A priest, Simeon, receives the infant Christ from the Virgin Mary, ready to perform the Jewish rite of circumcision. Two women cup turtle doves in their hands, the traditional offering for the ritual of purification, made after a woman had given birth (Luke 2: 21–24).
Simeon recognised Christ’s divinity on seeing him, saying ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation’ (Luke 2: 29–30). The embroidery on his cope shows the Roman Emperor Augustus having a vision of the Virgin and Child – an experience which made him recognise that their spiritual power was greater than his.
This painting, along with three other images now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, once formed part of the central panel of an altarpiece made for the church of Saint Ursula in Cologne. It was commissioned by Dr Johann von Hirtz, a councillor in the city.
A priest, Simeon, gently receives the infant Christ from the Virgin Mary to perform the Jewish rite of circumcision. Two women cup small birds in their hands – these are turtle doves, the traditional offering for the ritual of purification, made after a woman had given birth. The episode comes from the Gospel of Luke, which describes these two events occurring at the same time in the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2: 21–24).
The carved stone altarpiece above the altar table and the embroidery on Simeon’s cope reveal the theological significance of the event. It was the moment at which Christ’s divinity was recognised for the first time after his birth: on seeing the child, Simeon said: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation’ (Luke 2: 29–30). The three scenes on the altarpiece show Old Testament events that the Christian Church regarded as parallels to Christ’s Passion: Cain slaying his brother, Abel; the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham; and the drunkenness of Noah. The embroidery on Simeon’s cope shows the Roman Emperor Augustus’s vision of the Virgin and Child in which he, a pagan, recognised that their spiritual power was greater than his. The small boys cast in bronze who hold up the altar may be references to pagan art, and reinforce the message of the cope by illustrating that paganism was surpassed by Judaism and Christianity.
The painting once formed part of an altarpiece made for the church of Saint Ursula in Cologne, consisting of scenes of the life of the Virgin Mary. It was commissioned by Dr Johann von Hirtz, a councillor in the city from about 1439 to 1467. He is depicted kneeling in the foreground of the scene showing the Visitation – when the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, who would bear John the Baptist, shared their joy and wonder at their pregnancies.
The central panel consisted of four scenes arranged in a square grid – The Presentation in the Temple appeared on lower right. It was once thought that the altarpiece took the form of a triptych (a painting composed of three parts) but recent technical analysis has raised the possibility that the panels may have been shown individually or in a different formation to that of a triptych.
The images were arranged in sequence from left to right and top to bottom across the whole of the triptych, so that when opened it revealed a narrative of the life of the Virgin. The far left upper panel – the first in the series – depicts Saints Anne and Joachim, the Virgin Mary’s parents, at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem; this was the moment Anne miraculously conceived the Virgin. The final image showed the Assumption, when the Virgin ascended to heaven after her death.
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