Sunday 24 September 2017

The Meeting at the Golden Gate

What Lies Beneath

By Giotto di Bondone (c.1267-1337)
By Giotto di Bondone (c.1267-1337)

Niall MacMonagle

Today is The Feast of the Immaculate Conception and, though dogma since 1854, even Catholics are sometimes confused as to who's being immaculately conceived.

When is Our Lady's birthday? September 8th, of course, and she shares it with Richard I, Siegfried Sassoon, Patsy Cline, Dvorak. . . . As if she cares. This means she was conceived on December 8th, the day country people used to come to town to do their Christmas shopping. And when Mary was immaculately conceived she was the one and only human accorded that honour, according to Catholic teaching.

From the moment Mary existed in her mother's womb she was untouched and untainted by original sin. And thereby hangs a tall tale. Joachim and Anne, Mary's aged parents, and childless, longed for a baby. A guilty, despairing Joachim took to the desert but an angel appeared to him and announced that Anne was with child. He returned home, presumably with a spring in his step. Doesn't God work in mysterious ways?

Giotto captures the golden, emotional and tender moment of Joachim and Anne's reunion in this 1305 fresco, a moment of seismic importance in the Christian narrative: without this conception there would be no Holy Mary, and no Holy Mary then no Baby Jesus. Here, Mary's haloed parents embrace and kiss on the bridge outside Jerusalem's Golden Gate. The figures have a solid presence: the accompanying shepherd, the attendant women and behind them the arched gateway, its two towers beautifully formal.

Discovered aged ten, apparently, while minding sheep and drawing a lamb on a flat stone, Giotto's reputation grew and grew. Pope Benedict XI, interested in commissioning a work for St Peter's Basilica, sent a courtier to Florence with a request for a sample of Giotto's work. Giotto dipped a brush in red paint, pinned his arm to his side and using only his hand created in one smooth, simple, harmonious, expert movement a perfect circle on canvas. He got the job.

"Who is the greatest Italian painter?"

"Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie."

"That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite."

Yes, indeed. And you don't mess with a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.

Sunday Independent

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