This painting has been the subject of more than one family discussion over the years. But why have I included it in a series about the Crucifixion? Surely this is a Christmastide image?
Well, the man on the right is Saint Luke: see in the background the book open at his Gospel and his beast, the ox, at the small of his back. Luke was thought to have been an artist, responsible for the first icons, and a confidant of Mary, on account of the infancy stories in his Gospel. Here he is in both roles.
At home we have on the wall a framed postcard of the mother and child section of the picture. ‘I’ve seen that look on all your faces,’ my wife tells our now grown up children. It makes Jesus look truly human.
‘But that pose!’
‘That too; a moment of joy, stretching his arms and legs: he has finished drinking his mother’s milk, he’s close to mother, warm summer air playing over his skin.’ Mother and child are there for the artist, and the beholder – you and me – in all their humanity and vulnerability.
As in Luke’s story of the Presentation in the Temple, there is a foreshadowing here. This painting is from the studio of Rogier Van der Weyden, but produced after his death. There are other versions including the original in Boston Massachusetts; this is in Bruges at the Groeninge Museum.
Over the Channel in London’s National Gallery is another painting from Van der Weyden’s school, a Pieta. Here we are kneeling at the foot of the Cross, with Mary and three contemporaries of Van der Weyden (The painting can be dated to mid-15th Century.) If they are invited to come and mourn with her awhile, then so are we; as witnesses we close the circle of prayer, of support for Mary and of sorrow for Jesus’ death.
The Dominican priest on the right is reading from near the end of the Bible he holds wrapped in blue cloth, but his finger is marking an earlier passage, telling us that the death of Jesus fulfils the prophecies.
The similarity between the pose of Christ in the two images is striking: arms and legs outstretched, head turned to his mother. Intimately, her hand is on his belly in each picture. She remains his mother.
The traumas of the infancy stories in Luke and Matthew point to this moment. Now it is finished. But when Luke came to write the Gospel, and when we and the Dominican friar came to read it, we already knew this was not the end.
May we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, walk with Jesus and know him in the breaking of bread.