Year A – Holy Family Sunday

On Michelangelos Holy Family
On Michelangelo’s Holy Family

(Sir.3:2-6, 12-14; Col.3:12-21; Matt.2:13-15, 19-23)

Today is Holy Family Sunday, so let’s take a moment to reflect on Michelangelo’s famous painting of The Holy Family. [i]  It’s also known as the Doni Tondo [ii] and you’ll find it in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

This is the only finished panel painted by Michelangelo (1475–1564) that’s still in existence.  It’s round (‘rotondo’) and 120 cm in diameter.  Michelangelo finished it shortly before he started painting the Sistine Chapel in 1508. 

Look closely.  It shows Jesus, Mary and Joseph sitting in a field.  They are a close and loving family, but Mary is the central figure here because it’s through her that God worked his miracle of the virgin birth.  

Mary appears young and athletic, while her husband Joseph seems older and wiser.  He’s squatting down and cradling Mary between his legs.  He seems to be embracing her with all his love and protection. 

Mary has a book on her lap; it represents the Word of God.  She’s also sitting on the grass, and this shows that she’s very down-to-earth. But it also tells us that it is Mary who connects the earth with Jesus, the child she’s holding up high. 

Baby Jesus is being passed between Mary and Joseph.  We can’t say who’s passing Jesus to whom, but it’s clear that they share equally in his parenting.  It’s clear that they both adore him.

Jesus is being held up high against the heavenly skies, where he comes from.  This elevation reminds us of the Body of Christ being raised up high in the Holy Eucharist.  At the same time, Jesus is being offered as a gift to us all. 

Joseph is higher in the frame than Jesus and Mary. This tells us that he leads this family.  He’s the protector, the breadwinner and the most senior member. 

Now, notice their heads.  Together they form an inverted triangle that points to the earth.  It also reflects the inseparable communion of the Holy Trinity.  And look at their eyes: there’s a deep intimacy there.  Joseph’s eyes are firmly fixed on Jesus, while Jesus looks at his mother and Mary lovingly returns his gaze.  This is the most tender group of figures Michelangelo ever painted. [iii]

Behind the Holy Family is a low grey wall, and to the right is a child. That’s John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and the patron saint of Florence. He’s wearing camel hair, he’s holding a long stick and he’s standing in a pool of water.  That stick, or cane, is a reference to the Crucifixion.

John is also looking straight at Jesus because he knows that their destinies are linked.  One day he’ll be preparing the way for the Lord.

Further back, there are five naked figures sitting on a stone wall.  They seem self-obsessed and they don’t even notice Jesus or his family. These figures represent our pagan world and they’re separated from the Holy Family by that grey wall which symbolises original sin.

Now, look at the flora.  In front of John the Baptist there’s a small plant which looks like a cross between a hyssop and a cornflower.  Hyssop represents baptism and the humility of Christ, while the cornflower symbolises heaven.

In the foreground, the clover represents salvation and the Trinity, and the anemone plant symbolises faith and the Passion of Christ, which is still to come. 

The central focus of this painting, however, is the Holy Family, and their rich fabrics and vivid colours highlight the beauty and the joy of the Christian life.

The colour purple indicates that Joseph comes from the royal line of David.  The golden yellow represents truth and the presence of God.  The pink stands for love and tenderness.  Mary’s blue mantle represents peace and tranquillity, and the green speaks of nature, health and growth.

So, let’s summarise. Starting from the back of this painting, Michelangelo is reminding us that we all live in a pagan and materialistic world that’s really going nowhere. 

He’s telling us that if we want a deeper and more meaningful life – and, indeed, eternal life – then we need to come forward and leave our lives of sin behind.  We need to pass through the waters of Baptism and consciously accept the Word of God.   Only then we can live as members of God’s holy family. [iv] [v] [vi]

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, then, is being offered to us today as the ideal model for our own daily lives.

Now, have you noticed that Mary is pointing to you?  Look at her right elbow.  Her hands are busy, but through her arm she’s drawing us towards Jesus and she’s inviting us to enter into their beautiful life.

We, too, can live like the Holy Family.

[i] The Holy Family, tempera on wood, by Michelangelo, 1506/08; in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

[ii] It is known as the Doni Tondo, because it was commissioned by Agnolo Doni, a wealthy merchant, and it is round (‘rotondo’).