Last year, I was searching for a Madonna and Child print to hang in my bedroom. I had thought that I wanted an icon or medieval painting. After looking at hundreds of depictions, however, I grew weary of so many grave madonnas tolerating so many, adult-like babies. Where was the wonder and joy of the Incarnation? Nothing moved me with the touch of human tenderness, with the divine light of living, breathing love.
And then, I found it. “The Virgin of the Grapes” by Piere Mignard, circa 1640-1650.
Although, historcally speaking, the picture is far from accurate, the spirit of the work is exquisite in blessedness. The Christ Child is shown as a real child, with sweet baby flesh and a near mischievous little face. His mother Mary is beautifully peaceful, a joyful serenity on her visage. She delights in her child, but doesn’t smother. Her eyes are shown cast downward so as not to take away from the eager gaze of Jesus. He is seated on her, reminiscent of the ancient style, symbolizing Christ as the King seated on a throne – the throne being the soft, loving folds of Mary’s arms and lap. For Mary makes possible the Incarnation with her selfless submission to the will of God and with the humility of her generous motherhood. And none of this is dour. None of this is somber, burdensome piety. This is the beauty of love, this is the light of divine joy brought to us through human forms.
Even in this happy little scene, there is a touch of the sacrifice that is to come when the infant is grown into manhood. Mary innocently holds out a cluster of grapes that Jesus grasps fully with his baby fingers. The grapes symbolize the blood of the Eucharist – the Blood of Christ, poured out from the Cross, poured out for the multitude so that our sins may be forgiven. I believe a touch of the sacrifice must be shown in any good depiction of Jesus – for a good portrait shows the true identity of a person. Here we have a hint of the suffering amidst the joy of the coming of God among us. Should it not be so? As God is the fullness of reality, let us embrace reality fully – and not be afraid.
For God, in infinite love for us, comes intimately among us to reveal the divine light in the human. In Mignard’s painting, baby Jesus is playing partially beneath the veil that is covering his mother’s hair. In his sweet innocence, Christ is lifting the veil and peeking out to us.
Yes, let the angels sing, for Christ Jesus truly lifts the veil and reveals God to all of humankind. This is the holy Mystery of the Incarnation, inexhaustibly wondrous, profound, unfathomable… and as sweet and real as a little baby at play.
So, I take this image as my Faith Facilitator for this First Friday of December.
Oh, God, You so love the world
that You humbled Yourself to become one of us,
to live as we live so that we may love as You love –
lift the veil from my eyes,
lift the veil from my heart,
help me to pierce through time to eternity,
through space to infinity,
through my humanity to your divinity,
so that I may be transformed into the truth of your image and likeness
and bear love where there is hate,
bear hope where despair,
pardon where injury,
faith where doubt,
joy where sadness,
and light where darkness.
© 2014 Christina Chase
[This is part of the Faith Facilitators series. Read more here.]
 borrowing from the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi