Praying the Rosary through Art: The Luminous Mysteries

“O good Jesu enlighten me with the shining of inner light…”

—Thomas a Kempis

…lumen de lumine,

Deum verum de Deo vero…

[…Light from Light,

true God from true God…]

These few words from the Nicene Creed capture the essence of the luminous mysteries. On October 16, 2002, John Paul II announced in an apostolic letter the addition of five new mysteries to the rosary that would include the key moments from Our Lord’s public ministry—how the “Lumen de Lumine” showed Himself to the world. The new mysteries illustrate that, as Christians:

…We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only son of God…

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God…

For us men and for our salvation

He came down from heaven,

By the power of the Holy Spirit

He was born of the Virgin Mary and became man….

As we say the rosary with the luminous mysteries, we reflect on these beliefs, how the “Light from Light” became man and manifested Himself to us in His public life for our salvation.

 

THE BAPTISM OF CHRIST, 1442, tempera on panel: Piero della Francesca (circa 1415-1492), National Gallery, London.

Christ stands in the center, a serene figure of great beauty. His hands are folded in prayer, His eyes slightly downcast, and a faint flush graces His cheeks. The white body of Our Lord clothed in a translucent loincloth contrasts with the more rugged figure of St. John the Baptist, dressed in a tattered camel-hair robe. The contrast in their appearances would not have been lost on John, who proclaimed that Jesus was the one “the strap of whose sandal, I am not worthy to loose” (John 1:27). And yet here Jesus is seeking baptism from John with the crowd of other believers, one of whom is seen putting on his garments in the background. Jesus’ quiet humility in taking this baptism in such simple surroundings reminds the viewer of God’s great love for us, who would humble Himself to become man and share fully in our humanity.

Off to the left stand three archangels in watchful silence, one robed in white. A tree with a pale upright trunk separates the angels from Our Lord and John the Baptist. Several other trees and low hills are found in the background. Barely visible behind Our Lord are small dwellings thought to represent Piero’s native town of San Sepolcro in Tuscany, Italy.

John’s right arm is raised over Our Lord’s head as he baptizes Him with water poured from a shell. Hovering above is the Holy Spirit in the form of a white dove with outstretched wings. The similar configuration of the white stratified clouds around the wings of the dove serves to accentuate the provenance of the Holy Spirit from the heavens: “And, behold the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God, descending as a dove and coming upon him” (Matthew 3:16). The dove also accentuates John’s prophesy that Jesus would come to “baptize with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).

In the background, slightly hidden behind John and the recently baptized man, are four fully dressed figures representing the Pharisees and Sadducees. These theological doubters and decriers had questioned John the Baptist about the validity of his mission. “Why, then, dost thou baptize if thou art not the Christ, nor Elias, nor the prophet?” John had answered, “I baptize with water; but in the midst of you there has stood one whom you do not know. He it is who is to come after me, who has been set above me…” (John 1:24-26). In Matthew and Luke, John the Baptist uses strong language denouncing these detractors and their lack of belief, calling them “a brood of vipers.” Throughout the Gospels they are closed to Jesus’ words; here, too, they stand on the sidelines, content to question John and scoff at his preaching, rather than plunge into the river for baptism as Jesus Himself did.

Another unique detail in this work is the river Jordan. Piero has painted it as winding down from the hills, gradually getting shallower and stopping at Our Lord’s feet. It’s as if Piero wished to reinforce that Jesus Himself is the living water from which all other waters flow. It reflects the sky, clouds, surrounding landscape, and figures in the painting— adding to the special aura prevalent in Piero’s works.

This panel was part of an altarpiece for the San Giovanni Battista (St. John the Baptist) chapel in the abbey of the Camaldese monks in Piero’s hometown. A roundel of God the Father may have been located above the altarpiece and would have been the depiction of the voice of God the Father saying, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Since the Trinity was present at the baptism of Our Lord, it was important to include a reference to God the Father. Artists of Piero’s time were usually faithful to Scripture, because artwork was used to teach believers.

 

THE MARRIAGE AT CANA, 1495/1497, oil on panel: Master of the Catholic Kings, active circa 1485-1500, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Solemn faces and suspended action are the most outstanding features of this painting. Our Lord, left of center, has His hand raised in blessing. A young steward points to the six jugs of water being blessed and is about to offer a goblet of wine to the bride and groom seated at the end of the table. The bride wears a richly brocaded gown with full white sleeves, and the groom, a red, ermine-trimmed cape with matching headgear. Our Lady, left of her Son, has her hands folded in prayer. The chief steward who wears a tight-fitting cap is handing Our Lord a cup of wine. The scene is this anonymous artist’s portrayal of the words from Scripture:

And the wine having run short, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her: “What wouldst thou have me do, woman? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the attendants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now six stone water jars were placed there…. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water…. Draw out now, and take it to the chief steward….” Now when the chief steward had tasted the water after it had become wine… [he] called the bridegroom and said to him, “…thou hast kept the good wine until now.” This was the first of his signs [that] Jesus worked at Cana. [John 2:2-10]

Other references corresponding to this miracle and related biblical events are found in this painting. One barely visible inscription runs around the neckline of Christ’s tunic: Quid mihi et tibi est Mulier (What wouldst thou have me do, woman [John 2:4])? Jesus is still hesitant to begin His public ministry, telling Mary that His “hour has not yet come.” Mary, however, is quietly persistent; rather than argue with her Son, she turns instead to the steward and tells him to do whatever Jesus asks. She is also beginning a new kind of ministry, interceding with Christ on behalf of the guests and, ultimately, all mankind. An inscription reaffirming Mary’s chosen role runs along the edge of the tablecloth: Ave gratia plena, Dominus tecum; benedicta tu in mulieribus (Hail full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women [Luke 1:28]). Mary assumes the role in this painting that she would fill throughout Jesus’ public ministry: She is ever present on the edges of Christ’s ministry, watching and praying, until her Son’s work reaches its inevitable end on the Cross.

This panel is also significant historically. The faces of the bride and groom are believed to be actual portraits of Margaret of Austria and Juan of Castile who were wed in April 1497. Juan was the sole male offspring of the Catholic Kings, Isabel and Fernando. Art historians speculate that these rulers may have commissioned a huge altarpiece of eight panels (this being one of them) to commemorate their son’s wedding. They buttress their theories with the four coats of arms bearing heraldic symbols of both royal families hanging over the arches. Only two portraits remain of Prince Juan, and this is one of them. A rather sickly heir to the throne, the prince died less than a year after his wedding and is buried in an alabaster tomb at the Dominican monastery of Santo Tomas in Avila, Spain.

 

CHRIST PREACHING TO HIS DISCIPLES (PROCLAMATION OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD), 1635, etching: Jacques Callot (1592-1635), Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

A runaway French boy; Medici patronage; outstanding etchings of festivities, biblical scenes, and war atrocities… All form part of the history surrounding this work and its master, Jacques Callot. When he was twelve, he ran away with a band of gypsies to Italy. Soon he made his way there as an artist. Callot developed a natural and incisive etching style while documenting the festivities for the Medici family in Florence. He then returned to France where his focus changed, and he began to illustrate sacred books. He also created a series of plates of the apostles and of the widespread disasters of the Thirty Years’ War. Considered one of the greats, Callot was the first to dedicate himself solely to the graphic arts. His impact was immense, influencing many subsequent artists, even the likes of Goya.

In this engraving, Our Lord is seated on a rock with the twelve apostles gathered around Him. Christ is preaching, His right hand stretched forth. A halo of slender rays of light in the form of a Greek cross illuminates Our Lord’s head. The apostles have round halos except for Judas, who is seated off to the left, his dark head overshadowed by the robes of his companions. Off to the right, a tall, twisted tree completes the foreground. In the background are the craggy outcroppings of a mountainous terrain with low-lying trees and vegetation growing from the cracks and crevices. Everything appears to be still; the apostles are intent upon hearing Our Lord’s words about the kingdom of God.

The key to this message is one of drawing closer to the new way by asking for forgiveness with complete trust and confidence. Our Lord presented these ideas about the kingdom of God in the parables of the paralytic man and the penitent woman. These parables emphasize the need to trust humbly in divine mercy. Later in His ministry, Our Lord formally instituted the sacrament of penance or reconciliation when He said to His disciples, “‘Peace be to you! As the Father has sent me, I also send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed upon them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (John 20:21-23).

 

THE TRANSFIGURATION OF CHRIST, circa 1441, fresco: Fra Angelico (1387-1455), Museo di San Marco, Cell 6, Florence, Italy

An aureole of white light surrounds Our Lord as He stands transfigured on Mount Tabor. This mandorla (Italian for almond) comes from the almond-shaped form used by artists to highlight an important figure. In art, the almond tree, including its branches, flowers, and fruit, is a symbol of divine favor and has its origins in the Old Testament story of Aaron who had been chosen to be a priest of the Lord. “…Aaron’s staff, representing the house of Levi, had sprouted and put forth not only shoots, but blossoms as well, and even bore ripe almonds” (Numbers 17:23).

Atop Our Lord’s head is a halo with a red cross. His arms are extended and His blue eyes, set in a well-proportioned face, look tenderly down on the apostles. Peter (left), James (center), and John (right) are kneeling in various postures. Their arms and hands are either raised to protect their eyes from the great light or positioned in prayer. On the upper left is a medallion image of Moses with two rays of light within his halo. On the upper right is another image of Elias, baldheaded and bearded. These two figures represent the Law and the prophets of the Old Testament, the Jewish faith that recognized and foretold the coming of the Messiah. Although not present in the New Testament accounts, Fra Angelico included full figures of Our Lady and St. Dominic on either side of Jesus—St. Dominic because he was founder of Fra Angelico’s order and the Virgin because of the Dominicans’ great devotion to Our Lady and the rosary.

Of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke refer in detail to the Transfiguration, whereas Peter and John, two of the witnesses, write less directly about the occurrence. The accounts tell of how Our Lord was transformed in appearance before the apostles: “[H]is countenance was changed, and his raiment became a radiant white.” The apostles realized “two men were talking with him [Our Lord]. And these were Moses and Elias who appearing in glory, spoke of his death, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:29-30). Jesus’ revelation of His glory to the apostles was a way of rekindling their faith in preparation for His coming crucifixion, the death He discussed with Moses and Elias but which was still unknown to the apostles.

Just as the two prophets were about to depart, the ever impetuous Peter said, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us set up three tents, one for thee and one for Moses and one for Elias” (Luke 9:33). The scriptural passages also mention that Peter did not have full knowledge of what he was saying. At this point the other dramatic part of the Transfiguration occurs: “[T]here came a cloud and overshadowed them; and they [the apostles] were afraid as they entered the cloud. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased; hear him” (Luke 9:34-35). After the voice of God passes, Matthew includes the very human reaction of Our Lord comforting the apostles, “Jesus came near and touched them and said to them, ‘Arise and do not be afraid.” Our Lord then cautions them to tell no one of the vision ” ’til the Son of Man has risen from the dead” (Matthew 17:5-7). In this mystery, the brilliant white light of Jesus transfigured overwhelms the apostles for a time. They have difficulty understanding and are even frightened. However, it is the same Jesus who then reassures them and leads them down the mountain. Fra Angelico’s use of color and brilliant gold accents in the fresco helps to illuminate Jesus’ resplendence for the viewer, a small taste of the vision of God’s glory that we will share in after this life passes.

 

LAST SUPPER, 1498, fresco: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

Leonardo…the Last Supper…the genius and his fragile work. The two are inextricably intertwined. Commissioned at the behest of the duke of Milan, Leonardo agonized over the work. It took him four years to complete his masterpiece, much to the frustration of the prior who kept urging the artist to finish as soon as possible. But Leonardo was considering new approaches to old problems in his famous painting, including a dry mural technique that would allow him more time to make changes to his work as he was applying the oil and egg tempera paint. He was also struggling with the question of perspective and the movement of figures in space. A nail hole has been found in the temple of Jesus’ head, and it is thought Leonardo drove a nail in at this point and then radiated string in several directions in order to solve the problem of perspective. His desire was to create the illusion that the painting was an extension of the dining room and thereby make the figures of Our Lord and His apostles appear to be dramatically present to the Dominican monks of Santa Maria delle Grazie as they ate in silence in their refectory.

Leonardo also decided to group the apostles in threes. Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century Italian commentator, in his Lives of the Painters offers additional observations on Leonardo’s composition: “…to the heads of the apostles…the master gave so much beauty and majesty that he was constrained to leave that of Christ unfinished, being convinced that he could not impart to it the divinity which should…distinguish an image of a Redeemer… [with] all that perfection of beauty and celestial grace” necessary in such a representation.

This masterpiece captures the pivotal moments in the Last Supper. It presents the institution of the Eucharist and Jesus’ announcement of His betrayal—both fulfillments of prophecies. The four evangelists vary in their accounts of the Last Supper, particularly whether the institution of the Eucharist occurred before or after the announcement of the betrayal. Luke states that the institution occurred before:

And when the hour had come, he reclined at table, and the twelve apostles with him…and having taken bread, he gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is being given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In like manner, he took also the cup…saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which shall be shed for you.” [Luke 22:14, 19-20]

Luke goes on to tell of the impending betrayal: “But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table” (Luke 22:21). Leonardo has chosen to focus on the moments just after the institution of the Eucharist when the betrayal had been announced and the apostles “began to inquire among themselves which of them it might be that was about to do this” (Luke 22:23). In the mural, Our Lord is in the center with outstretched arms and downcast eyes. His face bears a troubled expression. Fragments of bread and goblets of wine are on the white tablecloth. The apostles talk and gesture to each other in a concerned fashion. They are encompassed by tense sadness and uncertainty. Off to the left, Peter reaches over to whisper to John, “Who is it of whom he speaks?” (John 13:24)

In contrast, Judas, his right hand clenched, is leaning back on the table. His face is dark, and he broods in silence. Again, Vasari writes that the spectator is struck by the force with which “…the master [Leonardo] has exhibited the impious determination, hatred and treachery of Judas.” In this work, Leonardo has skillfully captured the spiritual and emotional scenario described in the Gospel accounts. Moreover, he chose to show the transcendence of the miracle of the Eucharist after the fact. Just as he did not dare complete the face of Our Lord, so too did he not dare attempt an immediate portrayal of the institution of the Eucharist.

As to Leonardo’s thoughts on the power of painting, he wrote the following: “The eye, which is called the window of the soul, is the principal means by which the central sense can most completely and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature…. If you, O poet, tell a story with your pen, the painter with his brush can tell it more easily.”

Light of the World

In each of these five mysteries, we have been able to meditate on Our Lord as the “Light of Light” and how He manifested Himself to the world. Looking more closely at this idea of the eternal light brings to mind a passage from the Confessions of St. Augustine. In Book 11, Time and Eternity, this longtime renegade turned devout Christian wrote a brief prayer that offers hope to all who struggle to understand the Way of the Light: “Too distant is the way for my sight. It is too strong for me, and of myself I will not be able to attain it. But with your help I will be able to attain it, when you will give it to me, you, the sweet light of my hidden eyes.”

These reflections put down by the bishop of Hippo in his autobiography come in turn from passages in Psalms (37:121 and 138:6). It is interesting to note that the rosary itself grew out of the recitation of the psalms. In a sense, we have come full circle in our look at these and the other mysteries of the rosary. As we meditate on them while praying the rosary, we beg for help and light. Our Lady walks with us—a special link leading us closer to the Divine Help, the Divine Light.

By

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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