(Adoration of the Christ Child and Annunciation to the Shepherds, Bernardino Luini, 1520, New Orleans Museum of Art)
Now there's an Italian name for you.
Roll that one around on your tongue for a few seconds and see what you think.
I adore this Renaissance master's last name.
"Loo - e - nee."
The pronunciation of his name reminds me of a scrumptious pasta - one that is dripping in warm, silky butter and melted, gooey parmesan.
Luini's sacred paintings are as delicious to the eye as his name is to the tongue.
It is believed that Bernardino worked directly with Leonardo da Vinci.
As a result of this master/student relationship, many of Bernardino's paintings were originally attributed to Leonardo.
Sydney J. Freedberg once stated:
"Bernardino Luini took as much from Leonardo as his native roots enabled him to comprehend."
I'm thinking that comment was not meant to be a compliment for Bernardino.
Bernardino's "Adoration of the Christ Child and Annunciation to the Shepherds" is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful nativity portraits ever painted.
It portrays timeless truths.
All pretension is absent from this masterpiece.
Please trust me - this is a refreshing change of pace in the world of art.
At first glance, we find Mary and Joseph gazing tenderly at their new born Son.
They are clearly in the act of providing comfort for their sleeping babe.
Mary's left hand carefully holds the Child's head in a near upright position - swaddling clothes and all.
What is Joseph's doing?
He seems to be sliding something under the holy infant.
A closer look tells us that the dark brown object appears to be woven.
Is it a basket?
Or simply a mat?
Perhaps it is neither of those things.
I don't think it really matters to us, the viewers.
What does matter is this:
The awe struck parents are doing all they can to provide simple comforts for their Child.
They are united in spirit as well as in task as they each do their part in the care of their precious babe.
I love that about this painting!
Is there a parent anywhere who can not relate to Luini's interpretation of this holy scene?
All parents stand in awe of the tiny life they have created together.
Every finger is counted.
Every toe is examined.
Every expectation of a glorious life together is deeply felt within the parents' hearts.
Bernardino masterfully portrays these sacred feelings.
What is happening through the window at the upper portion of the painting?
We glimpse the angel Gabriel announcing the holy birth to the shepherds who are guarding their flocks by night.
And what a night it is!
All may not be calm in that very moment.
We feel the excitement of the shepherds as we study their outstretched arms and their raised, attentive heads.
But surely all is bright.
The cerulean blue of Luini's night sky adds intense color to the painting.
The gauzy white of Gabriel's ethereal glow acts as a holy halo.
Although the white and woolly sheep are not aware of the event unfolding before their eyes, their caretakers are.
The shepherds are fully engaged as they listen to Gabriel's message.
Our hearts join with theirs as we experience joy in this sacred message.
Let's return to the foreground of the painting for a moment.
A shepherd appears at the far left side of the painting.
He is carrying a spotless lamb.
One without blemish.
The perfect lamb symbolizes the perfect Savior.
The very Savior who has come into this worn and weary world to redeem humankind.
This Savior will experience every facet of mortal life while He journeys here.
That is as it should be.
For He must fully understand human misery in order to fully save us from it.
He will model sacred behavior for every single one of us.
He will teach us the way back to Him.
He will be our divine Mentor.
The Savior will do all of these things because He loves each of us as only a perfect God can love.
This is love in its most mature form.
This is a love which we can not yet understand.
Still, our deepest hopes thrive in that holy love.
A final thought:
When I saw this painting in the art museum, I longed for Luini's babe to be wrapped snugly in His swaddling clothes.
Those bent, outstretched arms and tiny stiff fingers seemed to be begging for the warmth of a blanket!
"Surely, Mary and Joseph are about to enfold their fragile Child in His swaddling clothes," I thought to myself.
Then I glanced at the wall plate beside Bernardino's painting.
"The infant is warmed by the breath of the animals who represent the union Jesus would build between the Jews, representing the ox in the painting, and the Gentiles, who are symbolized by the donkey."
The master painter had spoken.
He had already taken care of the babe's need for bodily warmth.
And long before I appeared before his painting with my all-too-human worries.
The Savior of the world does that for us.
He anticipates our every need.
He stands ready to comfort us before we realize we are in need of His comfort!
I am grateful for that knowledge.
As I am grateful for that Holiest of Nights so very long ago.