Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Birth of Christ

Sarcophagus of Stilicho, forth century AD, Basilica of St. Ambrogio, Milan, is probably the
earliest surviving depiction of the nativity.
Adoration of the Magi, fourth century AD, Cemetery of St. Agnes, Rome.
Very often medieval and other early depictions of the nativity concentrated on the magi.

Holy Family (detail), eighth century mosaic,
Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, a very early
depiction of a long time artists' staple.
During the December holiday season, we routinely send and receive dozens of Christmas cards with scenes ranging from lumpy little snowmen to deeply religious painted masterpieces depicting the nativity, shepherds, or magi. With the possible exception of crucifixions, the nativity is probably the most painted religious scene handed down to us by the Christian artists of the past centuries in which painted religious works survive. Although the Italians were most fond of paintings of the Madonna and Child which, broadly speaking, fall into the general category of nativity scenes, often the Christ Child is depicted as just that, a young child, rather than a newborn baby.

Birth of Christ, 1425-30, Robert Campin

It remained for the artist of northern Europe to bring us some of the most moving scenes of Christ's birth in the traditional sense. Artist like Matthias Grunewald and Robert Campin painted exquisite little (some not so little as well) masterpieces of intricate design, detail, and symbolism. Often these were in the form of altarpieces sometimes called triptychs (three folding panels) or diptychs (two panels) designed for what was then a portable priesthood, taking mass to small communities with only rudimentary churches. Or, when used in traditional churches, they were art which could be locked away at night for safe keeping.

Merode Altarpiece, 1425-28, Robert Campin

If we include the hundreds of holy family paintings as being the aftermath of the birth of Christ, it's also appropriate to include with them various paintings of the annunciation in that they constitute a prelude to the nativity genre. Campin's triptych Merode Altarpiece (above), is just such an annunciation, and one of the most impressive. Depicted in the first panel are the kneeling donors of the work peering through an open door to the second panel where an angel appears to the figure of Mary in contemporary dress, seated before a fireplace amid the trappings of a typical Flemish household of the time. In the third panel, appears a (much too old) representation of Joseph, at work in his carpenter shop, building mousetraps. The painting abounds with symbolism such as the mousetraps, used to reinforce the belief that Christ was the bait with which Satan would be trapped. Taken together, these three categories--annunciations, nativities, and holy family depictions--illustrate a more complete birth narrative than can be seen in traditional Christmas card "manger scenes."
Concert of the Angels (left), Nativity (right), 1510-1515, Matthias Grunewald,
central panel of the triptych Isenheim Altarpiece.


No comments:

Post a Comment