Bethlehem, Chapter IX – Saint Luke the Evangelist

painting of Saint Luke the Evangelist; detail of the altarpiece of the Chapel of the Evangelist, Cathedral of Seville, Spain, by Hernando de Esturmio, early 16th century; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThere is still another presence in the Cave of Bethlehem, which is a type of devotion to the Sacred Infancy. Deep withdrawn into the shade, so as to be scarcely visible, stands one who is gazing on all the mysteries with holy amazement and tenderest rapture. He takes no part in any of them. His attitude is one of mute observance. He is like one of those shadowy figures which painters sometimes introduce into their pictures, rather as suggesting something to the beholder than as historically part of the action represented. It is Saint Luke, the “beloved physician ” of Saint Paul, and the first Christian painter. He forms a type of worship by himself, and must not be detached from the other eight, though he was out of time with them. To us he is an essential feature of Bethlehem. The Holy Ghost had elected him to be the historiographer of the Sacred Infancy. Without Him we should have known nothing of the Holy Childhood, except the startling visit of the three heathen Kings, which was so deeply impressed on Saint Matthew’s Hebrew imagination, together with the massacre of the Innocents and the flight into Egypt, which were the consequences of that visit, and so part of the one history. In the vision of inspiration the Holy Ghost renewed to him the world of Bethlehem, and the sweet spiritual pageantry of all its gentle mysteries. To him, the first artist of the Church, we fitly owe the three songs of the Gospel, the “Magnificat,” the “Benedicts,” and the “Nunc Dimittis.” He was as much the Evangelist of the Sacred Infancy, as Saint John was the Evangelist of the Word’s Divinity, or Saint Matthew and Saint Mark of the active life of our Blessed Lord.

He represents the devotion of artists, and the posture of Christian art at the feet of the Incarnate Saviour. Christian art, rightly considered, is at once a theology and a worship – a theology which has its own method of teaching, its own ways of representation, its own devout discoveries, its own varying opinions, all of which are beautiful so long as they are in subordination to the mind of the Church. What is the Blessed John of Fiesole’s Life of Christ but, next to Saint Thomas, the most magnificent treatise on the Incarnation which was ever conceived or composed? No one can study it without learning new truths each time. It gives up slowly and by degrees to the loving eye the rich treasures of a master-mind, full of depth, and tenderness, and truth, and heavenly ideal. It is a means of grace which sanctifies us as we look upon it, and melts us into prayer.

Of a truth art is a revelation from heaven, and a mighty power for God. It is a merciful disclosure to men of His more hidden beauty. It brings out things in God which lie too deep for words, things which words must needs make heresies, if they try to speak them. In virtue of its heavenly origin it has a special grace to purify men’s souls, and to unite them to God by first making them unearthly. If art debased is the earthliest of things, true art, not unmindful that it also, like Our Lord, was born in Bethlehem, and cradled with Him there, is an influence in the soul, so heavenly that it almost seems akin to grace. It is a worship too as well as a theology. From what abyss rose those marvellous forms upon the eye of John of Fiesole, except from the depths of prayer? Have we not often seen the divine Mother and her Blessed Child so depicted that it was plain they never were the fruit of prayer, and do we not instinctively condemn them even on the score of art, without directly adverting to religious feeling? The temper of art is a temper of adoration. Only a humble man can paint divine things grandly. His types are delicate and easily missed, shifting under the least pressure and bending unless handled softly. An artist, who is not joined to God, may work wonders of genius with his pencil and colors; but the heavenly spirit, the essence of Christian art, will have evaporated from his work. It may remain to future generations as a trophy of anatomy, and a triumph of peculiar coloring; but it will not remain as a source of holiest inspiration to Christian minds, and an ever-flowing fountain of the glory of God. It may be admired in the gallery; it would offend over the altar. Theology and devotion both owe a heavy debt to art, but it is as parents owe debts to their loving children. They take as gifts what came from themselves, and they love to consider that what is due to them by justice is rather paid to them out of the spontaneous generosity of love. Saint Luke is the type and symbol of this true art, which is the child of devotion and theology; and it is significant that he is thus connected with the world of Bethlehem.

The characteristics which have been noticed in his Gospel seemed to be most congenial to his vocation. Our Lord’s life is everywhere the representation of the beautiful; but in none of its mysteries is it a more copious fountain of art than in those of His Sacred Infancy; and it is these which inspiration has especially loved to disclose to Saint Luke’s predilection. A painter is a poet also; and hence his Gospel is the treasury in which the Christian canticles, all of them canticles of the Sacred Infancy, are laid up and embalmed for the delight and consolation of all time. The preservation of them was a natural instinct of an artistic mind, which was already fitted to receive a bidding of inspiration so congenial to itself. He was a physician as well as a painter, and there is something kindred in the spirit of the two occupations. The quick eye, the observant gentleness, the appreciation of character, the seizing of the actual circumstances, the genial spirit, the minute attentiveness, the sympathizing heart, the impressionableness to all that is soft, and winning, and lovely, and weak, and piteous – all these things belong to the true physician as well as to the true artist. Hence has it come to pass that the physician of the body has so often been the physician of the soul as well. That which is truly artistic in him makes him a kind of priest; and what above all things are priests, artists, and physicians, but angelic ministers to human sorrow, ministers of love and not of fear, vested with a pathetic office of consolation, which, strange to say, seems the more tender and unselfish because it is official. Thus, Saint Luke is noted for his instinct for souls. His Gospel has been named the Gospel of mercy, because it is so full of incidents of Our Lord’s love of sinners. It is from him chiefly that we have the conversions of sinners, and the examples of Our Lord’s amazing kindness to them, or we may say rather of His positive attraction to them, like the physician’s attraction to the sick, to use the figure which He Himself vouchsafed to use, in order to justify Himself for this compassionate propensity. After Mary, Luke is the beginner of the devotion to the Precious Blood, whose apparently indiscriminate abundance and instantaneous absolving power he so artfully magnifies in his beautiful Gospel. It is a Gospel of sunshine. It throws strong light into the darkest places, and loves to use the power it has to do so: and is not all this painter-like? The examples, to which the fallen sinner turns instinctively when hope and despair are battling for his soul, are mostly in the Gospel of Saint Luke. He chose what he most loved himself; and inspiration ministered to the bent of his genius, rather than diverted or ignored it. He is known, like all artists, by his choice of subjects. What wonder he was the dear companion of Saint Paul, when their minds were so congenial! The magnifying of grace, the facility and abundance of redemption, the vast treasures of hope, the delight of reconciliation with God, the predilection for the grand phenomena of conversion, all these peculiarities of Saint Luke’s genius would recommend him to the apostle of the Precious Blood, and would also give him swift admission to the intimacy of Mary.

It was perhaps through her that the Holy Ghost revealed to him the mysteries of Bethlehem. To John she spake of the Eternal Generation of the Word, to Luke of Nazareth and Bethlehem, of the Angels and the Shepherds, and the Gospel Songs. For devotion to Mary is an inalienable inspiration of Christian art, and it is akin also to devotion to the Babe of Bethlehem. Luke, with the painter’s license, gazed into Mary’s face, as none other but the Infant Jesus had ever gazed into it. He read the mysteries of Bethlehem depicted there. He drank the spirit of the Sacred Infancy in the fountains of her eyes. He lived with the Mother of Mercy, until he saw nothing but mercy in her Son. The image in his heart, which was the model of all other images, was the countenance of the divine Mother. His idea of Jesus was His marvelous likeness to Mary, likeness, not in features only, but in office and in soul. Thus was the spirit of beauty within him instinctively drawn to Bethlehem, just as Bethlehem has been the most queenly attraction of holy art ever since. Then, when he comes to Our Lord’s public life and His intercourse with men, it is just such manifestations of His Sacred Heart as are the most congenial to the spirit of the Sacred Infancy, which his predilection chooses for his written portrait of the Incarnate Word. Let us place him then in the Cave of Bethlehem, withdrawn into the shadow, and looking out from thence with the boldness of his tender eyes upon the mysteries around him. He is there by the appointment of the Holy Ghost, as the painter of Mary and the secretary of the Infant Jesus.