The Madonna of the Meadow

Each year as we look at Creation we see the cycle of the seasons.  The earth comes alive in spring, blossoms and bears fruit in summer, gives up its goodness and glory in autumn, and seems to die in the sleep of cold winter. Each of those seasons has its moods and feelings, which we find mirrored in the turn of human life.

The joy of spring and summer go hand in hand with the sadness and resignation of autumn and winter in all that life brings us.  When we look at our Lady in the Gospels, and this month of May is Mary’s month, we see that mixture of joy and sadness.

In the Annunciation and at Christmas we share in the wonder and happiness of motherhood and new birth.  A Son is born, but that birth brings anxiety and strain.  Those strange words of Simeon in the Temple, losing the child in Jerusalem, watching her son grow, only to be rejected and crucified – these experiences brought Mary heartache and sorrow.  But her maternal love sustains her through it all, and Mary is with the disciples at the glorious moment of Pentecost.

This range of moods in creation and in the life of Mary is caught up in the painting, ‘The Madonna of the Meadow’ by Giovanni Bellini.  He came from a family of Renaissance painters, and this work was created around 1500.  It now hangs in the National Gallery in London.  The background is full of the details of the world of nature and everyday life.  We see some cows grazing and others resting.  A farmer tends the livestock on one side of the painting, while a herdsman relaxes on the other.  Mary in the centre is part of that creation with the blue of her robe like the sky above, while the russet shades beneath that blue mirror the earth on which she rests.

As we look more closely, we can see some disturbing signs of ‘nature red in tooth and claw.’  There is a bird to our left – perhaps a crane or egret – that is fighting with a snake. Above, on the top of a tall, thin, leafless tree there is another bird as black as death.  We look at the babe sleeping in His mother’s arms and sense His vulnerability for all her protective love.  Some 30 years later Mary will cradle her Son in that same pose as His body is taken down from the cross: that heart-rending moment we know as the Pietà.

The Venetian landscape is like a peaceful May afternoon where spring is dissolving into high summer amid those contented signs of a clear sky and cows grazing.  The serpent and the raven tell us that struggle and death can easily invade that scene.  But they somehow pale into insignificance as we ponder that luminous affirmation of new life in the mother and child that dominate the canvas.  They proclaim life; they proclaim life after death. The babe sleeping in Mary’s arms will wake and grow through the seasons of life.  Too soon we know His body will hang on a barren tree like the one where that bird of death perches.  But that cycle of birth and spring leading to death and winter will be transformed as His risen body will walk into another landscape – the garden of Easter where the leaves never wither and the sky never darkens, for in that resurrection joy, all is life and light and life eternal.

Michael Burgess

The feature image for this post is “1503 Bellini Madonna auf der Wiese National Gallery, London”, WikiCommons (P.D.).

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