181 – Candlemas comes early

Jacques Daret, The Presentation in the Temple, c. 1434-35. Petit Palais, Paris.

Theoretically I should have written about this painting last week, as I talked about the theme – The Presentation in the Temple – in Monday’s talk. This coming week, Week 4 of The Childhood of Christ, I will include a lot of paintings of The Virgin and Child – which I blogged about last week. But you can blame Sofonisba Anguissola for that: I wanted to talk about her with a month left for you to catch the exhibition in Nivå. (However, if you can’t make it by 15 January, all is not lost, as it will transfer to the Netherlands, where it will be on show at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe from 11 February – 11 June). This week, on Monday 19 December, the talk is entitled …to Epiphanies, and is effectively the conclusion of last week’s talk. From Jesus’s biblical, and non-biblical, boyhood, we move on to the beginnings of his mission, with two further ‘revelations’ or ‘Epiphanies’ which let the world know who he really was. It will be my last talk this year, but the first two of my New Year’s series 79-1879: Women Artists (the first 1800 years) are already on sale. Part 1 will be on Monday, 9 January, and Part 2 a week later. Having said all that, I did want to look at the last of Jacques Daret’s surviving paintings, the fourth remaining panel from the Arras Altarpiece, having seen the others in posts 178 and 179. So here it is.

For those who weren’t at Monday’s talk, and as a recap for those who were, The Presentation in the Temple is a fairly common subject in western European Medieval and Renaissance art, but is actually an elision of what should be, according to Jewish law, two separate ceremonies. But I’ll explain that as we go along. In Daret’s version the Presentation takes place in a centrally-planned octagonal structure as an evocation of the Temple of Jerusalem. It is an undoubtedly theatrical depiction, the space packed to bursting by the seven adults who squeeze into the structure, which is open on the three sides facing us, the audience, thus allowing us access to the action. With variegated, predominantly red columns in each of the corners, supporting low rounded arches, it is meant to represent the ‘Old Order’ (Judaism and pagan cults, as seen by Christianity). Round arches were seen as ‘old fashioned’. In Arras, as in the rest of Northern Europe (unlike Early Renaissance Italy), ‘modern’ architecture was gothic, with pointed arches, and was used to represent the ‘New Order’ (Christianity). However, with its stained glass windows and prominent altar, in what could be read as an apse, the building could equally well be a church, even if the Hebrew script on the altar cloth tells us it must be Jewish – a synagogue, or, as I have already said, the Temple. In addition, all of the imagery is taken from the Jewish scriptures – even if the Temple wouldn’t have been included such decoration. Mary holds Jesus, naked but for a transparent veil, over the altar, as she presents him to the priest Simeon, who has been living in the knowledge that, according to prophecy, he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. But who are the other people?

On the far left is Joseph, dressed in the same types of clothes as he wears in the Nativity and Adoration of the Magi, if in slightly different colours: a third actor has taken over this role (click on the second blue link if you want to remind yourself what I mean). He holds a white dove in his left hand. Next, going to the right, is a respectable women, holding a spiralling, lit candle, and wearing simple clothes, which include a headdress: it is not unlike the outfit Mary is wearing. The Virgin wears her traditional blue, and is given extra status by the beams of holy light around her head. The gold script on the hem of her cloak comes from a canticle for the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, a text which is scattered across three of the surviving four panels from the Arras Altarpiece. This feast was derived from the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 12, which expounds God’s instruction to Moses that, after the birth of a child, a woman should be considered ‘unclean’. On the 8th day after the birth of a boy he should be circumcised (a requirement echoed in Luke 2:21), and after a further 33 days, as an offering to conclude her purification, the woman should give a lamb and a dove, or, ‘if she is not able to bring a lamb’, then two doves, or young pigeons. This explains the basket with two pigeons held by the woman to our right of Mary. She is dressed in a modest – if bright red – dress, appropriate (for the fifteenth century) for a girl who is not yet of marriageable age. We can tell that as her hair is uncovered, and flows freely over both shoulders. As yet, no one has worked out who she is, although the doves she is holding must relate to Mary’s purification, as she herself is unmarried. She also holds a lit, spiral candle.

The remaining three adults are dressed very differently to those on the left of the painting. Or, to put it another way, they look different to those below God’s right hand, if we were to imagine him sitting up above the Temple looking towards us. Those on our left (God’s right) represent the New Order, while those on the right (God’s left), the Old (see above…). From left to right we see Simeon, the Priest, who is marked out by the V-necked robe with long, full sleeves, the collar, sleeves and hems of which are elaborated with gold and pearls: far more elaborate than the clothing of the group on the other side of the altar, and not at all ‘European’ (clearly none of these characters were European, but the cut and elaboration of the robe marks Simeon out as ‘foreign’, and certainly ‘different’ to the original audience for this painting). Next to him is an old woman, who is given the standard symbol of ‘otherness’, an exoticizing turban. She also has an inscription on her collar which is meant to look like Hebrew. Given the radiance around her head, she is also considered to be holy. This is Anna, who, according to Luke 2: 36-38, was 84 years old and spent all her time at the Temple. After Simeon had praised God in thanks for His revelation of the Messiah, ‘she, coming in that instant, gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.’ Her sanctity is the result of her recognition, in an effectively prophetic way, that this baby was indeed the very source of that redemption. She too carries a candle, as does the women on the far right. Anna’s candle is plain yellow, and, unlike the two we have seen before, not twisted, whereas the one held by the woman in red is white, and is decorated with a series of ring-shaped markings at regular intervals along its length. She also carries a basket containing two doves – which might suggest that she, too, has come for purification. Her hair is dressed in a single, long plait which falls down her back – a style used by artists contemporary to Daret to imply that she, too, is ‘exotic’. Her headdress has the same implication.

Even if the people on God’s right (including the woman behind the altar) represent the new order, and those on his left, the old, they have all come to the Christian faith: all of the women hold candles, except Mary, who has no need of a candle, for she holds the Light of the World: in his song of praise to God, Simeon recognises Jesus as ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel’ (Luke 2:32). These candles represent that light, which, curiously, is the one word from the Canticle for the Purification that Daret does not include. But then, Jesus is there in person: he is the Light, and he is the Word (and I am immensely indebted to a paper by Penny Howell Jolly, ‘Learned Reading, Vernacular Seeing’, published in The Art Bulletin of September 2000 for this and many other brilliant revelations). The candles are also included because, at some point in the late 7th Century, Pope Sergius I added a candlelit procession to the observance of the Feast of the Purification, from which derives its more common name: Candlemas. This is celebrated forty days after the birth of Jesus, on 2 February, and marks, for a number of Christian denominations, the end of Christmas.  Clearly Sergius’s procession had not been instituted at the time of the original event, in the first century, and so it irrelevant to the people in this painting, but in this case Candlemas has come early…

Who, exactly, are the women? They don’t appear in most images of The Presentation. I would assume that the modest, respectable lady next to Mary is the midwife Zelomi, who believed straightaway in the virgin birth, while the flashier, more recent ‘convert’ on the far right, the one who needed proof, is Salome (again, see 178 – No crib for a bed for a reminder). The woman at the back remains a mystery, but is probably related, according to Howell Jolly, to local tradition. Other elements clearly are: Joseph holds a single dove, for example, which has nothing to do with the Purification of the Virgin, nor to the Presentation of Christ, but more of that later. As I suggested, the two ceremonies should, in Jewish law, be two different things. According to Numbers 18:15-16, the firstborn of any species should be deemed holy to God, and the first born human, if a boy, should result in an offering of five shekels ‘from a month old’. So the Presentation should have happened about 30 days after Jesus was born, whereas according to Leviticus, Circumcision should happen after a week (or eight days, the eighth day being the same day of the week as the first) and then 33 days more for the Purification – forty days in all. Remembering that the French for ‘forty’ is ‘quarante’, and in Italian it is ‘quaranta’, this is just one source of the word ‘quarantine’. But it is ten more days than required for the presentation: they shouldn’t happen at the same time. Nevertheless, the two are elided in the Gospel According to St Luke, and so they are elided in art – and with no appearance of the shekels.

But how does Josephs’ dove relate to local tradition? According to Howell Jolly (but cutting a long story short) a plague in Arras, back in 1105, ended shortly after the faithful were rewarded with a vision of the Virgin Mary holding a lit candle, which she gave them in order to cure the plague. For centuries the candle survived as a relic, and, although it is lost today, the container it was stored in – the reliquary – survives. It looks like a candle, and has similar ring-shaped markings to the one Salome holds. She and Joseph are placed symmetrically, each holding something white: they are balanced, as if part of the same event. In a ceremony celebrating the miracle of La Sainte Chandelle, (as it was known) at the Abbey of St Vaast (the church for which this image was painted), ‘a man of note’ was required to present a white dove at the altar. This is the role that Joseph is playing: it is a very local, and very specific reference which, outside the original context, we would have no way of knowing. I love it when art historians can work out what is going on in an obscure image – and Penny Howell Jolly’s article is one of the best example of this that I’ve read in a long time!

The differentiation of character between those present continues right down to the ground. Joseph wears black shoes, and his stick rests on a violet, a symbol of humility – in this case, his. To our right both Simeon and Salome wear red shoes, and richly jewelled gold hems encircle the bottoms of their robes. Simeon’s even has bells on, a tinkling echo of the biblical description of Aaron’s robes as High Priest.

Meanwhile, the decorations of the temple are also, inevitably, packed with meaning. In the capitals here we see, from left to right, the Creation of Eve, The Creation of Plants, and God introducing Adam and Eve to the Garden of Eden, whereas in the stained glass window we see Noah trimming his vine.

The central window shows Noah, who has grown grapes, made wine, got drunk and fallen asleep, exposing ‘his nakedness’ in the process, while the capital shows, I think, the creation of the animals.

Finally, on the right, one of the capitals depict the Fall: Eve gestures towards Adam, who follows her suggestion and takes a good bite of the forbidden fruit. On the right, they are being expelled from Paradise as a result. In between, at the back, God appears to be having a chat with a few more animals, but Anna’s radiance is getting in the way, so I’m not entirely sure what he’s saying. The window shows Noah’s Ark. In what way can this odd combination of imagery be relevant?

According to St Augustine, in his The City of God, written in the first quarter of the fifth century, Noah’s growing of the vine was a foretelling of the incarnation: Noah was, after all, the one good man through whom all men were saved, so he would be an apt prefiguration of Jesus. Augustine interprets The Drunkenness of Noah as being like the mocking of Christ.  It also contains, he says, a ‘mystery’, which I take to be why Noah got drunk in the first place. Nevertheless, having got drunk, he falls asleep, ‘and was uncovered in his tent… And Ham saw the nakedness of his father’ (Genesis 9:21-22). So Noah is naked, and humiliated, and rather than showing some respect, pitying his father, and covering his father’s nakedness, Ham reveals it to his brothers – hence the connection to the mocking, where Christ is likewise stripped and humiliated. Directly below the image of the ‘naked’ Noah, is the naked baby Jesus: the incarnation, prefigured by the vine, has been fulfilled. Noah was saved by his presence in the Ark, seenin the right-hand window, and, believe it or not, Mary, the ‘vessel’ who bore Jesus, was seen as an equivalent for the ark, which becomes a symbol of our salvation, and thus Mary’s role in our redemption. Notice how it is specifically the creation of Eve which is depicted in one of the capitals, rather than that of Adam, and that her creation is followed on the other capital at the front by The Fall and then The Expulsion from Paradise. As so often, the message carved into the capitals is ‘through a woman we fell, and through a woman we are redeemed’.

‘But how is related to The Purification of the Virgin? you might ask. ‘And while we’re at it’, I hear the more astute among you are saying, ‘Mary was immaculate, free of original sin. What need had she to be purified anyway?’ Good question, and one that was answered by theologians and mystery plays alike. And that is entirely the point. Even though she was pure, and free of original sin, she still followed the law. In the same way Jesus, perfect in every way, was subject to both circumcision and baptism, even though neither ritual act of purification was necessary. Both Jesus and Mary are role models: if they followed the law, when they did not even need to, then so should anyone who actually has original sin. Which means, for the original viewers, you.

To be honest, having checked, I’m slightly surprised to find that this is not the longest post I’ve written, but I’m sure it is one of the more complex. It’s amazing how specific a small, and apparently obscure painting can be, and this is just one of the four that survive from a total of six. The ones we have seen were, if you remember, topped by an Annunciation divided between two panels, one at the top of each wing of the altar when it was closed. When the wings were opened they revealed a sculpture of The Coronation of the Virgin, (now lost, like the Annunciation), the story which is the culmination of a story which starts with Mary’s Immaculate Conception. As I’ve said before, it’s such a pity that so much has been lost, but wonderful that so much remains. IOf course, I should have said all of this last week, as this Monday’s talk will go in a different direction – although it will head towards The Baptism of Christ. I do hope you can join me for my last talk of this year – but if not, let me wish you a Happy Christmas now, whatever your beliefs. And I would also like to wish you a fulfilling year ahead, packed with as much great art as you would want.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

7 thoughts on “181 – Candlemas comes early

  1. I have recently been introduced to Geburt Christi by Beatti de Lorenzo. I am sure you are familiar with it but I was fascinated by the little bag Joseph had packed ready to leave as he was obviously having doubts and had started to plan his departure. Enjoyed last Monday and looking forward to 19th.


  2. To be honest, Mo, I’m not sure if I do know it, and can’t pin it down under that name. But Joseph often does have a saddle bag, or a pack slung over his stick, as any good traveller should!
    Glad to hear you enjoyed the talk, thank you!


    1. One of the most joyful elements of your talks, and I try to follow as many as I can, is that as a cradle Catholic you give me more and more to think about!! Who knew Joseph tried to ‘do a runner’, the nuns never mentioned that in the 1960s!!


  3. Thank you for all the talks! I have so enjoyed them and have come to many old friends with fresh eyes as a result! I have chosen the wonderful Rogier van der Weyden 1455 triptych altarpiece, which I saw in Munich earlier this year, for my Christmas this year. What IS that bag hanging from the canopy in the Annunciation panel?
    All good wishes for a Happy Christmas.



  4. My pleasure – it’s been great having you along for the ride!
    The St Columba Altarpiece is a wonderful painting, isn’t it? The bag is simply the curtain for that side of the bed… on the right it is hanging freely, on the left it has been bound up to allow for some space and light.
    And a Happy Christmas to you too!


  5. Just wanted to thank you so much for your most illuminating talks and blogs throughout the year. You have no idea how much pleasure and inspiration they give. We throughly enjoyed visiting various exhibitions such as Laura Knight, Manet and Eva Gonzales, Winslow Homer and Making Modernism thanks to you. We look forward to being further inspired next year.

    Wishing you a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and healthy New Year.



    1. Thank you, Angela – I am so glad that you have enjoyed the talks, blogs – and more importantly – the art itself!
      Wishing you a very Happy New Year, with everything that it will bring!


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