Christmas message defined by love - Toovey’s

Attributed to Francesco di Marco Francia - Madonna and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist, 16th century oil on panel. SUS-181217-105437001
Attributed to Francesco di Marco Francia - Madonna and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist, 16th century oil on panel. SUS-181217-105437001

The image of the Madonna and Child is timeless and its Christmas story still speaks to us across the millennia.

I discovered the important 16th century oil on panel you see here in the heart of Sussex.

Subsequent research confirmed an attribution to the Italian artist Francesco di Marco Francia.

It depicts the Madonna and Child with the infant St John the Baptist.

In the 16th century, as in earlier times, paintings, frescoes and carvings often contained complex iconography and were frequently used as teaching tools.

In this depiction, the Christ Child stands in front of the Virgin Mary, his right hand raised in a symbol of blessing as his mother supports him.

In his left hand he holds a goldfinch.

In the Middle-Ages popular legend held that a goldfinch flew down and plucked one of the thorns from the crown around Christ’s head as he carried the cross.

As his blood splashed onto the bird’s plumage it was said to have caused its red markings.

To the right St John the Baptist looks on framed by the words he spoke before he baptised Jesus ‘ecce agnes dei’ – behold the lamb of God.

Behind the Virgin, the stylized landscape frames the Marian blue of her cloak.

The expressions and gestures of this mother and child, combined with the delicacy of line and composition, create an effect which is extraordinarily naturalistic.

The painter’s exceptional skill and poetic composition presents us with a scene filled with rhythm and beauty, allowing us at once to discern love and authority.

Not only does this scene ground us in this moment of the gospel story but the panel also invites us into its intimacy.

Mary is depicted as a devoted mother.

The artist seeks to remind the viewer that a person’s relationship with their maker is a matter of personal devotion and prayer.

Mary’s response to God’s calling and love is acceptance, obedience and service.

Her example speaks across the millennia and continues to inspire us.

As you read this, I and millions of other Christians across the country will be preparing to celebrate that very first Christmas, when God came among us as a baby in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

His parents were displaced and without their home.

People over the ages have often talked of value in terms of the material; by this standard, Mary and Joseph had little and yet they knew that they had been richly blessed.

They shared the gift of their child with the world.

This gift was so precious, so valuable that even the heavenly host of angels rejoiced and praised God.

What was being celebrated was love.

Most of us will spend the next few days expectantly preparing for Christmas as we anticipate the arrival of loved ones, or journey, like Mary and Joseph, to our ancestral homes (whether grand or modest) to visit our families and friends.

Our processions towards Christmas day will be different and particular to each of us as.

As we give and receive gifts this Christmas I hope each of us will find a moment to reflect that they are valuable because they are expressions of our love for one another.

Like Mary and Joseph perhaps we will be inspired to share what we have with the world through acts of generosity, kindness and concern for those around us, especially those in need, the displaced and the homeless.

The message of Christmas is that true value is defined by love and service to others.

It remains for me to wish you and those you love a very happy and blessed Christmas.

Rupert Toovey is a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington - www.tooveys.com - and a priest in the Church of England Diocese of Chichester.