And… it’s time to celebrate a birthday! And by birthday, I mean Mother Mary’s birthday! Hooray!
Last year, I showed off a picture of the Virgin Mary as a three-year-old, since my oldest daughter had just turned three. This year! I had my third baby, my second daughter, who is quite a darling baby and is just starting to crawl. So, my life is rather full of babies at the moment.
And so, in honor of our Mother Mary’s birth, here is an artwork depicting Mary… as a baby when she was just born!
In this picture, Mary, only a wee baby, is shown off to her adoring father, Joachim, who beams at her radiance while the nurses all around her coo over the new baby. In the background, Anna rests and inquires about the baby to other nurses that are tending after her.
You might not have guessed it, but the Birth of the Virgin is actually an incredibly popular religious art subject! So much so that if you looked up religious depictions of the Nativity for Christmas, you often have to clarify and say that you’re looking for the Nativity of Christ, and not of the Virgin!
So, why is it so popular?
Well! For a number of reasons. For one, the life of Mary has many rich traditions. From her conception, which we celebrate as the Immaculate Conception, all the way to her Assumption and Coronation, there are tons of artwork that depict her in every biblical scene that she’s in — as well as plenty of scenes that are outside of scripture, yet firmly in tradition! And this includes her birth.
The other reason is simple: she’s family.
I don’t know about you, but when I started having children, the family photographs meant so much more to me. No longer was I simply looking through the past, as if it were a dead thing that merely had historical significance. Instead, I peered through it, looking for glimpses of my children’s features and connecting my ancestors, some of them long gone, with the newest generation.
Back when these artworks were made, they didn’t have photographs to document the various little moments of infancy. But the rich families who patronized artists to paint these artworks did commission artworks that sometimes used family members as models. And many of these pictures served a dual role: to preserve a precious moment in their own family life and to share their devotion of the Holy Family and of the Virgin Mary with their own children and the people around them. Often these rich families would donate these artworks to their home church as a gesture of good will. In fact, this particular artwork was used as an altarpiece in a church in Naples.
So, yes, the Virgin Mary in this picture is definitely not a newborn. In fact, she looks bigger than my seven-month-old daughter in this picture! Yes, the whole scene is luxurious and probably doesn’t capture the Virgin Mary’s childhood in an accurate way.
And yet… it also serves to remind us of the humanity of the Virgin Mary and consequently of Christ. Just as this patron’s family was able to model this scene of the Virgin’s life, so we too can model her life in our own way and share Christ to the world. The Virgin Mary was a real person. She was born just as all babies were born. At one point, she was a child. She grew up more and became a mother, just like many (though not all of us) have done. And through her life, she shared Christ to the world.
May we imitate her in this way and always strive to share Christ with the world. Amen.