This self-portrait contains a message of great depth for each of us. Take a moment to gaze upon this Self-Portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola. What do you notice about her expression? Her hands? Why do you think, as a painter, she chose to include a painting of Mary and the Child Jesus in a painting of herself? Look at the facial expressions of Mary and Jesus. They are caught up in a mutual gaze – a moment of intensely personal exchange. What does this say to you? What do you think Sofonisba Anguissola hoped it would say to you?
Now, take a moment to look at Sofonisba’s face and gestures again. She is inviting you to look at Jesus, but pointing Him out to you with her paint brush. Even though she has painted herself in the foreground, closest to the viewer, she wants her own image pointing to Christ. She also wants her art to point to Christ. In a sense, both her image (self-portrait) and her art (through the work of her hands) point to Christ. Who she is and what she does are in unison, resounding the same message. Can we say the same about ourselves? Do we point beyond ourselves to a Divine Other, to Jesus?
Notice that the two wood brushes in Sofonisba’s hands form the shape of a cross. It is as if she is saying: her work is the way she takes up her own cross and follows Jesus. This is a gesture of humility, pointing away from oneself and toward Christ. Humility is also recognizing that one’s gifts and talents come from God. Part of the virtue of humility is having an awareness that not only our gifts but also our very selves come from God. While a human artist can paint a self-portrait, only a divine artist can bring a human person to life. Sofonisba knew that she was made in God’s image and that her gifts as an artist came from God. As a result, her painting, while a great masterpiece, is also a message of humility.
While each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, our true greatness lies in imitating the humility of Christ, and therefore truly resembling God who gives Himself in service to others. We recall Mary’s own example of humility, especially in recognizing the gift that Jesus is to her. True greatness lies in gazing on the face of Christ, as Mary does in this picture, with the interior gaze of our heart. We can place ourselves in the presence of Jesus and let His gaze transform us from within, allowing our own dignity of being made in the divine image emerge. It is a great mystery to contemplate that the greatest example of humility in the history of the world is the humbleness of the Jesus who came to earth as a vulnerable Child, taking on our human nature, even though He was God. True humility is setting aside one’s greatness for the good of others.
Reflect upon the humility of Mary who received Jesus and the humility of Jesus who, in taking on our human flesh, allowed Himself, as God, to be seen and to be the subject of paintings like Sofonisba’s work. It is a great mystery that God has allowed Himself to be seen on earth and also “seen” mysteriously in our hearts. What great humility! Truly, we can echo Mary’s own humble words “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” (Luke 1:46)
Let us ask God for the grace to live, in imitation of Mary, the virtue of humility, so that we may reflect in our lives the image of God.
Living the Encounter
You have encountered genuine beauty today in Sofonisba Anguissola’s masterpiece, Self-Portrait at the Easel. Chose to live your encounter with beauty and share it with others. Living beautifully is living virtuously. Reflect upon the virtue of humility expressed in Mary’s life. Reflect also the words of Jesus in Scripture: “Learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” (Mt 11:29) Ask yourself:
How can you grow in imitation of Jesus and Mary today by practicing the virtue of humility? Think of one specific way you can acknowledge the gifts of a friend or neighbor instead of placing the attention on yourself and make a gift of this act of humility today.
Deepen Your Encounter
After you leave the exhibit, return to your encounter with beauty and remember what you learned about the virtue of humility. Take a moment to read the Scripture passage from Luke 1:39-56 and reflect upon how you can continue to live your encounter by practicing the virtue of humility in your life.
You've encountered beauty in Mary and her virtues. Continue to live your encounter and live beautifully for others.
Self portrait at the Easel, (oil on canvas) 1556, Anguissola, Sofonisba (c.1532-1625) / Muzeum Zamek, Lancut, Poland / Bridgeman Images
Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556
Oil on canvas
26 x 22 ½ in. (66 x 57 cm)
Museum Zamek, Lancut, Poland
View online at the National Museum for Women in the Arts exhibit Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea
Inform Your Encounter
Scripture related to this masterpiece: Luke 1:46-55
Learn more about practicing the virtue of humility
Standards/USCCB Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for Young People related to this reflection
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); Dignity due to being made an image and likeness of God (CCC, nos. 1, 1877); Accepting and living the grace of redemption by practicing the virtues (CCC 1803); 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);
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.