18 February 2015
The Closed Triptych Explained
The triptych at the High Altar is in its closed position for Lent. It depicts the Annunciation, the mystical beginning of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.
THE FRONT PANELS
(when the triptych is in the closed position)
The front panels of the triptych are painted in the traditional grisaille, a technique using only shades of gray.
The mystery of our salvation begins with the Good News of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. It is this scene that occupies the top register of the work. The Archangel Gabriel is announcing the tidings of Great Joy. He carries the staff of his authority, an iconographic symbol that has roots deep in antiquity. He is vested with a cope and the crossed stole of a priest. His stole bears the following inscriptions:
MATER AMORIS, DOLORIS ET MISERICORDIAE, ORA PRO NOBIS.
Mother of love, of sorrow and of mercy, pray for us.
GAUDE, MARIA, CUNCTAS HERESES SOLA INTEREMISTI IN UNIVERSO MUNDO.
Rejoice, Mary, thou alone has put down all heresies in the whole world.
The inscription honors the title under which this parish honors the Virgin Mary: Our Lady of the Atonement. The stole of the Archangel ends in the coat of arms of Pope John II, the Cross of Jesus, and the initial “M” of the Mother of God.
The Archangel announces “Ave Maria, Dominus Tecum.” The script for this inscription is based on early Gothic capitals of the late 11th century found in manuscripts on the Oxford Collections.
With the hearing of the greeting and the assent of the Virgin Mary, Jesus enters into the world. Following the tradition of the Middle Ages, the tiny figure of the Christ is located above the Archangel. Jesus is carrying a scarlet cross signifying His Passion and Death. This figure is the only color found on these panels other that the grisaille. Jesus is the Light of Life. He cuts into the grayness and darkness of our world with His glory and His power. His is the only figure represented that does not cast a shadow, for there is nothing of darkness about Him.
Gabriel, the holy Archangel, is flanked by two small figures in niches at the tops of the pillars. The tips of his wings cover the image of Eve, our first mother, our earthly mother. His wings shadow her body. No longer are we bound by the fact of the sin that she brought into the world. There is a new life beginning here, not subject to sin and death. Thus her body, representing human birth, is covered in the light of this Annunciation mystery.
Across from Eve is Adam, her husband. The side of our first parent still bears the mark of his missing rib, through which God first created Woman.
The Most Holy Mother of God attends to the Angelic presence. She had been at prayer, as is evidenced by the opened book. However, even at prayer she was in darkness. Her prayer was based on the Old Testament. These scriptures are without the fullness of the Life and Light of Christ. At this very moment there is only one Light in the world, Jesus Christ. The extinguished candle bears mute testimony to the ineffectiveness of natural light when compared to the brilliance of the Christ.
The Virgin responds, “Ecce ancilla Domini.” Her response is painted in such a way that God the Father may “see” her answer. This upside-down painting was a common element of these Annunciation depictions.
The Blessed Mother also is flanked by two images in the pillar niches; the prophet Isaiah, holding his scroll of prophecy about the Virgin, and John the Precursor, who will prepare the way for the Infant brought into the world this day. Saint John holds the Lamb, the representation of the Christ. The Virgin Mary also learns that her kinswoman Elizabeth will bear a son, John, portrayed here. These two figures are different from Adam and Eve. They are not static. Moving out of their niches, taking an active part in the drama, they “rejoice” to see this day.
Above the Mother of God, the Holy Ghost hovers and overshadows. His wings stretch out and cover her with the love and favor of the Eternal God. Next to the Virgin are her traditional lilies, the symbol of her purity. These lilies are topped with three unopened buds, calling to mind the Most Holy Trinity, and with the birth of Christ this Trinity will burst forth into the world. Placed with the lilies are gladioli. The name “”gladiolus” is Latin for “the sword flower,” recalling the sword of sorrow which would pierce the heart of Mary, reminding us of her role in the Atonement of mankind as she stands at the foot of the cross. The angels in the lower registers call to mind the bitter, pain-filled death of Jesus.
They attend the Lord and carry next to their hearts the instruments of the Passion. Yet while they keep this redemptive death before us, they also remind us of the Risen and Glorious Lord, for their gaze and attention are fixed on the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament resides.
Behind both figures there is a repeated symbolic pattern. The center of the pattern is a stylized Tudor rose, a reference to the English roots of the liturgical traditions found at Our Lady of the Atonement Church. From this rose blossoms a lily, for out of the Anglican tradition blossomed the parish of Our Lady of the Atonement. This flower again calls to mind the patronage of Saint Joseph. The lily also reminds us of the generosity of Colonel and Mrs. Robert E. Joseph, Sr., whose gift provided this reredos for the church. Springing from this lily are three nails which refer to the atoning Sacrifice of Jesus and the congregation’s struggle to find a place in the Church. These symbols of pain are crowned with a shield bearing the coat of arms of Pope John Paul II. His coat of arms is wreathed in the laurel crown of victory. Then crowning all this are more lilies, bursting forth in glory and beauty.
The Angel of the Pillar clutches the pillar at which Christ was scourged. His vesture, and the vesture of the accompanying angel, have a distinctive pattern in the material: a cross. This cross is formed by two “Ts,” a reference to the motto of Pope John Paul II, “Totus Tuus.” In this particular context, the motto reminds us that the death of Christ was done all for us.
With sorrowful eyes, the Angel of the Crown of Thorns and the Whip of Flagellation bears the dread instruments of suffering and torture used in the Passion of Jesus.
The inscription across the center of the panels reads HIC EST DOMUS DEI ET PORTA COELI ALLELUIA. This refers both to the tabernacle and, by application, to the Blessed Virgin Mary.