This year I’m celebrating the festival of Christmas with a series of three articles about its three most painted phases: the Annunciation today, the Nativity tomorrow, and on the third day the Adorations of the shepherds and magi. Rather than showing selections from the multitude of classical depictions, these paintings are more modern, dating from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a period in which artists became more innovative and less formulaic in their treatment of religious themes.
In most Christian calendars, the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary is celebrated much earlier in the year, typically in a feast on the 25 March, intended to coincide with the Gospel account of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and telling her that she will become the mother of Jesus Christ. Traditionally this has been one of the major themes in paintings for the Catholic Church.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) (1849–50) is as radical a reinterpretation of the traditional Annunciation painting, as his The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-49) was of the life of the Virgin. There are gilt halos amid natural and realistic depictions of the figures and objects, in accordance with the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Symbols shown include: white robes for purity, the lily for purity again, and its traditional association with the Annunciation, a dove representing the Holy Spirit, red embroidery referring forward to Christ’s crucifixion, a blue curtain for heaven, and flames at the feet of the angel Gabriel rather than traditional wings.
This Annunciation from 1898 is one of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s most unconventional paintings of a traditional scene. He sets it in the private space of Mary’s bedroom, with the bedclothes rumpled untidily, and Mary in casual night dress. There is no angel as such, but a dazzling fire of the spirit, forming a subtle crucifix with a shelf behind. This painting was accepted for the Salon of 1898, and was widely reproduced in magazines afterwards.
In 1904, Vittorio Matteo Corcos completed this remarkable painting for the Convento di San Francesco in Fiesole, Italy. Mary has a highly contemporary look as she stands in contemplation with her hands clasped together in prayer. Gabriel approaches from the distance, walking through a tunnel formed by trees.
Just before the First World War broke out, John William Waterhouse painted his one and only religious work, The Annunciation (1914). Although completed over fifteen years after Tanner’s, it remains deeply traditional, with Gabriel bearing white lilies for Mary, who is kneeling and has dropped her spinning. Both figures have conventional halos.
Jacek Malczewski’s Mary (right) is a modern young woman of 1923, whose thimble and scissors rest on a bare wooden table behind. Gabriel is in the midst of breaking the news to her, his hands held together as he speaks. The window and curtains make clear that this is twentieth century Poland, not the Holy Land two millennia ago.
Paintings of the events leading up to the Nativity itself are less common.
John Everett Millais’ view of Christmas Eve from 1887 seems a particularly bleak one. Bare trees, barren snow with just tracks, and a few crows foraging. The lights may be lit in the house behind those trees, but out here it feels pretty grim.
Fritz von Uhde painted one of his finest modernised religious works, A Difficult Journey, in 1890. This imagines Joseph and the pregnant Mary walking on a rough muddy track to Bethlehem, in a wintry European village. Joseph has a carpenter’s saw on his back as the tired couple move on through the dank mist.
Tomorrow will bring the Holy Family together for the Nativity itself.