Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple,1342,Panel. Uffizzi, Florence
The feast of the Presentation was first commemorated as the Hypapante in the early Greek church. In the 6th century the Emperor Justinian established the 2nd February as the feast day throughout the Eastern empire, while in the West the feast of the Purification was established in the fifth century and expanded to include a procession of candles hence the name Candlemass. The liturgical text for the feast is the account in Luke’s gospel of the event in the infancy of Christ (2:22-38). Artists in the Middle Ages also drew on pseudo-Bonaventure’s Meditations on the Life of Christ. In one sense, there are two events, the presentation and the purification celebrated in this feast. It was frequently a subject in narrative cycles such as Giotto’s in the Arena Chapel, Padua, and was also suitable for an altarpiece because of the association with sacrifice and the temple, and the presence of Christ being offered. It had been depicted since the 9th century.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti ( c1290-1349) was one of the foremost artists of Siena, praised later on by the Florentine artists Ghiberti and Vasari. His Presentation was one of a series of paintings for altarpieces around the transepts of Siena cathedral commissioned from different artists which developed the Mariological and Christological aspects of the newly completed Maesta by Duccio on the high altar. The four paintings, of the Birth of the Virgin, the Annunciation, Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Presentation were in sequence moving from left to right, in four chapels dedicated to patrons of Siena. This panel is the central part of the altarpiece in the last chapel of St Crescentius, who was depicted on one of the wings.
Lorenzetti’s treatment of the Presentation is a significant rendering of the subject in several ways. I’m indebted to Heidi Hornik and Mikael Parsons Illuminating Luke for their observations on this painting. It is the first use of a temple interior to set the whole scene within the confines of an altarpiece, made possible by a developing grasp of perspective and the influence of Giotto’s frescoes. Lorenzetti uses the space effectively for the subject, more so than later artists, such as Giovanni di Paolo.The Temple also reflects the real architecture of its setting in the cathedral. After his initial design, Lorenzetti actually added a choir beyond the altar in the pictorial space to lead the viewer into the picture. The child is the first real depiction of an infant, as opposed to a small version of a grown figure.
Lorenzetti developed the iconography, too. While the altar was traditionally a key element , his painting has the first depiction of a high priest in the scene, distinct from the figure of Simeon. This may be part of the way in which Lorenzetti focusses more specifically on the salvific meaning of the infancy gospel passage and the transfromation of the old into the new. While other artists focussed on the human and emotionally charged moment when the Christ child is handed back to Mary, influenced by pseudo Bonventure’s Meditations on the Life of Christ, as did Duccio in the Maesta panel, and Giotto at Padua and in Assisi, Lorenzetti shows the moment when Simeon, holding the Christ child, gazes at him, and says,” my eyes have seen the salvation, which you have prepared for all peoples,a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel” Anna’s words too, are telescoped into this moment. The eye is drawn from the rite of sacrifice of the pigeons (which is interrupted and may never happen) on the altar to the figure of Christ, held forth for all to see. Lorenzetti further emphasises the theme of salvation by placing a figure of the resurrected Christ in a tympanum of the nave, blessing the viewer.