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About two thousand years ago a babe was born in the little Judæan village of Bethlehem whose life was to change all history. His name was Jesus, and every Christian country now takes his birth as a standard from which to reckon time. When we speak of the year 1900, we are counting the number of years that have passed since that event.[3] To make this clear we sometimes add the initials a.d., standing for the Latin words, Anno Domini, meaning in the year of our Lord. To go still farther back we speak of an event as so many years b.c. or Before Christ.

[3] To be perfectly exact we must always add four years to a date to get the full length of time passed since the birth of Christ, as a mistake has been made in the calculation.

The infant Jesus came to his mother Mary as a peculiar treasure. Before his birth she had had a vision of an angel telling her that her son was to reign over a great kingdom. She felt that there was a great and solemn mystery in his life.

At the time he was born, Bethlehem happened to be crowded with people who had come there to pay their taxes. When Mary and her husband Joseph went to the inn, there was no room for them, and the baby was laid in a manger used to feed cattle. This was a humble cradle for one destined to be a king; but the mother did not think too much of outward things. Her confidence in her son's greatness was not to be shaken by trifles like this.

The new-born babe was soon sought out. First came some shepherds asking to see him, because, while watching their sheep at night, they had had a vision of angels telling them that a Saviour was born in Bethlehem. Still stranger visitors were some wise men from the East, who said they had seen a star which signified to them the birth of a king. They brought the babe royal gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, and returned on their way well pleased with the success of their journey.

When the babe was about a month old he was carried up to the great city of Jerusalem, where, according to the religious custom of the Jews, he was to be offered or presented to the Lord, in the temple. Here a saintly old man named Simeon took him in his arms, with some strange words of prophecy of the salvation which this child was to bring to the world.

All these things made a deep impression upon Mary, and she was a proud and devoted mother. Day by day she watched her child grow "strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon him." It is said that

"All mothers worship little feet,
And kiss the very ground they've trod,"

and this mother had special cause for child worship.

MADONNA AND CHILD. National Museum, Florence. 
MADONNA AND CHILD. National Museum, Florence.

The Italians always refer to the mother of Jesusas the Madonna, which is the old Italian way of addressing a lady. This representation of the Madonna and Child makes us understand better what the two were to each other. The confiding way in which the boy leans against his mother's knee shows the love between them. The mother looks like a queen; on her well-poised head she wears a headdress something like a crown. As the mother of a prince she bears her honors proudly.

On her lap is the book from which she has been reading. The child seems dreaming of the wonderful words he has heard, as he rests his cheek on his little hand, his elbow bent across the open page. A thoughtful mood is upon them both, and there is something wistful in the boy's attitude. The message they have read must indeed be a solemn one. Perhaps it is something which recalls to the mother the promise of the angel in foretelling the birth of Jesus. She thinks of the great honors that are to be his, and also of the sacrifices by which they must be won. The book may be open at the words of one of those old Hebrew prophets who longed for the coming of the Redeemer. There is a verse in the prophecy of Isaiah, which speaks of a child upon whose shoulders the government shall rest.[4] The writer tells some of the many names by which he shall be called, and we may imagine this mother and child going over together these strange titles: "Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace."

[4] Isaiah, chapter ix. verse 6.

Our illustration is from a bas-relief by Michelangelo, and as we examine it closely we discover that the sculptor's work was left unfinished. The rough marks of the chisel are still seen on the surface of the marble. A child's figure in the background is quite indistinct. Probably it was intended for the boy St. John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus. The child Jesus himself is by no means completed; his right arm is only faintly indicated.

As we shall learn from other examples of sculpture in this book,[5] Michelangelo often neglected to carry his work to completion. He was so possessed with his ideas that he could not work fast enough in sketching them on the marble, but after this, it did not matter so much to him about the finishing. He had done enough to show his meaning.

[5] Note particularly the Cupid on page 15, and the tomb of Giuliano de' Medici on page 81.

There are reasons for liking such work all the better for being unfinished. Some of the most delightful stories ever written, like those of Hawthorne, leave something at the end still unexplained. The reader's imagination is then free to go on forever exploring the mystery, and inventing new situations. So in this bas-relief, the great sculptor does not work out the details, but allows us to exercise our own fancy upon them. He sketches his thought in a few noble lines, and each may round out for himself the completed ideal.