Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Painting the Nativity

New regular contributor Gareth Leaney writes today about about paintings of Jesus' birth and highlights a few of his favorites:

The nativity and the events surrounding the birth of Jesus has been a popular subject for artists since the first century.  One reason is somewhat practical: when your livelihood depends on moneyed patrons buying your work, what is popular with the customer tends to be popular with the artist.  But the nativity also represents an intriguing challenge for an artist to tackle.

On one level, a classic nativity is a charming-but-ordinary domestic scene.  But at the same time there is more going on, and the challenge lies in representing contrasting realities - the ordinary and the extraordinary, the natural and the supernatural, together on the same canvas.

So these paintings should invite more reflection and interaction than a simple family portrait.  Here are three of my favorites...

The first has become known as Mystic Nativity, painted by Sandro Botticelli in 1500. All the classic elements are there: Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus, huddled with the cattle in a stable of wood and stone.  But the painting is rich with symbolism and imagery:

Above, angels dance with joy under the golden dome of heaven.  Below, demons flee the arrival of God's messiah, and more angels lift up men in their suffering as hope enters the world.  Even as Botticelli depicts the first coming of Jesus he points (not exactly subtly) towards the second coming and the bigger reality of what the birth of Jesus means for the world.

A hundred years later, El Greco imagines the same scene in Adoration of the Shepherds (c.1612-14).  The family and their visitors are given El Greco's characteristically exaggerated body shapes and poses, but the shepherds lean back in awe and worship.

The interesting thing about this painting is the way it is lit.  The figures are illuminated not from above but from the centre, not by a window or a lamp but by the baby himself.  (Thirty years later, Rembrandt would do the same thing, in his own Adoration of the Shepherds, painted in 1646).  As this child is born, a light shines in the darkness, echoing the words of St John; "the true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world" (John 1v9).

A slightly different tone is struck by Brian Kershisnik's Nativity(2006).  The real thing is huge, at over 5 metres wide, making the figures roughly life-size.

On one hand it captures the humanity of the birth of Jesus.  A tired Mary cradles the sleeping Jesus, and a visibly overwhelmed Joseph enjoys a moment to himself while a pair of midwives clean the blood from their hands.

Kershisnik's painting includes angels too, but these angels are different.  An innumerable hoard of them sweep into the picture, all clamoring for a view of what's happened.  There's a real sense of movement in the painting.  These angels don't hang around holding banners - they are hurrying somewhere else.  But where?

The answer is in the New Testament stories of Jesus, where a crowd of angels announce to a group of shepherds what is happening:

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

The angels' words, like the images in the three paintings, place the unspectacular events of the Bethlehem stable within a wider context. They proclaim that God's promised rescuer has arrived and everything is now set to change.

 We'd love to hear about some of your favorite
visual or written portrayals of Jesus' birth.
Why not share your thoughts and image links below?

Gareth Leaney is the Missions and Associates
Coordinator at the Michael Ots Evangelism Trust

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