Praying the Rosary through Art: The Joyful Mysteries

“The rosary has the character of a sojourn. Its essence is the sheltering security of a quiet, holy world that envelops the person who is praying.”
 Romano Guardini, The Rosary of Our Lady

St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, championed the rich benefits of prayerful meditation. At the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises, the wise Spaniard wrote, “The first prelude [to meditation] is a mental image of the place. It should be noted…that when the meditation or contemplation is on a visible object, for example, contemplating Christ our Lord during His life on earth, the image will consist of seeing with the mind’s eye the physical place where the object that we wish to contemplate is present…for instance, a temple or a mountain where Jesus or the Blessed Virgin is, depending on the subject.”

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While Ignatius intended these observations specifically for those souls undertaking his Spiritual Exercises, the same principle can be extended to meditation in general—including the meditations of the rosary. With St. Ignatius’s approach in mind, I present art and meditations from the joyful mysteries of the rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary.


The Annunciation, 1898: Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

The brilliant light and the seated young girl stand out in this annunciation scene—one of Tanner’s best paintings. Departing from the traditional portrayal of angels as winged beings, this turn-of-the-century American artist instead uses a bright pillar of light to represent the angel Gabriel. A pensive Mary wears the simple garb of an eastern Mediterranean country girl.

As we look at this painting, we think about the words from sacred Scripture: “And when the angel had come to her, he said, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: Blessed art thou amongst women.’ When she had heard him she was troubled at his words, and kept pondering what manner of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shall conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus.’” Mary asked Gabriel how this was to be. “And the Angel answered and said to her, ‘The holy Spirit shall come upon thee…’” (Luke 1:28-31, 35).

Tanner has dramatically captured the momentous event when the angel declares to a young, overwhelmed virgin that she is to be the Mother of God. Mary’s posture—hands clasped, head slightly tilted, a questioning look on her face—shows she’s troubled by the angel’s words. Though from the beginning of Mary’s life God had prepared her for this unique grace, nothing could have readied her for the news. It was as strange and unexpected for her as it would have been for any of us. Mary believes—and accepts—before she understands.

An interesting artistic aside: The use of the two arches in the background reflects Tanner’s training in classical art. They replicate two arches that appear in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation at the Prado Museum in Madrid. Thus Tanner’s work, though very modern, pays quiet tribute to a traditional treatment of this important theme.

Tanner himself was one of this country’s leading African-American artists. Son of a Methodist bishop, Henry Tucker Tanner, and a former slave, Sarah Miller, he was the eldest of nine children. After finishing his basic education, he secured a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied under Thomas Eakins, the noted American realist. After struggling unsuccessfully for recognition in America, Tanner went to France, where he began to gain the attention of critics. After several years of living abroad, he returned home. A deeply religious man, Tanner based many of his works on biblical events.


The Visitation, 13th-Century Romanesque altarpiece from Mosoll, Anonymous, Museum of Catalonian Art, Barcelona, Spain

This altarpiece comes from the Church of Our Lady of Mosoll in Catalonia, Spain. As with much great art from the medieval era, the artist’s name is unknown. This master from Mosoll used tempera paint on a woo­den panel to create his work. It consists of several figures posed un­der twelve arches (de­pic­ting different scenes from the Blessed Virgin Mary’s life). The Visitation is one of them.

The colors the ar­tist chose are enig­­­matic: Mary appears dress­ed both in the blue and red normally associated with her as well as in the nontraditional colors of green and reddish gold. In this particular scene, Mary stands to the left, wearing a reddish gold veil with a dark green cape that almost completely covers her blue dress. Elizabeth, on the right, looks older be­cause of a slight wrinkle in her forehead and a longer nose. She is dressed in a dark blue mantle, with a red garment underneath. In medieval art, blue sym­bolizes heaven and truth, while red is meant to remind us of blood and martyrdom. But what about the green of Mary’s cape? Green stands for hope and solemnity, which makes it the perfect color for this representation of one of the most hopeful events in salvation history.

In the mid-13th century, Byzantine artistic influences had reached Spain via Italy. With its expressive scene, deep and vibrant colors, and strong characters, this altarpiece exhibits those influences. Note the large hands of both Mary and Elizabeth, the marked contrast between the light and dark colors, and the statuesque strength of the figures themselves. Mary and Elizabeth stare silently and intently at each other. We see only the right eye of Mary and the left eye of Elizabeth, and the two eyes look almost as if they might belong to the same face. Wide and comprehending, they acknowledge a mystery that can hardly be spoken. The simplicity of the composition—two robed fi­­gures, two halos, and two pairs of hands—all accentuate the significance of this meeting between Mary and her kinswoman, Elizabeth, both with child.

In their individual pregnancies, they are defying the laws of nature—one of the un­derlying themes of this second mystery. In order for God to enter nature, nature itself is interrupted. Other themes come to mind when one reflects on the Visitation scene itself. “And it came to pass when Elizabeth heard the greeting, that the babe leapt. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and cried out with a loud voice saying, ‘Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’” (Luke 1:41-42).


The Nativity or  Adoration of the Shepherds, 1646: Rembrandt (1606-1669), National Gallery, London

Rembrandt, the famed Dutch master of pictoral drama, shadow play, and simple folk themes, achieves wonders in this painting. He was much taken with the Gospel of John and the notion that God is the source of all light. Recall John’s words: “In Him was life and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness.” A bit later in the same gospel, he says: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we saw the glory—glory as of the only begotten son of the Father—full of grace and truth” (John 1:4-5, 14).

Rembrandt took these passages and created a masterpiece that explores the mystery of Christ’s birth. In this painting, the Christ child is the source of light that illuminates the darkness surrounding him in the manger. He is the light of the world. The faces of Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds crowded around are all lit from this source, though darkness surrounds them. The stable is actually a high, dark Dutch barn with wooden rafters—an obvious reflection of Rembrandt’s love for his native land. One of his favorite pastimes was to take walks around the countryside and draw these barns. John Drury, in his excellent work, Painting the Word, noted that this painting “combines obscurity and dazzle so realistically that we have to train our eyes to see things, as if we were actually there.”

Interestingly enough, there are actually three infants in the painting: Mary holds the Child Jesus, a shepherdess nearby is holding another child, and deep in the background, barely visible, is a third infant-in-arms. Four years earlier, Rembrandt’s wife, Sashia, had died leaving only one son. Before Sashia’s death, they had lost three children in childbirth. Rembrandt still struggled with these losses when he painted the Nativity, and it seems he included in it the memory of his three lost children.


Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple, circa 1320; Giotto di Bondoni (1266/7 or 1276-1336/7), Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

In the 1970s, researchers concluded that this scene of the Presentation in the Temple was created “by Giotto himself.” Because of the Florentine master’s uncertain date of birth and the scant record-keeping of the time, attributing works to him with any degree of certainty is a difficult task. Nonetheless, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has provided pages of research demonstrating that this piece was indeed by Giotto’s own hand.

All debate aside, the painting is a wonderful interpretation of the Presentation story. In gold and tempera on wood, it shows a simple but significant Temple structure in the center. Simeon and Anna, the prophet and prophetess, are off to the right. Simeon, who has just given his blessing and prophecy, is gently handing the Christ child back to His parents. Joseph is carrying two turtledoves, the expected ceremonial offering for a first male child. The painting is filled with poignant touches of humanity. Notice the Infant Jesus reaching lovingly for His mother and Joseph’s patient stance next to her.

The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple is usually associated with the Purification of the Virgin. The presentation ceremony itself is not to be confused with the circumcision ritual, which took place on the eighth day after the birth of a male child. According to the law of Moses, after the circumcision, a firstborn male was presented to God and reclaimed with an offering. The law also stipulated that a mother be purified on the 40th day after she had given birth. This purification ritual took place at the same time as the presentation in the temple.

According to the biblical account, Mary and Joseph encountered a just man named Simeon in the Temple: “And it had been revealed to him [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death until he had seen Christ the Lord. And he came by inspiration of the Spirit into the Temple…. And when his parents [Joseph and Mary] brought in the Child Jesus to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he [Simeon] also received him into his arms and blessed God.”

The French writer Charles Peguy tells us that at that moment Simeon was “happy, happier than anybody else. He knew of no other happening upon the earth. He could boast of having been at the right spot. For he had held in his arms the greatest Dauphin of the world, the son of the greatest King.”

Simeon blesses the parents and delivers a prophecy to Mary: “Behold this child is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel…and thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:26-28, 34-35). These hard words seem to cast a shadow over the faces of all five figures. Mary appears particularly apprehensive. Indeed, if one didn’t know already, it would be hard to guess that this painting is the representation of a joyful mystery, so much does it remind us of another day when our Lord would be handed over again—this time not to be given back.

Look again at Anna’s eyes: They are turned toward Simeon and Jesus, but their real focus seems to be beyond the scene itself. A widow of many years, Anna is well acquainted with grief. She, perhaps better than anyone else, knows what Simeon’s words will mean for Mary.


The Finding of Jesus in the Temple or Christ Among the Doctors, circa 1513: Bernard van Orley (1488-1541), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Sadly, compared with the other mysteries, this one is rarely represented in art. Usually titled “Christ Among the Doctors,” it portrays the pivotal moment in the biblical story when Mary and Joseph find their lost son among the teachers of the temple. The Flemish painter Ber­nard van Orley created a magnificent portrayal of this oft-neglected scene in a work found now at the National Gallery of Art. The scene, painted in oil on a wooden panel, shows Christ in the Temple under what looks like an altar canopy (there is a similar structure in Giotto’s Presentation). The doctors of the Temple are on either side, and Mary and Joseph, visibly relieved to have found their son, are in the background. (And here in van Orley’s treatment of the episode, do Mary and Jo­­seph not also look proud—or at least pleased—to see him out-doctoring the doctors?)

From the coat of arms on the reverse side of the panel, it appears that the work was commissioned by Jacques Coëne, abbot of a Benedictine monastery in northern France. It was probably part of a diptych; the other panel would have represented the marriage of the Virgin. Aside from doing other commissioned works for this abbot, van Orley was associated as an artist with the court of Margaret of Austria and Charles V. His style was both eclectic and cosmopolitan, combining elements of Flemish and Italian art.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus, then a lad of twelve, went with his parents to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. On the return journey home, Mary and Joseph realized to their horror that their son was not with them in the caravan. After three days of frantic searching, “…they found him in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who were listening to him were amazed at his understanding and his answers…. And his mother said to him, ‘Son, why hast thou done so to us? Behold in sorrow thy father and I have been seeking thee.’ And he said to them, ‘How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?’ And they did not understand the word that he spoke to them” (Luke 2:46-50). Even His parents do not comprehend why the Child must be about His Father’s business—or what that business is.

The altar canopy re­minds us of the continuity of our Lord’s mission, for here under the canopy, Christ is still about His Father’s business, His presence in the Eucharist as bewildering to our minds as His questions were to the doctors in the Temple. And our response to that presence is as varied as the expressions on the faces of our Lord’s audience in the painting. To the doctor seated on the right, the boy’s words are a revelation; to the man directly behind him, they are an impertinence, perhaps even a threat—the man clutches and conceals a coffer, as if in anticipation of our Lord’s rebuke. Meanwhile, the group on the right side of the painting seems only half-convinced—the child is certainly precocious, they seem to say, but surely the right question will trip him up. One man checks the books, searching for an answer to one of our Lord’s questions. (Or is he looking for a “proof text” with which to contradict Him?) Another man appears to be making an argument, his hand held out as if to ask, “But then how do you explain…?” Still another man regards Jesus in silence, his face fixed in an expression of shrewd weariness. He means to keep his eye on the boy: He knows trouble when he sees it.


This article originally appeared in the January 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Maria Stella Ceplecha

    Maria Stella Ceplecha is a freelance writer and a Spanish language and culture professor from St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives part of the year in Avila, Spain.

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