Today, we resume our series on sacred art as an aid to praying the Holy Rosary.

Sacred art makes sense, and it is just one more of the countless treasuries of our Catholic heritage. The Incarnation of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, would forever infuse humanity – human flesh! – with a meaning and a goodness that are unlike any other material, created thing, animate or inanimate.

But, setting aside Christian belief in Jesus, let’s consider the universal impulse of artistic creativity. Across cultures and throughout history, man has been moved to express himself through abstract and representative art. Why is this? And is it not a uniquely anthropological characteristic? (Ok, aside from the occasional curiosity of a paintbrush-wielding elephant or monkey… but it’s the exception that proves the rule, no?)

Whether as a teaching tool, a meditative window or – on the part of the artist – an act of human participation in the creative impulse of God, beauty in art speaks to us ineffably and in ways that words and facts sometimes can’t. (It’s almost as if we humans, endowed with five senses, were created as art-makers and art-appreciators.)

In one earth-shattering moment, THE pivotal moment of history, God became man! He took on flesh for human eyes to behold – the Source of beauty became beauty in bodily form. In light of the reality of the Incarnation, the rich tradition of sacred art is a deep and refreshing well for us to drink from as Catholics. It is part of our patrimony.

And when it comes to praying the Rosary, there are as many ways to meditate on the mysteries as there are individuals past and present who’ve nurtured a devotion to this beautiful, powerhouse prayer to Our Lady. But, as for me, I am a daydreamer, easily distracted. I’m a visual thinker, though I don’t suppose I’m all that unique in this regard (especially as we all become more and more screen-oriented). I find that as I cultivate the habit of praying the Rosary, certain images seem to take root in my imagination and help me to focus on a particular mystery in the life of Christ.

With 2,000 years of art history to draw upon, there are SO MANY out there, spanning various time periods, styles, and mediums. Without further ado, here are just 5 to get you started on the Joyful Mysteries… but may they merely serve as a small opening and invitation to you to discover more, and to be drawn more deeply into the beautiful devotion of Our Lady’s Rosary!

The Annunciation

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Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (Detail), 1512–1516, Unterlinden Museum, Alsace, France

Above is a gorgeous close-up detail of the famous Isenheim Altarpiece. I can’t resist the explosion of color. This depiction of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, appearing almost Nordic, is uniquely startling to me. All the more so when you see the entire altarpiece.

Meanwhile, below (yes, I’m cheating by choosing two) is perhaps the most famous artistic depiction of the Annunciation, an early Renaissance fresco in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence, by Fra Angelico. There is a delicacy in this fresco. Here is Our Lady, ensconced in the cloister, presumably deep in prayer before the sudden appearance of the Angel Gabriel. To me, this is such a beautiful visual echo of the spirit articulated by the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Magnificat – the gentle, receptive, feminine voice that speaks in peaceful surrender, Be it done unto me according to thy word.

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Fra Angelico, Fresco cycle in San Marco, Florence: The Virgin of the Annunciation, circa 1437-1446

The Visitation

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Jerónimo Ezquerra, The Visitation, circa 1737, Museo Carmen Thyssen Málaga

This depiction is interesting in that it portrays St. Joseph’s presence. I rarely imagine him there, myself, but it provides for an added layer of interest, human participation, masculine protection, to what is otherwise a beautiful encounter between two female relatives and their sons. If you like this painting, you might appreciate these other three scenes from the infancy and childhood of Jesus Christ by the relatively obscure Spanish painter, Jerónimo Ezquerra.

The Visitation is such a rich mystery to contemplate. Here is the Blessed Virgin Mary, suddenly and permanently changed by the Angel Gabriel’s message, and by the presence of Jesus in her womb. She has embraced the Gospel in its fullness some 33 years before it would be manifest for the Apostles. He lives, incarnate, already! But He is hidden and, at once, perfectly safe but also entirely restricted and humbled in the confines of His mother’s body!

And, what’s the first thing that Our Lady does upon the reception of this earth-shattering news? She goes out to serve, to minister to her cousin Elizabeth, herself 6 months pregnant with John the Baptist. Consider that: the first action of the most perfectly evangelized human person (Mary), upon her embrace of the Good News of Jesus Christ, is to go out and serve, to go out and love, to travel and to bring Jesus to another in need. Jesus cannot be contained – even as He allows himself to be contained in the womb of Mary, caritas Christi urget nos! The love of Christ impels us, just as it impels the Virgin Mary to go out to her cousin in loving service.

The Nativity

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Gerard van Honthorst, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1622, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

The three-dimensional use of light and shadow in this painting is such a lovely expression of this utterly new Light of the World, which has come to reveal Himself, and to which He has drawn – shown on the left – the three shepherds spoken of in Luke’s Gospel: When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another,“Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them (2: 15-18).

For all Christians, and even non-Christians, there’s a collective memory, at least culturally speaking, of Christmas – and perhaps the risk of banalization – of Christ’s infancy in Bethlehem. As such, there can be a tendency to gloss over the miracle of the Nativity – again, the earth-shattering, never-the-sameness of this singular moment in history: When God, having taken on human flesh, revealed Himself to human eyes, ears, touch, smell… when He breathed the air HE MADE… when he gazed out of precious, innocent eyes of a baby upon the very world He created. He had waited 9 months in the womb. He had “waited” thousands of years from the time of Creation, generations throughout the Old Testament, so to speak (if you’ll permit my poetic interpretation, for we know that God, Himself, is outside of time and is the eternal now). All that said, imagine beholding God, as a baby! How could the glow, the light of this infant’ once impressed upon your eyes, ever NOT illuminate the whole landscape of your vision and your life?! Would those humble shepherds ever be the same? What must their lives have been like after that mysterious night?

The Presentation

Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus , Rembrandt ~1627, Kunsthalle, Hamburg
Rembrandt, Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus (Detail), c. 1627, Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Presenting God… to GOD! Mind, blown. What must that have been like? I imagine the humility on the part of Joseph and Mary, simply doing their good, Jewish duty in bringing their firstborn son to the Temple. But, on the other hand, they knew something more significant was happening here. So too did Simeon (seen here holding the Infant) and Anna whom I had to cut out of this detail – but, click on the image to see the full painting, where the mystery of that moment is more fully depicted in light and shadow, in the high ceilings of that awesome space, where a much more intimate moment is shared by the four “regular” people gather in shared recognition that this Child is no normal firstborn Jewish boy.

As an aside, one of my absolute favorite paintings is Simeon’s Moment, by contemporary artist Ron DiCianni. Due to copyright concerns, I have not included it here, but you can see it for yourself at this link, and even purchase it to support the artist and to add beautiful sacred art to your home oratory. This painting just gives me chills… DiCianni captures the awe, the release, of Simeon in the moment that he takes the Christ child into his arms… but at the same time we can almost FEEL the baby Jesus in our own arms – what a paradox. Such a REAL baby. Yes, not only can we feel his shape and weight in our arms, I can smell that unmistakable scent that only babies have. And, yet, if we know the feeling and the scent of a baby in our arms… what must THIS baby have felt and smelled like? It is the most human of questions to ask!

The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple

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Giovanni Paolo Panini, Christ Among the Doctors, 1742, National Museum in Warsaw

This is another depiction of Jesus’ utterly radiant calm amidst a throng of bustle, astonishment, incredulity… not unlike our Luminous Mystery selection for the Wedding feast at Cana.

And it is another rich mystery of meditation… so much to pray and think about: Mary and Joseph’s utter panic… the day and a half it would have taken them to return to Jerusalem, and the ongoing fear in their hearts at having lost the Christ child. But, meanwhile, the other side of the story: The boy Jesus in the Temple, interacting with the very “experts” who were presumably academically qualified (in a manner of speaking) to recognize Him. And then we see the mutual submission between the various members of the Holy Family, upon their reunion. Mary and Joseph’s relief, followed by an inquiry, which Jesus only answers rather obliquely How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”, but then He returns with them under their authority, back into the obscurity of Nazareth for another 20 years.

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom; and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” And he said to them, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:41-52)