By Mark Michael
The U.S. Postal Service has printed Christmas stamps for nearly a half-century, and since 1966, one of the stamps has usually depicted the Nativity or a Madonna and Child. Most of the featured images have been Old Masters, especially from the National Gallery’s outstanding Kress Collection of Renaissance art, and always from an American museum.
The survival of the religious Christmas stamp is rather remarkable, and does yeoman’s work in bringing these treasures to public attention. The real motives behind plumping for the traditional are probably practical. Government-associated enterprises are wary of setting off righteous indignation by meddling in the avant-garde. And despite all the handwringing about creeping secularism, Americans still send 2 billion Christmas cards a year, around three percent of the first-class mail the Postal Service handles each year. A significant number of these are likely still sent with religious stamps. At least they’re usually the first ones to run out at my local post office, and the D.C. suburbs are no great haven of piety.
The Postal Service’s switch to “forever” commemorative stamps in 2000 has made it easier to cycle older stock. We now get a religious Christmas stamp about every other year.
The last one, issued in October 2018, is a real treasure. It’s a detail of a Madonna and Child painted in the 1520’s by the Florentine Mannerist painter Bachiacca, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bachiacca’s first major project was decorating the walls and ceilings of Cosimo de Medici’s study with carefully rendered paintings of animals and plants. He specialized in small images for domestic use, like the two-by-three-foot panel in the Met, where naturalistic detail could be viewed closely and could serve as an aid to devotion.
Medieval devotional writers and artists developed a complex web of symbolic associations for flowers. Sometimes, they noticed natural features that evoked colors or numbers from salvation, or they reconfigured earlier connections between the plants with tales from pagan mythology.
Bachiacca’s panel frames Mary’s body with a bower of sweetbriar, roses, and cornflowers. Sweetbriar, with its five petals, signified the wounds by which Christ redeemed the world. Roses and cornflowers were associated with the Blessed Virgin. Achilles had used cornflowers to heal a wound from an arrow dipped in the venom of Hydra, the great sea-serpent. Reconfigured, it suited well as a reminder of she who bruised the serpent’s head by her simple faith and purity (Gen. 3:15).
At the center of the image, the Christ Child presents his mother with a bouquet of jasmine flowers, still an exotic addition to Renaissance gardens. Its name comes from the Persian yesamin, meaning gift of God, and it is highly valued by various Asian cultures for its delicacy and intense fragrance. Brides are sometimes still decked in garlands of jasmine in Thailand and its blossoms flavor one of China’s most beloved teas.
The Crusaders probably brought jasmine to Western Europe, where it became an essential product in the budding French perfume industry. Boccaccio describes borders of rose and jasmine planted alongside the walks of the Tuscan villa in which his Decameron is set. Written in the early 1350s, it is the first mention of the plant in Western literature. Bachiacca would have known the setting well.
Jasmine features petals of purest white and an intense fragrance — perhaps the world’s strongest-smelling plant. A bouquet of jasmine is a fitting gift for Mary, the Queen of Heaven. She responded to God’s summons in hope and sang his praise with courage. Above all of us, she is the one who, in St. Paul’s words, “leads us in triumph, and… spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Cor. 2:15). Her humble purity is for us, “a fragrance from life to life” (2:16), pattern and sign of the transforming work of the One that “lifteth up the lowly” (Luke 2:52).
But Mary’s is, in truth, a borrowed fragrance. She is filled in advance with the grace that streams from the resurrected body of her Son. If she is crowned above all saints, it is to share in the rule of her Son’s native land. No less a hope awaits poor sinners like us, who rejoice in the dawn of grace this Christmas and long for the fragrance of jasmine yet to come:
Not in that purely lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by
We shall see him, but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high.
Where like stars, his children crowned,
All in white shall stand around. (Hymn 102, vs. 4)
The Rev. Mark Michael is editor of The Living Church and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland.