. Mantegna’s work was painted in 1455 and shows the moment at which Simeon hands the heavily swaddled baby Jesus back into the arms of his mother. It was at this point in scriptural narrative that Simeon foresaw Jesus’ darker destiny in the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed. His hard message is concentrated in the piercing gaze of Simeon who looks unflinchingly into Mary’s face as well as being echoed in the gruff, hostile stare of Joseph behind Mary, looking down lost in her own thoughts – touchingly capturing the way Mary listens to the words of others about Jesus and then ponders them in her own heart. Even baby Jesus expresses the path he will have to walk in order to bring salvation to his people for his swaddled hands represent the shrouds of death more than a protective embrace. In this painting Mantegna has given us an image of the deep significance of who Jesus is and what he has come to do. For those in the Temple that day Mary and Joseph would have seemed just an ordinary couple, it is only Simeon and Anna who knew in whose presence they were. They knew and saw the spiritual halos which encircled the heads of Mary and Joseph and are given to us as indicators of the spiritual level we are to understand this human encounter.
At first glance, Bellini’s version of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple is an exact copy. It looks as if he has simply traced Mantegna’s work and added a few more people, but there are a
number of subtle differences which highlight another aspect of its spiritual representation of the scriptural story. The first striking difference is that all the halos have disappeared. This is very much a human scene, a personal story. Adding to the portraiture of Jacopo Bellini, Giovanni’s father, as Joseph and Mantegna and Nicolosia is now Giovanni himself looking directly out of the picture at us, and his mother as Anna to frame his family scene. For Bellini the Presentation is first and foremost a family affair and spoke of his own families hope that a child would bring.
This hope is held in the softened gaze and depiction of the people involved. We are seeing not Jesus’ sorrowful destiny but rather the joy of future salvation. Simeon and Mary’s eyes now meet in recognition as Mary hands her child over to him with the same trust that she handed herself over to God’s work at the Annunciation. The harshness of Mantegna’s image has gone, replaced by loving, hopeful trust that even though a sword will pierce her heart ultimately all shall be well.
By placing these two pictures together we hold in our mind’s eye today the bitter sweet moment so often expressed by the feast of Candlemas. The moment when we turn away from the joyful warmth and human story of Christmas, which celebrates and affirms the sanctity of human life through the Incarnation of Jesus, to the lentern road that will lead us into the wilderness and the harsh darkness of the tomb. But as we turn to embrace the cross, these paintings remind us that at the heart of the presentation in the Temple is that epiphany moment which sees the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ which may, for a while, be hidden but will never be extinguished and will shine out most fully on Easter day.
So on this Feast of Candlemas let us once more affirm our hope in the God who saves and sanctifies our ordinary, broken, human lives. Amen.