Past, Present, and Future

A few weeks ago, one of the readers of this blog sent me a digital image of this painting. She noticed the crucifix hanging above Mary and the newborn baby Jesus. She wasn’t sure if she found the crucifix hilarious or disturbing. So, I did a little digging and this is what I found.

This piece is by Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden. He was known for his triptychs (a piece of art divided into three sections). This is the middle section of a triptych known as the St. Columba Altarpiece. The entire painting is filled with religious iconography.

In one sense, this triptych shows three chronological scenes. Left panel: the Annunciation when the angel tells Mary she will bear the Son of God. Center panel: the Adoration of the Magi. (Side note: The church in which this triptych hung was believed to be the final resting place of the bones of the three wise men.) The star the wise men had followed peeks out behind the barn-like structure. The man kneeling behind the partial wall at the left of the panel is the donor who commissioned the artist to paint the piece. Donors were often painted into scenes in ancient art. Right panel: the Presentation of Jesus at the temple. The baby Jesus is held by Simeon as Anna looks on, both prophets who viewed the infant and declared he would be the one to bring salvation. The woman in green is copied from another famous altarpiece found in the same city as this one—Cologne, Germany. Perhaps Weyden liked her appearance.

There are also elements of this work that manipulate time and space. In the center panel you see the exterior of a building (on the right) and in the right panel you see the interior of the same building, yet the center panel is in Bethlehem and the right panel is in Jerusalem. The buildings in the background of the center panel shows what was then a present-day cityscape. Critics have speculated that Weyden is trying to bridge the gap between Old Testament (the temple), New Testament, and present day. Then, we have the crucifix hanging above the baby Jesus—depicting an event that will not take place for another 33 years.

This manipulation of the timing of events made me think about how we perceive time. Every day we are witnesses to time’s progression. Daylight comes, passes, and night arrives only to be followed by daylight again. We look at a clock and see the hands moving. Sometimes times flies; sometimes it crawls. We ask regarding the criminal: “How much ‘time’ did he get?” And we ourselves muse: “How much ‘time’ do I have left?”

Being Human connection: I just left the hospital room of a friend who is struggling with how much time she has left. Eight years ago, she was given two weeks to live. Now she is faced with a decision—continue to fight for her life or succumb to the deterioration of her body. One thing she does know—her savior is with her whatever the outcome. I don’t know what I would do faced with the same difficult decision. She is an inspiration to me and a reminder to let the trivial things of life be just that—trivial. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Live every day as if it were your last. And praise the Lord. Even in her turmoil, my friend praises the Lord! She is an inspiration.

Featured art: Rogier van der Weyden, St. Columba Altarpiece, 1450s, Alte PinakothekMuseum, Munich, Germany

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” -Psalm 90:12