3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time C Luke:1:1-4;4:14-21

Guercino, St Luke painting the Virgin. 1652-3. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Fine Art, Kansas City

(This has been posted after the Sunday) There is a long iconographic tradition of St Luke being shown painting the Virgin. Early icons of the Virgin reputed to have been painted from life and revered for centuries were attributed to St Luke. There are a number of these, some of them very early, others less so. One of the most well known is Salus Populi Romani in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. The reason these paintings have been attributed to St Luke might be simply an early tradition, or may be because the way he describes details in his Gospel is very painterly and his depiction of the Virgin Mary, being the most comprehensive by a long way of any of the four evangelists, led to the thought that he perhaps had access to her, and heard her own account of events and even that he painted the Virgin.

However, the theological reflection and research from sources in the process of writing the Gospel we hear St Luke describe in the earlier part of the Gospel reading for the third Sunday, (1:1-4) remind us that his record is such that it is as if he had painted her. The image of St Luke painting the Virgin expresses his attention to detail and desire for accuracy, alludes to the distinctiveness of his Infancy narrative, seen from the Virgin’s perspective, and encapsulates his genius for description in a visual way.

Showing St Luke painting the Virgin served as a fitting way to sum up the distinctiveness of the evangelist and became an effective way of portraying him as well as an opportunity to depict a scene from the life of the Virgin. Since in later times guilds of painters took St Luke as a patron this led to commissions for guild altarpieces and paintings for guild houses of St Luke painting the Virgin. We can think of the several versions of Roger van der Weyden  at Boston , St Petersburg and in Bruges.

This particular version by Guercino (1591-1666) from around 1652-3, during his later classical period is thus in a long established tradition. It follows the format he adopted for a number of paintings of figures receiving revelation, such as the two paintings of  the Samian Sibyl and Cumaean Sibyl from the same period, recently acquired by the National Gallery, London.Their composition is classical and simple in style, without much extra detail, dominated by the figure portrayed, shown full length and seated. It is significant to contrast the Sibyls with the St Luke. While they wrestle with the meaning and significance of the revelation they have received, Guercino shows St Luke engaging the viewer confidently and forthrightly. There is an exuberance in his gesture and the lighting, which falls on his head and the arm pointing to the Virgin, gives the figure of St Luke a radiance, where the Sibyls are shadowy.

In this way Guercino expresses the supernatural illumination of the evangelist and the Good News that St Luke is conveying in his Gospel. It also reflects the account of the visit of Jesus to the Synagogue at Nazareth, from chapter 4, (vv 14-21) from which the second part of the Gospel reading is taken, where he brings to fulfillment the hope-filled words of the prophet Isaiah.

Also Guercino has given freshness and vitality to the image in other ways as noted in the Khan Academy video about the painting. Firstly, the conventional attribute for St Luke was the ox, one of the four beasts described in the vision of Ezekiel each attributed to an evangelist. Guercino has included the symbol but reduced it to a background table ornamentation in stone consisting of the Ox on a version of the Gospels, quill and ink well. What this does is enliven the foreground scene of St Luke really present to the Virgin, as if to say the living tradition is beyond or greater than the written text. Secondly, unlike Roger van der Weyden, Guercino does not include the Virgin in the scene, only her portrait. Is she just outside the picture frame, or has her portrait been supernaturally revealed?  Indeed, the painting works to some extent like Velasquez’s Las Meninas from the 1650s (described by the Neapolitan artist Luca Giordano as ‘the theology of painting’) in the way it plays with different levels of reality. This also serves to enliven the painting and give it the immediacy and vitality characteristic of the later part of the Gospel passage for the day .


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