Art: “Madonna and Child with St. Anne” by Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Written by Joseph Walker-Lenow, Rector, St. James Parish, Lothian, MD
You shall tread upon the lion and the adder; *Psalm 91.13
you shall trample the young lion and the serpent
under your feet.
The first thing that draws my eye is St. Anne’s face. She has, noticeably, the most weathered face of the three persons comprising the image: darker, looser, more wrinkled. There’s no reason to read the setting as being especially cold, but her clothes are heavier than those of her daughter, heavier (of course) than the clothes that the naked child has likely cast off in some corner. Anne’s mouth is open, her brow is raised: her eyes are wide with surprise, alarmed at the scene that’s unfolding before her. She is used to stepping in to ward off danger, to being the one responsible for the safety of the children in her home; it is taking some time to get used to the idea of her daughter setting the rules, deciding when it’s time to intervene. She holds her hands together, kneading her knuckles with worry. Staying her hand, perhaps, but only with effort.
She is looking down at the viper at her feet. Its pointed head leaves no doubt about the danger it poses. For all Anne’s concern, and for all its true potential for harm, it is trapped—powerless, for the moment. It arches off the ground acrobatically, throwing itself into the air in protest. It gleams in the sun as the light slips over its body. It is beautiful in this light, its wrath contorting it in unknowing imitation of the halos above Anne and Mary, as sin cannot ever help but echo grace.
The Christ-child is curious. Perhaps he’s never seen such a creature before. He clutches one hand close to his body; the other reaches out cautiously—you get the sense he’d bend down to get closer if he could. Attraction tinctured with an appropriate wariness. He is far older than eight days old (a true toddler here, his arms and legs grown long and lithe), but distressingly uncircumcised; his red hair, legible to the Renaissance viewers of the painting as indicating his Jewish ethnicity, is the only sign of his having been brought within the people of the Covenant. He is rosy-cheeked, smooth-skinned, eager for this work; a blessed child, not yet grown into a man of sorrows.
His mother holds him back. She knows that he will meet this serpent again, when it returns at an opportune time. She bends over to keep him safe while she can. Yet it’s not worry she feels. She is attentive, of course, making sure that things do not spiral out of control. Yet it’s a patient resolve I find in her young face. Go slowly. Perform each step in order. Do as I do; I’ll show you how. It’s not Jesus that is stepping on the serpent’s head—it’s Mary. “I will put enmity between you and the woman,” God said when cursing the serpent in Eden, “and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Maybe so; but today, she’s doing the dirty work. She guides his foot atop hers, teaching him where to place his toe like a father teaching his daughter to dance, each step back and forth on his dress shoes. Right there—that’s where the snake is weakest; that’s where he can do you no harm. Perhaps she’s still hoping against hope that if she can teach him properly, the second line of the serpent’s curse will go unfulfilled—that the snake can be overcome, without this poisoned chalice being drunk to the dregs. That a sword may not, in fact, pierce her soul also.
It is one thing to imagine Christ, the new Adam, trampling our sin underfoot on the Cross. This is the work he’s meant to do, the work his Father sent him to do. It’s another thing entirely to imagine the Blessed Virgin his mother teaching him how. Yet that’s the clear implication of this painting: the boy Jesus has no halo yet, in marked contrast to his mother and grandmother. Not that he isn’t holy; he just isn’t ready. He is—has been from the womb—the Son of God in flesh; but he must yet learn—from his rabbis, from his cousin John (who will be the Baptizer), from his mother and her mother—how to be the Savior of the world. The symmetry is, I would say, providential: as Adam learned sin from Eve, biting into the fruit of transgression just as the serpent had taught her to do, so now Christ tramples the serpent under his feet by repeating his mother’s act of faith. She can do so only by the grace he brings into the world, taking her flesh; he can do so only by joining his divine life to that flesh absolutely, the Lord of all things submitting to tuition at Mary’s feet.
Seeking to follow Christ, the disciples scattered on Maundy Thursday; following Mary, the women remained faithfully at the foot of the Cross.
Find previous “Picturing God” entries here:
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