Not too long ago, my five-year-old was showing me her shirt, which had a cute bunny rabbit on it, and proclaimed, “This is my favorite shirt!” After talking a little bit about bunnies, she cuddled close to me and we started looking for religious artwork about bunnies… because of course we would do that.
Now, I wasn’t expecting much. Mind you, rabbits are occasionally used in religious artwork as symbolism for new life. For example, see this painting of the Agony of the Garden by Andrea Mantegna, where a couple of bunnies bounce along on the path.
In that case, the rabbits are symbolism of new life that will come… eventually. So, while the path on the side of Jesus looks fairly desolate and barren (since He is contemplating His Passion during the Agony of the Garden), on the other side of the path, there are bunnies and green grass to remind us of the upcoming Resurrection in which Jesus will defeat death and live — and bring us into His Glory! (Hooray!)
But, honestly? Rabbits don’t make a huge appearance in religious artwork, usually.
So, I was surprised to see this beautiful picture, which is known as the Madonna of the Rabbit, in which a rabbit is at the front and center of the artwork. Just take a look!
Now, the focal point of this artwork is definitely Mary. She is sitting down petting a rabbit while Saint Catherine, who is dressed as a bridesmaid, comes and grabs Baby Jesus to hold Him for a while. How can you tell that St. Catherine is taking away Baby Jesus from Mary instead of coming to give back Baby Jesus to Mary? Well… because Mary doesn’t seem like she is readying herself to hold a baby. In fact, it looks like she is letting go of her baby.
Also, the bunnies! Mary is petting a white rabbit. Now, rabbits have a tricky symbolism with the Bible. Since they are technically unclean animals by Kosher laws, they have been used as symbolic of unclean things. However, they also have other artistic symbolism in which they symbolize much more pleasant things. And, in this case, this bunny is a symbol of nicer things. The whiteness of its fur represents Mary’s virginity. Plus, since rabbits can get pregnant in a pretty miraculous way (apparently, rabbits can easily get pregnant, even if they are already pregnant, and thus look like they had a miraculous birth), that was probably used to symbolize Mary’s miraculous pregnancy.
So, yes! It’s a lovely picture with such lush and beautiful colors!
But what drew my eye the most of this painting was not the scene in the forefront. Instead, it was the background, in which a shepherd tends a flock of sheep. His eyes are not on the family. Instead, he seems to be focused on the sheep that he is tending. Which begged the question: who was he and why was he in the painting?
You see, Titian, the artist, was going through some rough times. His wife, whom he loved, had just died shortly before this painting was made after having their third child together. Because of this, he had given up his infant daughter, Lavinia to his sister as a nurse.
And so, this artwork parallels his life. In a big way, he honored his late wife through this picture of Our Lady.
And so, Our Lady is depicted as handing the Infant Jesus to St. Catherine, just as his lady (remember that “madonna” literally means “my lady”) had given up her infant. In the painting, Saint Catherine takes the Infant Jesus in her arms to take care of her, just as his sister came to take care of his baby. Mary strokes the rabbit, which is symbolic for fertility in a sort of reminder that life does go on.
And the shepherd in the background?
The shepherd’s appearance might possibly be Federico Gonzaga’s appearance, as he was the donor that commissioned this artwork. However, it is very possible that the shadowy figure also symbolically represented Titian. Thus, the shepherd looks sad as this meaningful scene takes place near him. Furthermore, in this final version of the artwork, Mary is turned to St. Catherine. However, x-rays revealed that underneath this painting, a rough draft showed that Mary’s face had been turned toward the shepherd, perhaps to comfort him. And so, this painting probably had a deep significance to Titian.
And I don’t know about you, but learning this story behind the artwork struck me hard.
And yet we know that one day the earthly love that we have for each other will eventually pass away, just as everything on this Earth will one day pass away. For some of you who are reading this, in fact, you are keenly aware of this, as you are suffering through your own tragedy.
The good news?
Christ is present with us. Christ has defeated death. And Christ longs for us to come into His Presence so that He may be united with us and us unto Him.
May we also seek to find Christ so that were may be reunited with Him (and each other!) in the end.