How to come and adore

Katrina DowlingMusic4 Comments

In the Christmas season, singing “O come let us adore him…” reminds me of devotional (visual) art, which gives the viewer some ways to come and adore, typically:

  • Figures in the image look at or gesture to the viewer to invite you into the scene (e.g. the Botticelli Adoration of 1475, below)
  • Figures in the image model devotional posture to help you join in (this is especially strong in the Botticelli Adoration of c.1478-82, below)
  • The image imaginatively expands the Biblical account to make it vivid for you (as in the page from the Très Riches Heures, towards the end of this post, that depicts how the three magi might have met each other in order to make their journey together)

Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi, 1475

Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1478/1482

Programme music can play a similar role. ‘Programme music’ is instrumental music that seeks to portray an image or narrative (without using sung words). The title of the music tells you what its ‘programme’ is so you can imagine it as you listen. For example, inspired by paintings in the Uffizi Gallery including the 1475 Botticelli above, Ottorino Respighi composed an orchestral suite called Trittico Bottecelliano [Botticelli Triptych] (1927), which includes a movement called “L’adorazione dei Magi.”

Respighi’s musical “Adoration” goes beyond the relatively static moment of the Botticelli painting that inspired it – the magi and their retinues having arrived and gathered around the scene of the nativity – to suggest an entire journey, more in the vein of the work of the Limbourg brothers in the Très Riches Heures illumination below.

It’s up to the listener to fill the story out, but along the way, you’ll hear:

  • musical arabesques to give the flavour of the eastern land from which the journey begins
  • quotations of “Veni, veni Emmanuel” [“O come, O come, Emmanuel”] to underscore the anticipation of the promised one (see also the post “O Come Emmanuel” and the Great “O” Antiphons)
  • quotations of the Neapolitan carol “Tu scendi dalle stelle” [“You came down from the stars”] to depict wonder

So here is a suggestion on how to come and adore in a 10-minute devotional time:

  • find your favourite recording of Respighi’s “L’adorazione dei Magi” or play from the linked video at the end of this post
  • set a painting of the journey or adoration in front of you; or close your eyes
  • imagine preparing to set off on the journey…
    • what do you bring with you? – what do the people in your home ask you to take on their behalf?
    • what do you anticipate? – what do you most deeply desire?
    • how does it feel when your fellow travellers join you? – what do they add to your journey?
    • as the landscape before you and behind you changes, what new prospects are revealed ahead? – when you look back, what seems new about the land you’ve travelled?
  • leave the prompts behind and keep on imagining, following where the music leads… you might not get to the destination in this short contemplation; it’s OK to take time en route.


Limbourg bros., Meeting of the Magi, Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, fol.51v, c.1412-16

Limbourg bros., Adoration of the Magi, Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, fol.52r, c.1412-16

4 Comments on “How to come and adore”

  1. Sorry it’s taken so long Katrina. Things have been happening !
    The devotional exercise is appealing in that it provides a structure of beautiful visual cues and music to trigger contemplation and/or meditation.
    I , too, think that the visual material is rather too complex for young children though perhaps a simpler painting with the music playing for a short time and some very simple and open ended questions might work. Attention span of primary aged children would be a problem as Joan says.
    The Beethoven you’ve chosen is beautiful and very well suited, I think, to a short meditative session for adults and some children.
    Not sure that everyone would respond easily to the suggestions. My own reaction is that, no matter what their intended purpose, they feel like a task to be carried out and this doesn’t help me to relax and allow me the art and/or the music to have its effect spontaneously – maybe simply as a trigger for meditation. I realise that this is a very personal response though. Perhaps some would appreciate the suggestions as to what t look for and how to use the paintings and music .

    If you were thinking of this as one of the two or three options to be offered in an ‘all ages” service, as I gather James intends, it would be worth trying and perhaps asking for feedback. I think it is going to take some experimentation to discover what members of the congregation respond to that gives them a sense of having been to a worship service – if indeed that is what they are looking for in coming to church .

    If, on the other hand, you were thinking of it as something for personal use or for Wednesday Rest I think it is all appropriate and a beautiful gift for those who appreciate such material for their own, or small group use. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to make such a detailed comment. So far I’ve found that children become absorbed and carried along by music for much longer than this example (less than 10 minutes) – I still count it as ‘paying attention,’ though, if they are processing the music as they listen by drawing or dancing about. If you limited the definition of ‘attention span’ to the time spent sitting motionless, then that would appear different.

  2. I’m doubtful that this would work for a Sunday School class because I don’t believe their attention span is sufficiently long. Certainly they would need to be doing something creative whilst they listened. I see it as more appropriate for a small meditation group.

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