Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Christmas Story

Merry Christmas Eve! Tonight, some of you will be going to a Christmas vigil mass and will probably hear a retelling of the birth of Jesus. It is a familiar story with some key elements - Jesus in a manger, shepherds in a field, and three kings bearing gifts to the newborn child. With these key points, the story is complete, but it was not always this way. The nativity story that we are familiar with today is actually a composite narrative of canonical and non-canonical writings. In the early years of Christianity, the Church leaders spread this hybrid tale to the masses through art, which Pope Gregory the Great described as “the Bible of the illiterate."

The Dijion Nativity by Robert Campin is an example of several nativity stories melded into one. Campin pulled from the canonical gospel of Luke, the non-canonical gospels of Pseudo-James and Pseudo-Matthew, and the popular (at the time) vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden.

Dijion Nativity, Robert Campin, c. 1420
Shepherds from Portinari Altarpiece,
 Hugo van der Goes, c. 1475
The three shepherds peering in at Jesus are from the canonical gospel of Luke. Each of the gospel writers played towards their audience. Luke wrote in Asia Minor for a mostly non-Jewish community. In an attempt to increase conversions, Luke emphasized the idea of Jesus as Savior. To highlight this belief, Luke made sure to always notice “the little people”. He meant to show that Jesus was there for everyone, even those sometimes forgotten by society. Artists also used the shepherds as a representative of the common people. Most Italian artists at this time idealized the figures in their paintings. The shepherds were left natural, sometimes even homely to relate them to the masses. 

The two women to the right of the painting come from the writings of Pseudo-James. The one kneeling is the midwife who helped with the birth of Jesus (which occurred in a cave in this version.) When she discerned that Mary was still a virgin, she ran to share her surprise with the second woman, named Salome. Salome refused to believe without proof, and is punished for her skepticism as fire begins to burn her hand. An angel tells her to bring her hand to Jesus, and in his presence she is cured. This small miracle is insinuated by the way the second woman holds her limp hand as if it had been injured.

The ox and the donkey are now a staple in any manger scene, but they actually originated from the non-canonical gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. The passage reads, "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib. The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having Him in their midst, incessantly adored Him.” While these farm animals are familiar to a modern viewer, the placement of the infant Jesus on the ground probably seems strange. Where is the manger? Where are his swaddling clothes? The Dijion Nativity like the Portinari Altarpiece, pulls some details from the vision of St. Bridget of Sweden. Her writings describe Mary's white mantel and golden hair, the ox and the ass, the singing of angels, and Jesus naked and shining on the ground. Angels play an important role in many infancy gospels (especially in the annunciation,) which explains their presence in these paintings. 

Portinari AltarpieceHugo van der Goes, c. 1475

 Adoration,Gentile de Fabriano, 1423

Both of these paintings are missing one of the other, key theological details of a nativity scene - the magi. The magi play a prominent role in the Gospel of Mathew and are present in Pseudo-James. Biblically, the magi (wise-men, kings, etc.) are not numbered. There could have been dozens of magi, each with an entourage of hundreds. Some artists had fun with this idea, like Gentile de Fabriano in his Adoration. The magi gave artists the opportunity to paint lavishness and opulence. 

Theology and tradition pared the magi down to three men. The number three was chosen because the Bible does mention the three gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. The Church leaders decided that one gift would come from each king, and they were all named and given physical descriptions. Balthazar was the young, African king. Casper was a middle-aged, "Asian" king. And Melchior was an older, European king. The kings were from each of the three known continents as a statement that the whole world was at the feet of the savior Jesus Christ.

Adoration, Paolo Veronese, 1570
Adoration, Andrea Mantegna, 1500

In the 1400s and 1500s (the early Renaissance,) the Church was the main patron of art. The illiterate masses learned most of their theology from art. Artists had to know all the Bible stories front-to-back regardless of canon. They pulled the relevant information form each story to create iconography that could successfully teach the desired message of their religious patrons. The visual traditions they created over 500 years ago continue to influence the way we learn and remember the story of Christmas today. 

Doot Bokelman and Prof. Kelly, "The Church and Art" (lecture, Nazareth College, Rochester, NY, Fall 2012)

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