MAGNIFICAT: THE ART ESSAY OF THE MONTH The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (1304–1306) by Giotto (c. 1266–1337) The return of God’s glory The Presentation in the Temple is a distinct narrative …More
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (1304–1306) by Giotto (c. 1266–1337)

The return of God’s glory

The Presentation in the Temple is a distinct narrative moment drawn from Giotto’s chef-d’œuvre
: the grand fresco cycle that enlivens the Scrovegni Chapel floor to ceiling with the story of salvation. The Presentation depicts a critical juncture within this broader historical sequence.

Since its establishment, the Temple in Jerusalem was the locus of the divine presence, the dwelling place of God amongst men. However, shortly before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 b.c., the glory of the Lord departed from the Temple and the ark of the covenant vanished from history. Upon their return to the holy city after long years in exile, the Jews constructed a new Temple. Each stone was laid with expectant longing—that the glory of God might one day return.

“Today the living Ark of the covenant is ascending the steps that lead up to the Temple,” wrote the Benedictine abbot Prosper Guéranger. “Let us be attentive to this great mystery.” The focal point of Giotto’s fresco is Simeon’s rapt expression. We are witnessing the moment of his great recognition: he perceives Yahweh’s definitive return in the gaze of this poor and vulnerable child. Having watched and waited with tears and sighs, this moment unlocks the meaning of his entire life. The Nunc Dimittis canticle overflows from the depths of his spirit.

Foreshadowing the Passion

The Presentation of Jesus is the only infancy narrative that overtly references the Passion. Simeon prophesies Mary’s intimate union with Christ’s redemptive suffering: This child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed (Lk 2:34-35).

Giotto communicates the poignant drama of this moment through gesture and expression. Mary’s extended arms surrender Jesus to the aged priest, solemnly offering her precious Son to God. A helical column cuts through the composition, separating Mother and Child, while the babe totters nervously above the altar, reaching a hesitant arm backward. His outstretched limbs form the shape of a cross, echoed by his cruciform halo. The gravity of Mary’s gaze conveys her soul-rending acceptance, submission, and foreknowledge: this tiny body in Simeon’s arms will one day be draped on the arms of the cross.

The fresco’s placement further heightens this sense of foreboding. The chapel’s narrative cycle pairs each scene from Christ’s life and ministry with a complementary scene—located directly beneath it—from his Passion, Death, or Resurrection. This juxtaposition—carefully arranged by Giotto—invites the viewer to consider how each event “completes” or sheds light on the other.

The Presentation in the Temple is paired with The Kiss of Judas. In both scenes, Jesus is handed over and embraced. But the natural timidity of the child, fearful to leave his mother’s arms, is replaced by the steadfast courage of the grown man. Jesus stands firm. He allows the kiss of Judas and willingly embraces the impending sacrifice.

Yet the real drama is found in Jesus’ fixed gaze: that “still point of the turning world,” to borrow the poet T.S. Eliot’s words, around which the action of each scene revolves. Christ locks eyes with both Simeon and Judas. Their divergent reactions contrast the beauty of spiritual intimacy with the tragedy of spiritual death.

Simeon the God-receiver

Judas’ brutish features suggest an absence of wisdom. His darkened heart and intellect, blinded by sin and self-interest, fail to perceive the divine even as he stares into Jesus’ eyes. In this sinister embrace, the betrayer’s robe engulfs and covers Christ’s body. The onslaught of the sinful world encompasses Jesus—hemming him in from all sides—seeking to assert itself, to erase his existence.

Simeon, by contrast, bows in reverential recognition of the Godhead, cradling the child with veiled hands. He draws close to Jesus in a stance of adoration (from the Latin ad-oratio, “mouth to mouth”). The wise seer is face to face, eye to eye, mouth to mouth with God. “Righteous,” “devout,” and animated by the Spirit, he has aligned his words, his actions—his entire life—with the divine will.

Religious vows

For centuries, the Feast of the Presentation has commemorated the dedication of consecrated religious men and women to the service of God. In a nod to this ancient tradition, the fresco’s tripartite composition features meditations on the vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience.

To the left, Saint Joseph carries a pair of turtledoves: the purification offering prescribed by the Mosaic Law for families who could not afford a lamb. Our Lord, for your sake became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich (cf. 2 Cor 8:9).

To the right, the prophetess Anna testifies to the Messiah: Quoniam in isto erit redemptio saeculi (“In him will be the redemption of the human race”). Widowed at an early age, she never remarried, but remained in the temple, worshiping day and night with fasting and prayer. Anna has long been understood as a prototype of women religious. Forgoing the great good of family life after her husband’s death, she sought the Lord—her first love and supreme good—with ardent desire.

The fresco’s central scene highlights Jesus’ obedient submission to the dictates of the Mosaic Law. He did not need to undergo the redemption of the firstborn. Nonetheless, he humbled himself to this ritual with the same obedient, sacrificial love with which he would redeem the world.

Beholding God

As Christians, the body is the locus of our encounter with God—a temple of the Holy Spirit. In this temple, divinity and humanity embrace through prayer.

As we learn to fix our interior gaze on Christ, we can affirm with Saint Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man consists in beholding God.” Under his arresting gaze we are exposed to the infinite—to the subject of our yearning and its sole fulfillment. May Simeon, whose blessed eyes saw the Lord’s salvation, be an example to us as we seek the face of God.

Amy Giuliano

Holds degrees in theology from Rome & art history from Yale.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (1304–1306), Giotto (c. 1266–1337), Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua,