There is more to this image than what initially meets the eye. This saying is true not only about this masterpiece but also about the masterpiece of every human person. Take a moment to see the similarities in the hand gestures between the Mother Mary and the Child Jesus. Notice how their hair color and faces are similar. Jesus is truly the Son of His mother in her likeness and Mary is truly, as is the case for all people, made in the image and likeness of her God.
Now, look deeper into the painting to see what the child is holding in his hand and what he has around his arm. The child holds three golden items that look like nails and has a crown of thorns around his arm. These are symbols that point to his future suffering on the Cross. One could wonder at the scene – was Mary reading from Scripture? One can faintly make out the name of God in the writing on the book’s pages. Why does there seem to have been a pause in the moment they were having, that turned Jesus’ head toward His mother to look at her expression? What was Mary thinking about? What was Botticelli, as the painter, seeking to tell us by letting us see this precise moment?
We recall that Jesus is also the Word of God who is revealed to us in Scripture. Scripture is the revelation to us of God’s loving plan to save us in history. In this painting, also entitled Madonna of the Book, we are reminded that Mary pondered God’s word and deeds in her heart. Christ, as the Word of God, eternally spoken by the Father, is revealed to us by the gift of Mary’s own consent to the words of the angel at the Annunciation. Mary believed the words that were spoken to her by the angel. Mary believes the Word of God. Mary contemplates the Word in the silence of her heart. It is in the depths of one’s heart that the encounter with God takes place. It is from the depths of the heart and the interior life of the person that genuine love is offered and received.
In this painting, we are reminded of the intimacy of love that each of us are called to have with Jesus who is present to us, as Catholics believe, both in the words of Scripture and in His Flesh and Blood through the Holy Eucharist. We recall again the three nails and the crown of thorns which are painted in soft and golden colors, rather than the harsh colors that they were in reality. This could remind us that authentic love is refined in the fire of sacrifice and is truly purified like refined gold. Genuine charity remains, abides and endures all things.
In Mary, we see an example of a woman who lived true charity with her life, since she loved God above all else. In Jesus, we see the greatest love of all, for His very Being is Love. “God is love.” (1 Jn 4:8) Do we know His Love? Do we seek His Love?
Let us take a moment to join Mary, as in this painting, in reflecting on the gift of Jesus and the grace that His suffering on the Cross will bring to us. Let us open our hearts to the love of God, which He desires to pour into our hearts. (Rom 5:5)
Let us ask God for the grace to live, in imitation of Mary, the virtue of charity, so that we may love God above all and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Living the Encounter
You have encountered genuine beauty today in Sandro Botticelli’s masterpiece, Madonna and Child (Madonna del libro). Chose to live your encounter with beauty and share it with others. Living beautifully is living virtuously. Reflect upon the virtue of charity expressed in Mary’s life. Recall that the inner life of God is an endless exchange of Love which is poured out upon each of us as grace. Ask yourself:
How do you allow the love of God to be poured into your heart and your life? How do you seek to give this love to others? Ask God to remove and heal anything in your life that is getting in the way of your ability to receive His love and love in return. This is ultimate meaning of life – to be open to love and to love in return, above all, in our relationship with God. Really take this to heart. Offer to God a prayer in your own words to help you live the virtue of charity.
Act of Charity: O my God, I love You above all things with my whole heart and soul because You are all good and worthy of all my love. I love my neighbor as myself for the love of You. I forgive all who have injured me and ask pardon of all whom I have injured. Amen.
Deepen Your Encounter
After you leave the exhibit, return to your encounter with beauty and remember what you learned about the virtue of charity. Take a moment to read the Scripture passage from 1 John 4:7-12 and reflect upon how you can continue to live your encounter by practicing the virtue of charity in your life.
You've encountered beauty in Mary and her virtues. Continue to live your encounter and live beautifully for others.
Inform Your Encounter
Scripture passages related to the virtue of charity: John 15:9-10; 1 John 4:8;
Read about saints who practiced the virtue of charity: St. John the Evangelist; St. Francis Xavier
Standards/USCCB Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for Young People related to this reflection
Unique role of Mary, Mother of God including the Annunciation and Mary’s “yes” (CCC, nos.484-487); Christ as the Son of Mary, from the moment of the Incarnation (CCC, 486); Mary as an unparalleled recipient of God’s grace: Immaculate Conception; Assumption (CCC, nos. 490-494, 966); Mary and her role in the life and prayer of the Church (CCC, nos. 484-511, 721-726, 963-972, 829); Universal call to holiness (CCC, nos.826, 2012-2014, 2028, 2045, 2013); Accepting and living the grace of redemption by practicing the virtues of faith, hope and love (CCC, nos. 1803, 1812-1832); Theological virtue of charity (CCC, nos. 2093-2094). Types of virtue, (CCC, nos. 1804-1832); Prayer in the life of a believer: lectio divina (CCC, nos. 1177, 2708); Jesus Christ reveals the Father to us, who we are, and our call to holiness; By becoming man, and by his Death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ unites us to God (CCC, nos. 461-464); We become the free adopted children of the Father through Baptism (Gal 4; CCC, nos. 1265-1270); The Word became flesh (the Incarnation) (CCC, nos. 525-528, 456-478) to save us by reconciling us with God, who loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins (CCC, no.457); that we might come to know the depth of God’s love for us (CCC, 458); to be our model of holiness (CCC, no 459); to make us partakers of the divine nature (CCC, nos.457-460);
Madonna of the Book (Tempera and oil on wood panel), Botticelli, Sandro (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi) (1444/5-1510) / Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan, Italy / Bridgeman Images
Share your Encounter
What did your encounter bring? Share your experience and inspirations with others. #MeetMary
PicturingMary.com is funded by private individuals who support the NMWA exhibit and offer the website materials for visitors to deepen their encounter with Mary as a woman, mother and idea. The reflections were written by a woman religious, Sr. John Paul Maher, O.P., who is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.