I figured since I hadn’t yet posted on anything related to Christmas (and it is 2 weeks away), now was as good a time as any. I picked the Nativity, or the Birth of Jesus Christ, as my theme. For information about how it might’ve been at the actual birth of Jesus, told from the viewpoint of a modern-day midwife, check out this website. The Nativity has been pictured in art since at least the 4th century, though it didn’t become really popular until St. Francis set up the first Nativity scene in 1223. According to this webpage, “Francis decided that he wanted to make the extraordinary experiences of the first Christmas more accessible to ordinary people. The scene featured a wax figure of the infant Jesus, costumed people playing the roles of Mary and Joseph, and the live donkey and ox that were loaned to Francis. Local shepherds watched over their sheep in nearby fields, just as shepherds in Bethlehem had watched over sheep on the first Christmas, when the sky suddenly filled with angels who announced Christ’s birth to them.” Turns out, Francis also helped to introduce the world to Christmas carols, which he created around the same time as the Nativity scene. Some more modern “artistic” examples can be seen here in the form of Star Wars figurines and here with Mr. Bean. Ok not really artistic, but just fun.
Now to the artwork. I’d like to start with Robert Campin’s Birth of Christ. As I’ve said before in this post, I love Campin’s work. His paintings are so detailed with such rich colors, as exemplified by the gorgeous gold and white folded robe of Mary and the bright robes of the angels. The subject matter comes from Luke 2:7, but more specifically from St. Brigit. According to this website, “[St. Brigit] claimed Mary described to her how she kneeled in prayer, the shining child before her. Joseph was said to be holding a candle, and angels were singing. The two women on the right are midwifes. According to an apocryphal book, Joseph had summoned them to assist his wife, as was the custom where he was from.” It is interesting to note that Mary still looks pregnant in this painting, but is dressed in virginal white to show her purity. Baby Jesus looks small and shriveled, as if he had literally just been born. Joseph looks older than he is usually painted. This article tells us that the two midwives were called “Zebel and Salome. The ‘Golden Legend’ tells that the one probably whose face we do not see, Zebel, recognized Mary’s virginity despite the birth. The other, Salome, the prouder one, refused to believe this. So her hand withered. An angel told her to touch the child and she was healed and recovered her hand completely. Both these women are splendidly dressed, as if she were women of a court,” perhaps the Burgundian court where the painting was originally commissioned. The shepherds are behind Joseph, inside the crumbling barn. Aside from the Nativity scene, the background landscape is also excellently done with great detail, with a long windy road leading to the town.
Robert Campin, The Birth of Jesus, c. 1425-30
The next painting I would like to look at is Sandro Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity. I must admit, I had never seen this one before I went to research this post today. Though I know he has done some religious artwork, most of what he is famous for are his Greek mythology or Roman literature paintings. This painting, however, is unique. Though the main subject is the Nativity, it also illustrates the Book of Revelations and the Last Judgement, as signified by the demons that appear in the left, center and right bottom portions of the painting. As this blog post says,
“Botticelli seeks to reinforce the contemplation of not only Christ’s arrival, but also his eventual return as outlined in the Book of Revelation.The question needs to be asked – what had happened to Botticelli in 1490s [for him to go from light playful Greek mythological scenes to this overtly religious and fairly heavy-handed work]? The answer is simple – the Dominican Monk, Girolamo Savonarola. The delightful angels encircling towards the heavens in Mystic Nativity are wonderfully executed. Time had faded the inscriptions on many of the ribbons they carried – obscuring the direct link between this painting and Savonarola’s teachings.Subsequent infra-red analysis of the angels’ ribbons revealed the inscriptions – they corresponded exactly with the 12 mystical properties as delivered in Savonarola’s sermon. Hence, ‘Mystic Nativity’ was not just a devotional work – it was also a statement of Botticelli’s personal allegiance to Savonarola and his teachings.” I won’t go more into Savonarola, but the rest of the blog post is very fascinating, if you’re interested in the topic.
I will continue with more analysis of the painting. The Virgin and Child are the most important part of the painting, therefore Botticelli made them the largest and right smack in the center. As the National Gallery of London (where the painting currently resides) explains, “The cave replaces the stable, reminding us of the tomb in which Christ was later buried.” An ox and a donkey are depicted behind the Virgin Mary, though they were not mentioned in the New Testament. The donkey reminds us of the one that Jesus later used to ride into Jerusalem before his crucifixion. Joseph, to the left of baby Jesus, is depicted very old and seems to almost be at a loss as to what he should be doing. The Three Wise Men are on the left of Joseph and are wearing olive wreaths because “of an edict from a recent ruler of Florence. Savonarola had declared that ‘Christ alone was king of the Florentine Republic.’ There are three angels on the roof, dressed in white, green and red, which may represent the three Cardinal Virtues: faith, hope and charity. They wear crowns of olive, and two of them carry olive branches. They are holding an open book, which could possibly be the Book of Revelations.” The bottom part of the painting has three angels embracing three men wearing olive wreaths and proclaiming “Peace on Earth Goodwill to Men.” The angels and men embracing each other is usually only shown in Last Judgement paintings.
Sandro Botticelli, Mystic Nativity, c. 1500
Now to go a totally different route, I’d like to discuss the Post-Impressionist work Bebe (The Nativity) by Paul Gauguin. It is definitely a very different take on the subject. I found a poem inspired by the painting on this site. Gauguin lived in Tahiti from March 1891-June 1893 and again from July 1895 – Sept 1901. He had decided to go there, according to this website (translated from the French)”to discover and cultivate his primitivism.” Gaugin used his teenage mistress as the inspiration for the wet nurse/Virgin Mary. I’m not sure which one she is, to be honest. There’s not a lot of documentation on the painting that I could find anyways and the stuff I could find was conflicting, so I figure it is up to your own personal interpretation. She is holding the infant Jesus with his small green halo. His mother lies exhausted on the other side of the room, having just given birth to him. It could be that the woman in the top of the painting is Mary before and the woman at the bottom is Mary after the birth. A green-winged angel watches over the infant while his mother recuperates. The whole scene is set in a stable, complete with cows and pigs. There is no Joseph in this painting like in most versions. The bright yellows and oranges remind me of Van Gogh, and it has been proven that the two artists influenced each other after living together for two years in Southern France. The greens and purples seem to be colors that Gauguin frequently used while painting pictures in Tahiti.
Paul Gauguin, Bebe (The Nativity), 1896
The last piece that I wanted to discuss was Nativity by Brian Kershisnik. Never seen it before today but I liked this very captivating interpretation of the scene. The original is apparently an enormous 17 feet long x 7 feet high! I agree with another woman who said that she liked this because the Holy Family looked the most natural. Mary looks exhausted but happy as she is breastfeeding her baby Jesus. The two midwives, as referenced in the Campin painting above, are waiting on the Virgin. Joseph is looking much younger, but just as equally blown away and overwhelmed by the entire situation. A host of angels crowd over them to see the baby and some, on the right end, look as though they are singing. There is also a dog with a puppy watching all the action. According to this press release from BYU ‘s Museum of Art (where the painting is currently residing), “Kershisnik said the painting was inspired by his work teaching art students at BYU. He wanted the angels to be the main piece of the painting to show a bigger picture of Christ’s birth. Mark Magleby, Director of the BYU Museum of Art, said people respond to Nativity “because they recognize the authenticity of the experience of childbirth in the holy family and the realities of motherhood across the animal spectrum. He said people also relate to the angels because we see that they are each individuals and not just a big host of angels that all mesh together.”
Another great artwork is the Nativity window located at Saint Stanislaus College, Tullaberg in Ireland, created by stained glass Irish artist Evie Hone. For more information on her, check out this webpage.