The Luminous Mysteries: 5 Works of Art to Help You Pray the Rosary
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Our series on praying the Rosary with Art
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The Luminous Mysteries of the Holy Rosary
Did you know that these five mysteries were introduced by Pope John Paul II in 2002? His Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae established a Year of the Rosary – somewhat akin to this past year’s Year of Mercy. For those who try to pray five decades daily, these mysteries are said on Thursdays according to the Church’s weekly schedule (Sunday & Wednesday – Glorious, Monday and Saturday – Joyful, Tuesday and Friday – Sorrowful, and Thursday – Glorious).
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The Luminous Mysteries pertain to Our Lord’s public ministry as an adult. Almost two decades of His life pass in obscurity between His appearance at the Temple as a boy and the next time we encounter Him at His baptism by John: “Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man“ (Lk 2:51-52). I, for one, find these years JUST AS fascinating a source of meditation in their own right.
The Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan
This radiant icon can be found in one of my favorite churches in the world* – a veritable jewel box of color, on the one hand explosive, on the other hand, so precise and deliberate. There is something very different to iconography as compared to more Western sacred art. Indeed, icons are not described as being “painted,” but, rather, as being written, insofar as they’re not merely creative snapshots of an artist’s mind, but they tell a story very specifically and symbolically.
The Eastern Churches describe this Baptismal scene above as the Theophany of Our Lord, meaning the moment when Jesus revealed Himself to be God, by way of the first scriptural indication of God’s Trinitarian nature (as we hear the voice of God the Father “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” (Mt 3:17) and we see the Holy Spirit descending upon the Son in the form of a dove).
*I recommend this exquisite and highly enlightening book as a gift for the icon lover, the art enthusiast, or the catechumen in your life!
This mystery is a vivid one for me, personally, and there are many depictions throughout art history to pick from! But Paolo Veronese’s masterpiece owns the distinction as the largest canvas painting on display in the world’s most famous museum, measuring 21ft. tall by 32 ft wide!
Just look how active the scene! Yet, there’s Christ at the very center, serene, still, enveloped with a gentle glow and gazing at us intently. Here’s an enlarged detail:
While the party proceeds all around him, nearly all wedding guests are entirely oblivious to THE FIRST PUBLIC MIRACLE of Jesus, the three men in closest proximity to Our Lord stare at him in astonishment. In the foreground, we see the servant drawing wine from one of the stone jars… What must he be thinking? At least as Veronese has depicted it, I wonder here at the idea that it was a lowly servant who truly sees and understands what Jesus has just done, whilst the aristocratic partygoers bustle around utterly oblivious to the miracle that has just taken place. (Reminds me of my own occasional ingratitude for the riches of my faith and the blessings in my life. Or the tragedy of so many fallen-away Catholics who ARE the “aristocracy” – insofar as they’ve been given The Fullness of the Kingdom! – but their “scraps” (the awareness of His miracles) are being “picked up” by new converts, left and right! The lowly ones, indeed!)
And then Mary’s role! She had been contemplating the Incarnation of God in her son, Jesus, silently, gently, patiently from the moment of the Annunciation. Providence and grace moved her to urge Him at JUST THIS MOMENT.
The Proclamation of the Kingdom
After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1:14-15)
I had not realized that there is a second “half” to this mystery – that it is often spoken aloud as “The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God and the Call to Conversion.” This second half somehow renders the mystery more tangible to me, though I can’t quite say why. Perhaps I relate it to the epiphany of my own conversion: “Oh my God – There is a God, and I’m not Him!”
This image is cropped down, but do check out the full painting. I am moved by the facial expressions and postures of the disciples flanking Jesus (presumably Peter and John). And then there is the face of Our Lord, Himself! It is manly and reassuring and urgent and loving and peaceful all at the same time. His very gaze says, authoritatively, “There IS a God, and I AM HIM.”
Another most vivid scene. Hearkening back to the Father’s voice at Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan, again we hear His voice from heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mk 9:7). In this mosaic depiction, we see the three apostles whom Jesus had brought with him up Mt. Tabor (Peter, James and John) standing on the ground to either side of Our Lord. Appearing on clouds to Jesus’ left and right are Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah.
I find myself relating this mystery back to Moses’ encounter of God in burning bush (Exodus 3). The Transfiguration parallels and fulfills this Old Testament manifestation of God, Who revealed Himself to Moses as “I am who am.” Some 1500 years later, Christ is, and – in this moment – He uniquely reveals Himself to be that same God. Having beheld God in a fire that burns but does not consume the bush, too bright to even turn his face towards, Moses would have been forever illuminated, never again the same man, never able to unsee what he has seen on Mt. Horeb. How much more so Peter, James and John after their witness of this bright and otherworldly meeting of Heaven and Earth in the body of Jesus Christ!
The Institution of the Eucharist
Arguably the single most iconic work of Western religious art, da Vinci’s The Last Supper inhabits the subconscious of generations, Catholics and non-Catholics, alike. We are reminded of this scene at the climax of every celebration of the Holy Mass, when the priest consecrates the Precious Body and Blood of our Lord. As such, it ought to be one of the more visually tangible of the Mysteries of the Rosary.
On the other hand, I marvel at what must have been the electric, invisible energy in that room as Our Lord and the Twelve celebrated the Jewish Passover. In this moment, we encounter yet another instance of what I like to call “the Catholic Both/And” – a tension between (what will be, at least) the joyful ecstasy of His gift to us in the Eucharist, and the simultaneously lurking, deceitful darkness of Judas (who also stands in representation of me and my own sins! – I am what’s wrong with the world! (h/t G.K. Chesterton). They cannot yet fully understand the meaning of Jesus’ actions and words, and yet – on some level – they must have sensed the climactic nature of events that night.
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this. (Lk 22:14-23)