This past Wednesday, February 2, was the feast of the Purification of Mary, or The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. According to Jewish custom (as described in Luke 2:22-38), 40 days after the birth of a first-born son, his parents bring him to the Temple for a ceremony in which the mother offers a pair of doves for the purpose of her own purification, and the child is “bought back” from the Temple for money. When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, the prophetess Anna, an 84-year-old full-time resident of the Temple, is there too, as well as Simeon. Simeon was a devout Jew who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. Upon seeing the child, Simeon offers a song of praise, known as the “Song of Simeon” or the “Nunc Dimittis.” He also speaks a prophecy to Mary. Read the complete Gospel text here.
I have written several blog posts about this over the past years, discussing how the early Christian church tied pre-Christian end-of-winter rites to their own feast days of Candlemass and the Purification of Mary. Whether Bach writes a joyful cantata about new beginnings or a more solemn one for this feast day, there is always a bright spotlight on Simeon’s words “Now let your servant die in peace” (Nunc Dimittis).
In his German-language Bach cantata podcasts, prominent Bach scholar Michael Maul has now twice pointed out the influence of the existing art works depicting The presentation of Jesus in the Temple on how Bach and his contemporaries might have seen this story. I loved hearing this, because that’s what I almost always try to do in this blog too, to find an example of the kind of imagery Bach might have had in mind when thinking of the Bible stories.
There is a large number of paintings about the presentation at the Temple, and Simeon plays a central role in each of them. Maul gives the example that the Bible doesn’t specify Simeon’s age and that references to “the old Simeon” by Bach and his librettists must come from the long beard and grey hair in all the paintings.
So, this week, I decided to do a bit of digging around in those art works and the Bible story.
Reading the Gospel of Luke (see above), it seems logical to me that artists thought of Simeon as an old man, since it says “that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” From the detailed description of the prophet Anna’s old age it is then of course an easy step to also think of Simeon as an octogenarian.
What I did find surprising is that in many of the paintings, especially the earlier ones, and even in the discussions by art historians such as Zuffi, Simeon gets assigned the role of the priest on duty at the temple, when he was just a visitor that day. It is an interesting question how and when that piece of fiction was born, but it is just a side story here.
In several paintings, such as all presentations by Memling (see here and here), Lorenzetti, and Lochner (Darmstadt, see above), the focus is on the ceremony. Jewelry, doves, money, and clothing are painstakingly portrayed, but there is no emotion. But then there are the paintings that seem a bit more intimate, the earliest of these the “Lisbon presentation” by Lochner, from ca. 1447, see here directly above. In this painting it is Joseph who’s carrying the doves, Mary is empty-handed and just praying. This painting is not about her. Jesus is touching Simeon’s beard, and Simeon seems to be crying. Daniel Levine offers the explanation that Simeon’s sadness is caused by his vision of the child’s future, as he says to Mary: “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” The painting at the top of this post, by Bellini, might also fall in this category.
We see this happening even more clearly and directly in Rembrandt’s representation of the same story, almost two centuries later. There is no ceremony at all here, only a conversation between two people, with Simeon clearly speaking to Mary.
Thus it seems as if at least some of the artists were especially moved by the foreshadowing of the Passion story in Simeon’s words. Whether Bach had seen those specific paintings or not, I don’t know of course. But it is clear that the idea existed at the time, and it is a bit more proof for the theory I expressed in this blog post about Cantata 125, that this cantata looks ahead to the St. Matthew Passion. This is all the more motivation for me to start writing more about that Passion in the coming weeks.
Wieneke Gorter, February 6, 2022.