Sunday, December 21, 2014

Luke 2.35: Pierced

"A sword will pierce your own soul also."  --Luke 2:35

When Simeon prophesies that Mary's future holds pain like she's been stabbed, Mary must have been bewildered. What kind of greeting is that for parents who have brought their baby to the Temple for a blessing?

That sword has been literally portrayed in devotional images of Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows, with seven swords pointed directly at her heart. Other artists have been more subtle, but the acknowledgement of Mary's sorrow is still present in pictures of the mother with her infant. The reference may be overlooked because it seems so normal, but as you consider images of the enthroned madonna with her child, look for irises.

The iris family of plants are, in Germany,  known as schwertlilien, literally translated "sword lily", so the iris became a symbol of Christ's passion and a reminder of the sword that Simeon prophesied would pierce Mary's soul.

To spot the irises in art you'll need to spend time with the background of images. Perhaps the best known (because it is in the title) is the Madonna of the Iris, formerly attributed to Albrecht Durer, now attributed to his workshop. Mary and the Christ child sit relaxing while the infant nurses. In the background is the spiky stem of the iris plant, remarkably similar to Durer's botanical study of iris trojana.
(left) Madonna with the Iris. Workshop of Albrecht Durer. 1500-1510. National Gallery of Art, London.
(right) Albrecht Durer. Iris Trojana. 1503. Watercolor and gouache on paper. 
The placement of the iris with Mary and Jesus is a reminder of the future of the child, and the pain of that future for his mother. Artist Marcello Fogolino places the iris in the right hand of the Christ Child as he sits on his mother's lap.
Marcello Fogolino. Madonna con bambino in trono e i SS. Giobbe e Gottardo. 1508. Brera, Milan

The idea that the iris represents the suffering of Christ is reinforced by the accompanying saints in Fogolino's painting. At the left is Job, his skin covered with sores. At the right is St. Gotthard of Hildesheim. Though well-dressed, he, too, is related to suffering, as he is the patron saint of gout sufferers. The Church of San Gottardo in Milan is dedicated to this saint.

Perhaps this week an arrangement of iris would be an appropriate accompaniment to the worship service. Choose white iris to emphasize that the liturgical season has moved from Advent to Christmas. And now that you know the iris as a symbol of pain and suffering, you might understand why the Edwardian-era chromo-lithographed Christmas card below is a little...awkward.

See the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for an introduction to the image of the Nativity at left. Click on this link.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Christmas 1B (Isaiah 61:10-62:3), click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment