The story which the picture of the Presentation illustrates is a story of the infancy of Jesus Christ. According to the custom of the Jews at that time, every male child was "presented," or dedicated, to the Lord when about a month old. Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa, a small town about four miles from the city of Jerusalem, the Jewish capital, where the temple was. When he was about a month old, his mother Mary and her husband Joseph, who were devout Jews, brought him to the great city for the ceremony of the presentation in the temple. Now the temple was a great place of worship where many religious ceremonies were taking place all the time.

Ordinarily, a party coming up from the country for some religious observance would not attract any special attention among the worshippers. But on the day when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple, a very strange thing occurred. The evangelist St. Luke[7] relates the circumstances.

[7] St. Luke, chapter ii. verses 25-35.

"And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.

The Hague Gallery

"And Joseph and his mother marveled at those things which were spoken of him. And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; that the thought of many hearts may be revealed."

In the picture we find ourselves, as it were, among the worshippers in the temple, looking at the group on the pavement in front of us—Mary and Joseph and Simeon, kneeling before a priest, with two or three onlookers. It is a Gothic cathedral, in whose dim recesses many people move hither and thither. At the right is a long flight of steps leading to a throne, which is overshadowed by a huge canopy. At the top of the steps we see the high priest seated with hands outstretched, receiving the people who throng up the stairway. It was towards this stairway that Mary and Joseph were making their way, when the aged Simeon first saw them, and recognized in the child they carried the one he had long expected. Taking the babe from his mother's arms, he kneels on the marble-tiled pavement and raises his face to heaven in thanksgiving. His embroidered cymar, or robe, falls about him in rich folds as he clasps his arms about the tiny swaddled figure.

Mary has dropped on her knees beside him, listening to his words with happy wonder. Joseph, just beyond, looks on with an expression of inquiry. He carries two turtle doves as the thank offering required of the mother by the religious law. His unkempt appearance and bare feet contrast with the neat dress of Mary. The tall priest standing before them extends his hands towards the group in a gesture of benediction. A broad ray of light gleams on his strange headdress, lights up his outstretched hand, and falls with dazzling brilliancy upon the soft round face of the babe, the smiling mother, and the venerable Simeon with flowing white hair and beard.

There are but few people to pay any heed to the strange incident. Two or three of those who climb the stairway turn about and stare curiously at the group below. There are three others still more interested. One man behind puts his turbaned head over Simeon's shoulders, peering inquisitively at the child, as if trying to see what the old man finds so remarkable in him. Beyond, two old beggars approach with a sort of good-natured interest. They are quaintly dressed, one of them wearing a very tall cap. Such humble folk as these alone seem to have time to notice others' affairs.

It must not be supposed that this scene very closely represents the actual event it illustrates. The painter Rembrandt knew nothing about the architecture of the old Jewish temple destroyed many centuries before. A Gothic cathedral was the finest house of worship known to him, so he thought out the scene as it would look in such surroundings. The people coming and going were such as he saw about him daily; the beggars looking at the Christ-child were the beggars of Amsterdam, and the men seated in the wooden settle at the right were like the respectable Dutch burghers of his acquaintance. It was like translating the story from Aramaic to Dutch, but in the process nothing is lost of its original touching beauty.

In studying the picture, you must notice how carefully all the figures are painted, even the very small ones in the darkest parts of the composition. The beautiful contrast, between the light on the central group and the soft dimness of the remoter parts of the cathedral, illustrates a style of work for which Rembrandt was very famous, and which we shall often see in his pictures.