I Sleep but My Heart Keeps Vigil
Remember, faithful friends of Magnificat, our contemplation, in 2010, of a cover featuring a lovely canvas by Zurbarán († 1664) of the child Mary busy with her needlework. Here is its companion piece: in the same setting, we see the same child Mary, modeled on the artist’s much-loved youngest daughter, Agustina Florencia, but here depicted drifting asleep over the Word of God. The Holy Book remains in her hand, her fingers still marking the page when slumber overtook her. Upon first sight of this work, these lines by Péguy come back to me:
Nothing, says God, is as beautiful as a child falling asleep while
saying its prayers.
I’ve never seen anything in the world so beautiful.
And I should know. My Creation overflows with beauty.
Yet there in the background, emerging from the shadows in a porcelain china bowl, is a lily, symbol of consecrated virginity; a rose, symbol of the Incarnation and the Seven Joys; and a carnation, symbol of the Passion and the Seven Sorrows. Then I begin humming the canción by the poet Diego Cortés, a contemporary of Zurbarán and, like him, a native of Seville:
I am a young maiden, a morenita,
More beautiful than the carnation, the rose, and the lily.
But, deep down, this work first of all evokes the Song of Songs (5:2):
I was sleeping, but my heart kept vigil;
I heard my lover knocking:
“Open to me, my sister, my beloved,
my dove, my perfect one!”
Ever attentive to her sacred reading, the child Mary is not lost in a reverie of angels: even in dream, she keeps in her heart all the great things that the Almighty has done for Abraham and his children for ever, thus forging in her mind both her Fiat in reply to the angel of the Lord, and the Magnificat that will well to her lips at Elizabeth’s greeting. By presenting the same child Mary in two different poses, Zurbarán reveals to us the two pillars of every Christian life: intimacy of heart and mind with the Word of God, and devotion to the sanctifying prose of humble everyday tasks in service of others.
Pierre-Marie Dumont
Child Madonna Asleep (1664), Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664), Cathedral of Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. © akg-images /album / Oronoz.