Throughout the seasons and feasts of the liturgical year, the church pauses to give special honor to Mary, mother of Jesus, the son of God. As mother of the church, we turn to Mary as our mother in the order of grace for she brings about the birth of all believers in the church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that in giving birth to her spiritual children, Mary continues her unique role in God’s plan of salvation to reconcile humanity to its original dignity and vocation to live in communion with God.
We are reminded that Mary, whose faith is an outstanding model for all Christians, was herself born into a family and raised by her parents, St. Joachim and St. Anne. It is this mystery of Mary’s humble birth and her childhood that prepared her for the unique role she plays in salvation history.
The exquisite painting, “The Nativity of the Virgin,” from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, was completed around the year 1400. It is the work of the gifted Sienese painter, Andrea di Bartolo.
The panel was once part of a much larger altarpiece with a large cycle of beautiful images that tells, in visual form, the story of the birth and childhood of Mary.
Other panels in the same altarpiece depict St. Joachim and St. Anne sharing food with the poor and making Temple offerings of grain. Also shown was the presentation of Mary in the Temple, a moment of great joy and pride for her saintly parents.
This elegant image, however, takes us back to the very beginning of Mary’s life as the artist shares his vision of the birth of Mary.
The setting of this altarpiece scene is the ordinary interior of the family home of St. Joachim and St. Anne. The canopied room painted in gold is framed by rounded arches and painted with a deep blue ceiling covered with golden stars.
Into this warm, intimate room we are invited to join in the prayer of thanksgiving of this family as they welcome the newborn child who would, one day, become the mother of God.
On the right, we see the haloed figure of St. Anne reclining on a bed behind a parted red curtain. She is about to wash and purify her hands, a ritual custom after childbirth.
On the left we see the haloed St. Joachim, father of Mary and grandfather of Jesus. He waits patiently outside the room, his face alive with a mix of emotions of expectant hope and anticipation.
The newborn Mary is dressed in a white robe with her infant head framed by a golden halo. The young child is held gently by one of the women in the foreground, while another woman beckons softly to her.
A third woman dressed in blue stands at the door with a plate of food that will nourish St. Anne. This woman looks directly out at us as if to invite us into this warm interior scene so we too can share in the joy of this family.
Andrea di Bartolo paints this quiet, intimate family scene in a way that conveys the humble joy with which St. Joachim and St. Anne welcomed the birth of their newborn daughter, Mary. We are reminded of God’s plan of salvation to reconcile the world to friendship with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, son of Mary.
We join with St. Joachim and St. Anne in praise of God for sending his divine son Jesus, the word made flesh, into human history. His coming into our world began with the Immaculate Conception and the birth of Mary, mother of Jesus, mother of the church, and our mother in faith.
Jem Sullivan teaches catechetics at The Catholic University of America in Washington. She is the author of “The Beauty of Faith: Using Christian Art to Spread the Good News.”