Pictured above: Madonna and Child, 1907–08 (tempera on panel) by Marianne Stokes (1855–1927)
Mary beheld the face of God in her own arms. When she gazed down upon her child, God looked back at her. What an extraordinary mystery! Countless generations had prayed with the psalmist that God’s face would shine upon them (see Psalm 80:7). At the moment Mary gave birth to Jesus, this prayer was answered. God’s face now shone in the Babe of Bethlehem.
We, of course, have not seen Jesus in person. With St. Paul, we anticipate heaven when we, too, will see “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). But in the meantime, we can meditate upon the astonishing truth that God has a human face. The artistic imagination and rare talent of Marianne Stokes, evident in her famous Madonna and Child, provides a lovely starting point for this meditation. A portrait artist by trade, Stokes won admiration early in her career for her remarkably clear depictions of human subjects. Austrian born, Marianne married landscape painter Adrian Stokes, and the two settled in England but traveled extensively.
It was on a visit to the Croatian coast in 1905 that Marianne found the “face” of a young girl from the city of Dubrovnik to be her inspiration for the Virgin Mary in this particular painting. Marianne Stokes chose to garb Our Lady in the traditional costume of Dubrovnik’s women, connecting the floral pattern and ribbed stripes on the elaborate golden tunic to the golden haloes, thorns, and fennel that swirl through the background of the image. The thorns symbolize the suffering of both Jesus and his mother, and fennel was traditionally used to represent sorrow because the flower dies so quickly. But the details of dress and adornment are not what primarily captivate the eye of the viewer. Rather, it is the faces of Jesus and Mary that engage our attention.
The artistic imagination and rare talent of Marianne Stokes, evident in her famous Madonna and Child, provides a lovely starting point for this meditation.
By this point in her career, Marianne had spent more than two decades developing her skill in portraiture and perfecting her natural talent, so it is no wonder that her depiction of these holy faces is so enchanting. Both Mary and Jesus seem to gaze directly at us — Our Lady with head tilted in a gentle yet pleading expression; Our Lord with the unmasked simplicity of an infant who fixes his eyes without pause. Even as Mary looks at us, she seems to implore us to look instead at her son. She directs us to place our attention where it belongs, namely on the face of Christ. The literal act of “unveiling” in which she pulls back the gossamer scarf surrounding her baby invites us to behold with stark clarity the unfathomable mystery of God-made-man, resting so peacefully on his mother’s lap.
This mystery marks the beginning of every new year. On the first day of January, we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. We recall that God himself chose to have a mom. We consider with awe the fact that the human face of God took its DNA and genetic form from the face of a young woman from Nazareth.
Both Mary and Jesus seem to gaze directly at us.
This feast has its historical origin in the Church’s insistence that Jesus was in fact true God and true man, contrary to heresies that considered the Lord’s humanity to be only an appearance and not a full reality. By insisting that Mary was in fact Theotokos, or Mother of God, the Church taught the faithful that Jesus’ personhood was inseparable from his divinity.
Thus, to see Jesus is to see God. And what better way to welcome in a new year than by fixing our attention upon the face of God? Our resolutions, our goals, and our dreams will all take shape more perfectly under his guidance and through his grace. Leaving behind the frustrations and failures of the past year, we join the psalmist in the hopeful prayer, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let thy face shine, that we may be saved!” (Psalm 80:7).
And so we entrust our year — and our entire future — to the God “who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).