Painting by Marianne Stokes (1855–1927),
Painted in 1901
Tempera on wood
© Tate Britain, London
Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
When the day came for them to be purified as laid down by the Law of Moses, the parents of Jesus took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord – observing what stands written in the Law of the Lord: Every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord – and also to offer in sacrifice, in accordance with what is said in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. Now in Jerusalem there was a man named Simeon. He was an upright and devout man; he looked forward to Israel’s comforting and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had set eyes on the Christ of the Lord. Prompted by the Spirit he came to the Temple and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the Law required, he took him into his arms and blessed God; and he said:
‘Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace,
just as you promised;
because my eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared for all the nations to see,
a light to enlighten the pagans
and the glory of your people Israel.’
Reflection on the Painting
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. According to Old Testament law, two ritual acts needed to take place for a firstborn son. First, the mother of a newborn son was ritually unclean for seven days, and then she was to “spend thirty-three more days in a state of blood purity” (see Leviticus 12). During these forty days the mother was not to “touch anything sacred nor enter the sanctuary till the days of her purification are fulfilled.” For this reason, today’s feast has at times been called the “Purification of Mary.” Note how today is celebrated in our Church exactly forty days after Christmas
Secondly, the father of the firstborn son was to “redeem” the child by making an offering to the priest of five shekels so that the priest would then present the child to the Lord (see Numbers 18:16) Remember also that the firstborn male of all the Egyptians, animals and children, were killed during the tenth plague, but the firstborn males of the Israelites were spared. Thus, this offering made for the firstborn son in the Temple was a way of ritually redeeming them in commemoration of that plague.
Another name traditionally given for today’s feast is 'Candlemass'. As early as in the fifth century, the custom of celebrating this feast with lighted candles developed. The lit candle symbolised Simeon’s prophecy that Jesus would be 'a light to enlighten the pagans', as per our gospel reading today. The Austrian artist Marianne Stokes was based in Britain in 1901 when she painted this work. Candlemas Day was made after working in Holland and we can feel the tangible influence of Johannes Vermeer and Dutch painting. Yet, she was also highly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, and she became part of the revival of medieval egg tempera painting where paint would be applied in tiny strokes (you can see this when you zoom in on our painting). We see an intimate portrayal of a woman holding a bible and rosary. The candle, bible and rosary are set against a different background to the lady, thus clustering the three objects into their own narrative.
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