The next of the windows adorning the nave of Saint Mary’s Heaton Norris, depicts the Presentation of Our Lady.
Our Lady’s parents, Joachim and Anne, were most devout. Joachim would donate a whole third of his income to the poor and needy, and a further third to the Temple – far more than was required. The couple, however, had been married twenty years without yet being blessed with offspring. Earnestly beseeching God to favour them, they made a vow like Samuel’s mother did in the Old Testament (another Anne – for ‘Hannah’ is the same name): if God did send them a child, they would give it to God’s service in the Temple (see 1 Samuel chapter 1).
Being childless brought sadness enough in itself, but in ancient Israelite society sterility was often regarded as a curse – a punishment from God for some iniquity, perhaps. At festival time, Joachim went (as he usually did) to the Jerusalem Temple to make his generous offerings. But as he stepped forward, someone objected: how dare Joachim presume to be among those making offerings in the sacred Temple, when God had clearly deemed him unworthy to produce offspring for his People? You can imagine how that remark must have hurt. It wasn’t only a heartless thing to say, it was stupid – for there are numerous instances in the Scriptures where God withheld the gift of offspring from those who were particularly beloved of him, only to bless them at length with a child who was especially important to his purpose. Not least among these was Abraham himself: he and his wife Sarah remained childless well into their old age before God gave them Isaac – fulfilling through Isaac his promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation. Joachim and Anne’s child would turn out to be more important even than Abraham’s – for their daughter would be mother of the Divine Saviour of all mankind.
That lay in the future, however. Weeping bitterly at the cruel reproach thrown at him, Joachim didn’t return to his wife, but withdrew to the wilderness of a distant country to be by himself. Back home, this left Anne doubly distraught: bad enough not to be able to bear children, nor would her husband come back to her. Anne’s maid, Judith, tried to cheer her mistress, but to no avail.
An angel came to comfort the couple, however. He appeared to Joachim in the wilderness, persuading him to go back home – then to Anne, encouraging her to go out and meet her husband joyfully as he returned. The angel promised them both that God would bless them, and that their child would be a most special one. Not only did Anne conceive, as the angel foretold – but this was the miracle of the Immaculate Conception we talked about a few days ago. Conceived without stain of Original Sin, Anne’s expected child was Our Blessed Lady. They named her Mary.
When Mary reached the age of three, the time had arrived for Joachim and Anne to fulfil the vow they’d made. Mary was to be entered among the community of virgins who remained day and night in the Temple, praising God. First, priests from the Temple came to the house, to question the young child about her faith, to see if she were suitable. In preparation for this, Anne carefully instructed her daughter. The examining priests were amazed at the maturity of Mary’s faith and answers. Then, Joachim and Anne took Mary to Jerusalem, to begin her years of service. Fifteen steps climbed to the Temple, where the High Priest was waiting to receive this new member of the community. The scene forms the subject of numerous paintings – each contrasting the tininess of three-year old Mary with the flight of steps towering above her, topped by the awe-inspiring edifice of the Temple. Joachim and Anne placed their child on one of the bottom steps – but didn’t push her any further, waiting to see what she would decide for herself. Mary neither wavered nor looked back even for a moment, but ran joyfully up and into the Temple of the Lord. Nor, with that same devotion to God’s service, would Mary hesitate to say ‘Yes’ on the day the archangel came to ask her to be Mother of the Lord.
Mary’s constancy in prayer and work, her remarkable beauty, as well her maturity of character (remarkable in one so young) won the admiration of all who knew her. It’s said she received her sustenance from the angels – distributing among the poor the food the priests gave her.
When Mary reached marriageable age, her time of service in the Temple came to an end – but not her life of virginity (which she’d sworn to God in perpetuity), nor her life of obedience to God’s will. A miraculous sign from heaven now entrusted Mary to the care of Joseph, ‘her Spouse Most Chaste’.
In our window of the Presentation, three separate scenes are figured in the three panes.
In the centre pane, we see Saint Anne, with her young daughter Mary (clearly a small child, yet looking strikingly mature) standing beside here. Anne is holding a scroll in her hand, from which she is instructing Mary in her faith – ready for when the priests come to question her. Mary’s hands are joined as she repeats her lesson with the utmost piety. Above their heads, angelic cherubs look down from heaven, and in the smaller pane at the very top is a dove – a form taken by the Holy Ghost (see Matthew 3,16). From the Dove, shafts of divine grace radiate down upon Mary – representing the grace she, uniquely, received ‘in fullness’ when she was immaculately conceived.
In the left-hand pane, Anne has placed her child on the steps of the Temple. In our window, space is limited, so only a few representative steps are shown rather than the towering flight of fifteen. At the top of the steps, bearded and dressed in a red robe, waits the High Priest. Undaunted, and with joyful determination to do God’s will, Mary rushes up the steps to begin her life in his service. One of the ancient accounts of the Presentation mentions how, before setting her on the steps, Anne replaced Mary’s travel worn clothes with ones that were neater and cleaner, more appropriate to the sacred place that was now to be her home. This pane duly portrays Mary in finer clothes that those she was wearing in the centre pane.
The scene that really puzzles me is the one in the pane to the right; I’ve never been able to discover a satisfactory explanation. The older figure, seated and with a halo, looks like Saint Anne. She appears distraught. Behind her is a woman holding a cup. This is perhaps the servant girl, Judith, who tried unavailingly to comfort Anne – her other hand is on Anne’s shoulder (the one on our right), as if offering consolation. Above their heads is an angel – perhaps the angel who also came to Joachim and encouraged the couple to come back together, reassuring them of God’s promise. But the angel is holding something in his hand, that looks like a crown. Could that be the heavenly crown of sainthood awaiting Anne in heaven, for the patient part she played in the story of Man’s redemption? Most puzzling is the figure kneeling by Saint Anne’s side – but gazing heavenward, or towards the future? She’s dressed in white and blue – Mary’s colours – and over her head is a saint’s halo. If this is Mary, though still young, she’s clearly older than when she entered the service of the Temple – perhaps by now the age when she left the Temple? I’ve talked about our windows to groups of visitors – an interesting suggestion, offered by one of those visitors, is that this scene depicts Anne’s distress at her sterility, and the angel consoles her not only with the promise of heavenly reward, but also with a vision of who her wonderful child would be – the figure of Mary being that vision. If only we could ask the artist who designed the window!
The feast of the Presentation is on November 21st.
Our next nave window depicts the scene of Our Lady’s Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth, which I’ll talk about in a few days’ time.