"Magnificat & Madonna & Child"

4 Advent.C.21(8:00 a.m.)
Magnificat & “Madonna & Child” by Marianne Stokes
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

As many of you know, the Fourth Sunday of Advent is the time of our Christmas Pageant. I am fully aware that I have little hope of dragooning you into the roles of Mary, Joseph, Shepherds, and Sheep (though I might see some hands raised should I request a few wise men); and so I thought it best to take a different tack for our 8:00 a.m. service this morning.

Even though the Advent Candles have popular themes and names for the four Sundays of this holy season: Love, Joy, Hope and Peace; from my perspective, the candle lit on the fourth Sunday of Advent is Mary’s candle. This is the Sunday of the Magnificat, the wonderful song which Mary sings upon greeting her cousin Elizabeth. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…”.

And so, I thought it good to do something different this morning at 8:00 a.m. My idea (you should be relieved to know) does not involve costumes, or carols, but a painting, instead. This morning I would like for us to look a bit closer at a picture of Mary and Jesus—and to read what it is telling us in color and symbol. It is the picture found on the back of your program for this morning, titled simply “Madonna and Child” by Marianne Stokes, painted some time during 1907 and 1908.

Marianne Stokes was born in Austria in 1855. Many of us have never heard of her. She was probably the most accomplished woman painter after the Impressionists, yet to this day she is omitted from many accounts of women artists. She has fallen through the cracks—which is a shame. In her time Stokes mastered a range of styles and media, and she painted across many different genres, and is noted, in particular, for some beautiful paintings of the people of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary in native costumes.

Stokes studied in Munich and worked in France. She painted in the countryside and Paris, and was deeply influenced by the French naturalist painter, Jules Bastien-Lepage, who painted in a style which aimed for an honest, unidealized depiction of the artist’s chosen subject. Even when Stokes changed the focus of her subject matter to medieval romantic and biblical themes, hints of Le-page’s naturalism endure. Today she is often placed with the pre-Raphaelite painters who sought a return to the abundant detail, intense colors and complex compositions of fifteenth century Italian art.

Stokes studied renaissance paintings, not to copy them, but in order to undertake her own reverential paintings. She was a devout Catholic. She favored painting in tempera rather than oil. Tempera is a permanent, fast-drying medium consisting of colored pigments mixed with a binder, most often egg yolk. Painting with tempera is demanding. Unlike oil painting, tempera could not be easily fixed or repaired—working methods had to be more precise and severe. The magnificent colors in Stokes’s paintings are achieved with meticulous tiny brushstrokes and multiple layers of cross-hatching.

The painting you see on the back of your program was painted in 1905 in Dubrovnik, on the Croatian coast. The model for the Virgin Mary was a local girl from the city. The costume is representative of the local culture.

Notice the marvelous colors. The background is a deep blue. It is a serious Advent blue—inviting us to ponder the transcendence and mystery of the divine. Blue is a heavenly color, symbolizing the divine. Blue is often associated with the Virgin Mary, as she carried divinity within her. By contrast, the cloak that Mary is wearing is a startling vivid red—a reminder of the passion of Christ. Perhaps the black hints, as well, to the sorrow that will come with the crucifixion of her son. The other colors are white and gold, symbols of purity and divinity.

As we look at the painting it is impossible to miss the thorns that form the background. They are an allusion to the crown of thorns that Jesus will wear at his crucifixion. Perhaps they are also a reference to the Angel Gabriel’s statement to Mary during the Annunciation that a sword will pierce her heart. The other natural element found in the background is Queen Anne’s Lace, sometimes referred to as “bishop’s flower”. It symbolizes safety, sanctuary and refuge—certainly all that the Virgin Mary was to the infant Christ.

Notice, as well, the nimbus circling the head of the Virgin as well as the Child. A nimbus is different than a halo—a halo refers to an open ring of light or gold behind the head of a saint, while a nimbus refers to a disk of light or gold. This is a symbol of light, brightness, divinity and sanctity.

Behold the calm expression of Mary as she reveals her son to you, the viewer. As she lifts the swaddling clothes, she is inviting you to see Jesus. And as you look at Jesus, notice that. He is looking at you with the same peace and calm exhibited by his mother. Mary and Jesus are not looking at one another—they are looking at you. Think of it this way—whereas you are looking at the painting of the two of them—they, likewise, are focused upon you. They are the subject of your attention—and you are the subject of theirs. That’s marvelous. Indeed, there’s something holy about that.

About the time that this work of art was being painted by Marianne Stokes, George Timms was writing the words to the hymn “Sing we of the blessed Mother” found in our 1982 Hymnal. A recitation of his lyrics seems a most fitting way to end.

Sing we of the blessed Mother
who received the angel’s word
and obedient to the summons
bore in love the infant Lord;
Sing we of the joys of Mary
At whose breast the child was fed
Who is Son of God eternal
and the everlasting Bread.

Sing we, too of Mary’s sorrows,
of the sword that pierced her through,
When beneath the cross of Jesus
she his weight of suffering knew,
Looked upon her Son and Savior
Reigning from the awful tree,
Saw the price of our redemption
paid to set the sinner free.

Sing the chiefest joy of Mary
When on earth her work was done,
And the Lord of all creation
Brought her to his heavenly home;
Where, raised high with saints and angels,
In Jerusalem above, she beholds her Son and Savior
Reigning as the Lord of love.