When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
The Presentation in the Temple, Tempera and Gold on Wood, 1435, Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia), 1398-1482
We are familiar with remakes of motion pictures and rearrangements of musical scores. Writing variations of another composer’s theme also is well known. Today in painting, however, originality in subject and composition tends to be preferred. Yet, in the fifteenth century it was not unusual for an artist to reinterpret the composition of another painter. Giovanni di Paolo based, “Presentation in the Temple,” (shown above) on a scene from the predella of an altarpiece by Gentile di Fabriano but changes in colors and background architecture were made. Although in this time period (Early Renaissance) the trend in painting was toward naturalism and classical humanism, di Paolo remained in the Gothic decorative style.
According to Jewish law, a mother was instructed to go to the Temple for ritual purification forty days after the birth of a son (See Leviticus 12:1-8). Further, a firstborn son was to be presented as an offering to the Lord forty days after birth. In paintings, these requirements often were combined.
In “The Presentation in the Temple,” Joseph in a yellow robe and Mary in her traditional blue robe are at the Temple with the baby Jesus. Joseph is holding a dove. [It is presumed another dove is hidden from our view. If a family were poor they could bring two turtle doves or two young pigeons to sacrifice instead of a lamb.] As they entered the Temple they were met by Simeon, an old man who had been told by the Holy Spirit he would see the Messiah before he died. Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and prayed.
His familiar prayer is known to us now as the Nunc Demittis: “Lord now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace; according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). [The phrase, “to be a light to lighten the gentiles,” is the basis for celebration of the feast day, Candlemas, and in paintings often a person holds a candle as a symbol of Simeon’s words.]
In di Paolo’s painting, the setting is a pavilion with a burning sanctuary lamp (the “ner tamid,” Hebrew for “eternal light”). The participants are grouped together in front of the altar and the priest is behind it. The baby Jesus continues to be held by Simeon and the prophetess, Anna, an old widow living in the Temple is at his side. On the left, two women dressed in fashionable fifteenth century clothing have come to observe the rituals and to the right two beggars are seeking alms.
Hovak Najarian © 2014