In the Cloisters I came across a few images of the Virgin Mary, including one of my favorites – this Burgundian wooden statue made between 1130 and 1140.
What always struck me is that Christ is headless – incomplete – yet he is sitting on the lap of the Virgin Mary, the Seat of Wisdom.
But this time I noted another image from Spain, from about 1280-1300. What struck me is that both Mary and Jesus are smiling.
There is a deep joy that the unknown artist captured,
the joy that is, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “that deepest freshness deep down things.”
Also in the Cloisters, in a series of carvings of the lives of Jesus and Mary, there is this image of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, depicting the scene from Luke’s Gospel.
Note that Elizabeth is gently touching the womb of her cousin.
Today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art I got a new perspective at a painting I had seen before. It helped that I was there with two friends, who are sisters, and their children.
The painting comes from Florence in the early 1400s. Mary, with people at her knees, is touching her breast and saying to Jesus: “Dearest son, because of the milk I gave you, have mercy on them.” Jesus, in turn, asks the Father: “My father, let those be saved for whom you wished me to suffer the passion.”
What strikes me in all of this is how very human these images are – but how they open to all of us the transcendent nature of all that is. They show us that heaven breaks through in all creation.