This depiction of the Virgin Mary heavy with child dates from the end of the fifteenth century. Several symbols confirm this as a devotional image of the Mother of God: Mary, crowned and seated on a throne, holds in her hand, like a scepter, the lily of perpetual virginity. Behind her, two angels stretch out a canopy studded with stars and white eagles, a reference to the Book of Revelation: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun. […]. She was with child […]. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly to her place in the desert” (cf. Rv 12:1-2, 6). Finally, Mary herself is not reading the book she holds open but, rather, offers it for our eyes, inviting us to sing in her honor the hymn Mater ave Christi: “Hail and rejoice, virgin and mother Mary, who laudably remained an untouched virgin before, during, and after giving birth!”
How daring that within the ancient symbolic context of an icon the artist should present here such a flesh-and-blood portrait of a pregnant woman—undoubtedly his own wife. We are brought back down to earth with a bump! Mary is not only the platytera ton ouranon of the Byzantines, “more vast than the universe,” but at the same time, in the lovely expression of Saint Louis de Montfort, the “paradise of new Adam.” For here, at the dawn of the Renaissance, Christian art no longer seeks only to inspire contemplation of the eternal truths of the faith, but also to propose models for our imitation in daily life. And so, in this Advent season, let us contemplate this Virgin on the verge of birth, this living tabernacle of the Incarnation, in order to better imitate her blessed expectation as, in unique intimacy with her Son—her God!—she awaits the advent of the Messiah promised to her fathers. Let us learn from her how to await the coming of our Savior by rejecting all that would distract us from the humble perseverance necessary to our own personal vocation. Let us experience with her the constant and joyous vigilance that knows how to recognize in our prosaic everyday tasks the sweet birth-pangs of his arrival. Let us understand through her what is the true miracle of Christmas—he whom, with her, we have so long borne within us, he whose coming we so ardently desire.
Madonna del Parto, Master of the Madonna del Parto, 15th century, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy. © Cameraphoto / Scala, Florence – courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali.