Christmas is a time when we allow ourselves to indulge in nostalgia and memories of Christmasses past. After writing, On Being Mary, I was reminded of a History of Art talk I was invited to do one chilly Christmas morning several years back. The presentation centred around the Nativity Scene through time, exposing the fib of Mary's iconic blue veil and giving a voice to poor Joseph, woefully neglected through the ages. After a little tweaking, here it is for you!
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It took several hundred years after the birth of Jesus/Isa for Christianity to be adopted as the main religion within the Roman Empire. In the meantime, Christians were persecuted for their faith and any form of worship or use of Christian imagery had to be completely hush-hush. As a result, the main form of art tended to be on secret sarcophagi and in catacombs where the walls were covered in murals and paintings.
The artists commissioned to paint these artworks weren’t necessarily Christian themselves. And for that reason, they didn’t see any problem in just recycling or adapting Roman imagery so sometimes you’d even find bizarre images of Jesus looking like a Roman Emperor. Due to the secretive nature of Christian worship at the time, the artists could rest assured that their controversial fusion of Roman and emerging Christian symbols would remain hidden from those who might seek to arrest them for their efforts.
The paintings and friezes in the catacombs were usually very simple. Typically, they just showed Jesus in a cave, wrapped up inside a wicker basket. While nowadays we think of Mary as a crucial element in the Nativity, in the centuries before Christianity became mainstream, Mary was only ever included in scenes which featured the Wise Men. Poor Joseph was pretty much a no-show for the whole period. And just to make matters worse, Tim Winter (in an incredibly interesting and informative podcast with Vicky Beeching) stated that Joseph was also airbrushed out of the Nativity narrative in the Quran.
The baby Jesus wasn't left all on his own though. He was always accompanied by an ox and a donkey. Their presence was based on a Biblical verse: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib" (Isaiah 1 verse 3). By the 5th century, Mary had become a fixed figure in the nativity scene following a decision by a council of church officials and the Nativity as we know it today was beginning to take shape. Joseph, as always, relied on the kindness of individual artists as to whether or not he got a look in.
Once Christianity reached the West, the depictions of the nativity began to change. Western artists preferred to place Jesus in the setting of a wooden stable rather than a stone cave. Although to this day, Italian nativities (presepi) choose to create ornate caves for the delicately carved figurines of the Holy family.
Fast forward to the Early Renaissance and most artworks were commisioned by wealthy patrons to be housed in churches. The rich patrons wanted to show off their wealth with elaborate alterpieces (above) and so the artists would use real gold for the halos and expensive pigments to create dazzling colours.
If you were ridiculously well-off then you could afford the blue pigment used in paintings which came from a crushed up gemstone called Lapis Lazuli. As a consequence, artists began to paint Mary in this expensive blue even though realistically she wouldn't have been able to afford to dye her clothes in such a vibrant colour (below). The general population only wore browns and earthy colours which were naturally available to them.
These patrons also showed their importance by having themselves painted into the picture as figures being blessed by the baby Jesus. In The Donne Triptych by Hans Memling (below), the central panel shows Sir John Donne kneeling in adoration to the Virgin Mary and Child with Saint Catherine, while Lady Donne and their daughter are accompanied by Saint Barbara. The triptych has shutters on the left and right which show Sir John Donne's name saints, Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. Of course, normal peasant folk weren’t allowed to see the inner designs of these triptychs so they would be closed when not in use.
During the Renaissance the Nativity scene went through another transformation. The catalyst for the change in direction was Saint Bridget of Sweden who, in the 14th century, was said to have had a vision of Jesus lying on ground. She wrote:
‘I saw the glorious infant lying on the ground naked and shining. His body was pure from any kind of soil and impurity. Then I heard also the singing of the angels, which was of miraculous sweetness and great beauty…’
Artists really took to the idea of Jesus radiating light because it fitted incredibly well with the style of painting that was in fashion at the time. Artists at the time were showcasing chiaroscuro, the technique of contrasting light and shadow, and even began to paint nativity scenes at night in order to emphasise the stark contrast in shading. In Correggio's painting (below) Jesus is so bright that he lights up Mary’s face and so dazzling that his radiance is blinding the woman near him.
We mark the end of the Renaissance with Caravaggio who was known for causing a stir (to put it mildly!). Even after death, Caravaggio's works continue to be involved in scandal. The painting below is currently the most expensive painting that has been stolen and never recovered (with most accusatory fingers pointing at Mafia involvement).
When it was created, the painting was rejected by the Church because they opposed the fact that Mary was modelled on a suspected prostitute and most of Caravaggio's models were rather dodgy characters. They also weren't all that keen on Caravaggio's realism which meant that all of the figures had wrinkles and dirty feet. No one wants to see filthy feet in church. Caravaggio liked to make everything look realistic so he set the scenes in contemporary settings with figures dressed in plain brown clothes, shunning costly dyes such as Lapiz Lazuli and omitting the golden halos.
But the reason Caravaggio painted in that way because he wanted to make paintings that actually meant something to the ordinary people looking at it. He wanted paintings to resonate with the people and so he tried new ways to make the nativity story come to life.
Charles Le Brun - Adoration of the Shepherds (17th century)
From the 16th century, we enter the Roccoco phase where frivolous embellishment became the art world's obsession. Plain Nativities with just the Holy Family went out of fashion and instead the canvases were plastered with people. Chaotic and colourful crowds fill every nook and cranny of the image like a Christmassy Where's Wally. The scenes from this period depict frantic movement as the excited worshippers rush to see the newborn child.
The abundance of Nativity scenes through history mean that we're able to have a glimpse into how different ages interpreted the Christmas story and reflect on how we view it in a modern setting. It is a powerful image, regardless of whether we're Christian, Muslim, or from a non-faith background. Whether we consider it the beginning of Jesus's life on earth, just a warm and fuzzy story, or a narrative about parents struggling to bring a child into the world in the harshest of situations - the Nativity scene has stood the test of time and continues to have the ability to resonate with us on a very personal level.
Which featured paintings resonated with you most?
What are your favourite Nativity paintings or images and why?
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