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Art for meditation - August 2021

Sacra famiglia Mantegna

© Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden - Photo by Elke Estel/Hans-Peter Klut

Andrea Mantegna (Isola di Carturo, Italy 1431 – Mantua, Italy 1506), Holy Family, 1495-1500, egg tempera and linseed oil on canvas, 75 cm x 61.5 cm, Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister. Inv. Gal.-Nr. 51

Month of August.

This work of art by the great Mantuan painter was almost certainly made for private devotion. We know little about the painting's history, but if we stare at it and contemplate it, before this work we can read into the folds of its meaning and listen to the emotions it arouses in us.

The first thing that strikes us is the absence of a background. We can only see the five characters. The correspondences that can be seen are very interesting. I would like to highlight two of them. The first one is the prominence given to little John: being the only one not aligned with the others, he immediately attracts our gaze, which is also captured by the gesture of his right index finger pointing to little Jesus and the olive branch that takes the form of a small cross! The second one is the presence of the two elderly figures on either side. Are they Joseph and Elizabeth? Or perhaps Joachim and Anne, Mary's parents (and therefore grandparents of Jesus)? I think the first hypothesis is more plausible, because it would establish a further correspondence between the mothers (Mary and Elizabeth) and their respective sons (Jesus and John).

A second noteworthy element is the figure of Jesus. First of all because he is completely naked, which does not surprise us for two reasons: it shows the real humanity of Christ, but it also recalls the typical idea of the Italian Renaissance for which, referring to the classical thought of the Greeks and Romans, the human body shown in its nudity is synonymous with perfection. And speaking of classical culture, the nudity of Jesus also reminds us of the ancient Greek statues, known to us through the copies that the rich of Rome commissioned for their gardens and homes.

Lastly, I would like to analyse the gazes of the characters. Only John and Joseph are looking at us; John is pointing Jesus with his right hand while the writing on the scroll rolled up on his left arm says “Ecce agnus Dei...” (“Behold the lamb of God...” Jn 1:29 and 36); Joseph’s gaze, on the other hand, is more severe and seems to inquire about our attitude towards his son. But the gaze that moves me most is that of Mary, the mother, who seems to want to embrace even with her eyes that Son so special and unique. Jesus stands firmly on his own two feet, the Mother is the throne on which the Lord's power is manifested. The Mother does not tire of staring at Jesus, because in her heart the words of the angel Gabriel still resound: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God” (Lk 1:35).


Joseph is certainly not passively resigned, but courageously and firmly proactive. In our own lives, acceptance and welcome can be an expression of the Holy Spirit’s gift of fortitude. Only the Lord can give us the strength needed to accept life as it is, with all its contradictions, frustrations and disappointments.

Jesus’ appearance in our midst is a gift from the Father, which makes it possible for each of us to be reconciled to the flesh of our own history, even when we fail to understand it completely.

Pope Francis, apostolic letter Patris Corde 4, 8 December 2020


(Contribution by Vito Pongolini)

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