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Toddlers can’t read Latin prophecies.  This appears to be the basic insight of this remarkable painting I wandered past in the Scottish National Gallery last month.  It was painted by Guercino (of whom I hadn’t heard) in the second decade of the seventeenth century and, as you can see, depicts the Virgin Mary spelling out the words on a scroll to the infant John the Baptist.

Ecce Agnus Dei Guercino

From what we can see in the painting, the scroll is almost certainly meant to read “Ecce Agnus Dei”, or “Behold the Lamb of God”, John’s great proclamation about the Jesus who lies in Mary’s other arm.  It’s a joke about allegorical paintings, a moment in which the elaborate movements and postures of a religious painting have been stopped and Mary has had to try to explain to the toddling future prophet why he’s got himself wrapped up in a scroll and what the writing on it says.  Since, as was mentioned above, he probably doesn’t have any very clear idea of the matter.

I found the blending of symbolic and literal action immensely cheery, especially as Guercino doesn’t appear to be puncturing the symbolism or suggesting it’s ridiculous in itself.  His Mary and John are intent on their task, and his Christ child is lit in a way which brings the eye over to him as the focus of attention.  Like a lot of (maybe all) good art, it’s art criticism at the same time, making the viewer reflect on the nature of representation.  Of course this painting does so much more explicitly than most, as it stages an act of interpretation in which two characters in the painting puzzle out the meaning of their surroundings.

It reminded me of the various modes of Biblical interpretation which integrate or set in tension the literal, moral, anagogical and other meanings which can be found in a text.  The way the literal meaning has surprised the characters and the viewer in this painting might be a nod to the Early Modern stress on the literal meaning and the historical impulses of humanist learning.  The painting might be said to depict the tension between two modes of reading which came out particularly strongly in that era: the historical and the literary.  The genre of the painting, and its conventions, clash entertainingly with the historical perspective.

And the literal doesn’t blot out the symbolic here.  The action is full of potential for symbolic interpretation (or maybe simply allows a determined viewer to extract symbols…!)  Mary spelling out the “Ecce Agnus Dei” might be emphasizing the more powerful and immediate understanding of the Incarnation which she has been given, compared to the prophet who prepared Jesus’ way.  Or it might underline the extent to which John’s proclamation only makes sense in the light of the Annunication, that it requires Mary to articulate what has been told to her.  (Maybe there’s an echo here of the pictures which have St Anne, Mary’s mother, instructing her daughter in her letters, sometimes with the Christ child in frame as well.)

John’s puzzling over the scroll might be a tribute to his prophetic honesty: when he proclaimed a baptism for the repentance of sins, and foretold the coming of a greater one, he did not do so because he knew what it meant.  He didn’t have his own candidate for the Messianic position, he simply prophesied, and thus did not know (in a literal sense) what or whom was meant by his words.  There may even be a pun going on here on the arrival of the Word, which makes sense of the words, in the painting.

On a larger scale, this painting seems to stage one of the tensions (or maybe mysteries) at the heart of the Christian faith.  The Christian tradition has always insisted that human history and human life is the medium in which salvation is worked.  Both on an individual level, since Christians do not believe that we become disembodied spirits as we are drawn closer into the life of God, leaving our bodies and our worldly concerns behind (though that has been a frequent temptation in Christian thought over the centuries).  And on a communal level, since Christianity inherited from the Hebrew Scriptures a belief that the story of God’s actions should be understood not in a vague mythical never-never-time (like that of Classical myth) but as part of dateable “in the reign of…” time.  Time like ours.

The Incarnation might be regarded as the most perfect culmination of salvation happening within human life (in both senses), but Jewish thought had long demanded a rigorous historical perspective of its believers.  Of course “rigorous historical perspective” cuts both ways.  The notorious Ussher calculations (which date the start of the world’s creation to 6pm on Saturday 22nd October, 4004 BC) and the ideas of modern Creationists, may embarrass other Christians and certainly need to be addressed robustly.  But they spring from a deep impulse in Christian tradition, to understand God as acting in history, and for divine life to be sought within the world around us.

Likewise those scholars such as Albert Schweitzer or Bart Ehrman, whose historical investigations have convinced them that Christian tradition has drastically misunderstood its central figure – and who have, in some cases, felt compelled to abandon their faith as a result – are not applying some godless and alien interrogation method to the traditions and documents of Christianity.  They are also responding to powerful historical insistence embedded in that religious tradition, even if that means taking it to a conclusion which appears to pull the tradition apart.  For those who stay within the tradition, this historical imperative has provided the basis for a great deal of reflection and productive disagreement, such as Maurice Wiles’ and Nicholas Lash’s debate over what it means to say that Christianity is a “historical religion” (to pick an example from my desk this week.)

Christian tradition has repeatedly demanded that history and theology not be kept in separate conceptual boxes.  That we not confine our understanding of religious matters to entirely conventional schemes of paint which hang on the wall and point upwards to eternal verities.  Nor confine our understanding of humanity to the immediate, violent and baffling physical conditions around us.  In many ways it would be easier if we were allowed to do either.  But we are presented with a tradition which sees reality as both symbolic and contingent, both immediately physical and immediately spiritual, full of historical people who also took part in God’s activity.

The prophet who appeared on the other side of the Jordan proclaiming a coming judgement also had to learn how to read.  The documents which speak of unique divine Incarnation are also open to historical criticism and debate.  The people around us can be awkward, unreliable, malicious, frivolous, irritatingly good, and also bear the image of God within them.  Guercino’s painting seems to capture something of this difficult idea, along with the moments many of us might have as Christians; feeling like a toddler wrapped up in a scroll who doesn’t even read Latin prophecies and would rather like someone to spell it all out to them before a tantrum becomes really quite necessary.