Liminality: New Year, art and the rumour of Divinity

By Jill Segger
January 2, 2018

The strange betwixt-and-between period which separates Christmas from New Year is over. We have stepped through the exit of the old year and stand, uncertain, perhaps with hope, maybe in some anxiety, often in real fear, at the intake of 2018.

Liminality – derived from the Latin word for threshold, limin – is not a condition to which we usually pay much attention. It is used to describe that quality of uncertainty, coupled with ambiguity, which is experienced mid-way through a ritual when the participant's former status has been laid down, but their post-ritual state has not yet been achieved.

It was at an undistinguished lay-by on the A1 during a recent journey from Cumbria to East Anglia, that I mused on social media about the slightly uneasy, but liberating sense of experiencing departure without yet having the consummation of arrival. A Twitter F/friend responded by drawing my attention to a 16th century painting which has now taken root in the life of my imagination.

Titian's immense oil, The Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple, depicts the mother of Jesus as a tiny child, hardly more than a toddler, ascending the steps of the Temple to where an elaborately dressed priest awaits her. The little girl holds up one side of her frock to keep from tripping and raises her other hand in that distinctively upright 'hello' gesture of very young children. She is at once fragile and self-possessed, taking the eye in a more immediate and lasting way than does the disproportionally towering figure of the priest at the head of the steps. His arms are raised in a movement which combines ceremony with an element of astonishment. It is oddly tender.

The child, as yet without knowledge of what is to come, nor of quite what is happening in the moment, is evidently doing that which is required of her. Here is a sense of the unavoidable taking hands with transformative potential which I find deeply moving and which opens a door into that region where the Divine comes close: “Over again, I feel thy finger and find thee”.

That the account of Mary coming to the Temple is held to be unhistorical, appearing not in canonical scripture but in the Protoevangelium of James, adds to its power as part of mythic truth. This is the universal language of the heart and not of the textual choices of authority. The skill and vision of a great artist has made this available to us and it is the creative response of Creature to Creator which, opening the heart and the mind, may yet startle us with the rumour of Divinity.

Poetry, music, visual art, these have the power to open us and to create 'thin places' between our state of being and that which is 'beyond' – name it as you will. There is another significant figure in Titian's painting: an old woman seated at the side of the Temple steps is selling eggs. She looks in the opposite direction to the event occurring above and behind her – her attitude less one of uninterest than of complete unawareness.

Most of us need to 'sell eggs'. But if it is to the exclusion of wonder, of the potential to encounter the transformative, then we are poor indeed. Whatever happens in 2018, let us try always to make room for the beautiful, the challenging and the unexpected.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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