Yesterday I was at the National Galleries in Edinburgh. At one point I was standing within twenty feet of Monet, "The Poplars on the River Epte", Van Gogh "Garden with a Path", and the Singer Sargent portrait of "Lady Agnew". And the odd Gaugin, Renoir and Degas within sight. How good is that then?
But it was the Botticelli I went to see first and longest. "Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child". This masterpiece of art is also a richly theological and devotional statement. The idea that devotional is in some sense sentimentalised theology, or worse still, non-theologically controlled spirituality, is one of the less clever assumptions of those dismissive of those appropriations of art that combine aesthetic pleasure, thoughtful prayer, and theological reflection.
I'll want to make more of this painting later - but for now. What is the significance of the child surrounded by thornless roses? Very rarely is the Christ child portrayed as sleeping. The use of blue for the sky, the robe and the swaddling cloth, and blue as a symbol of heaven, is surely intentionally significant. The contrast of roses, organic thornless beauty, and the geometric sharpness and hardness of the rocks, suggests the meeting of life and lifelessness, fruit and barrenness, garden and desert rock.The roses and the Virgin's dress share the same colour and the child's feet rest on the soft velvet and satin.
What it all means? Incarnation is both mystery and miracle, yet there is in this painting a tenderness and vulnerability that does not suggest overwhelming power. The central image is of adoration as in the title; the loving gaze of a mother becomes prayer for her child, and merges in the mind of the viewer with our own knowledge of the story. This is unembarrassed Christian story, complete with Christian character, symbol and requiring a Christian hermeneutic. We know the tragedy that follows, but it is the tragic love of God intent on overcoming the tragic brokenness of a world where roses have thorns, and rocks crush, and doing so not in overturning power but through love incarnate, made human, surrendered to the same suffering and death that we all must face. And in that surrender, redeeming suffering, overcoming death and making possible new beginnings of life, the tragic is transformed into hope and a future in God. And all that concentrated in the birth of a child, a child asleep under the watchful love of a mother, whose hands are folded in supplication, the deep longing of love for what she has created, that which is part of her. And the scandal of Christian faith is that such a story as incarnation, love incarnate, is the story of the God we have come to know in Christ. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us...