In this, the second of three articles celebrating the feast of Christmas in modern paintings, their theme is the Nativity, with Mary and Joseph together with the newborn Jesus. One of the most popular Christian religious scenes, depictions soon developed their own conventions, among them a standard set of animals. The almost obligatory ox and ass aren’t mentioned in any of the Gospel accounts of the Nativity, and don’t appear in literary sources until the eighth century. However, they do appear in visual art from around 400 CE, and in miniatures in manuscripts from the tenth century.
It’s probably Duccio’s Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel from 1308-11 which formed the prototype for centuries of subsequent paintings, with its humble shed set into rock, the Holy Family, and the attendant animals (ox, ass, sheep) and humans (shepherds, angels). This triptych was installed at the high altar in the Duomo (cathedral) in Siena, Italy, on 30 June 1311, and remained there for nearly two centuries, only being removed in 1506. Each panel has its own apposite Latin inscription, although those are now largely illegible.
As you might expect from William Blake, his Nativity from 1799-1800 is quite extraordinary. On the left, Joseph supports the Virgin Mary, who appears to have fainted. Jesus has somehow sprung from her womb, and hovers in mid-air, arms outstretched as if ready for crucifixion. On the right, Mary’s cousin Elisabeth greets the infant with her own son John the Baptist on her lap. Blake makes clear the difference in age between Elisabeth and Mary. Although most unconventional, Blake still includes, at the right, the familiar oxen, and a cross or star burns bright through the window at the top.
Jean-Léon Gérôme was one of the first artists to set the traditional Nativity scene inside a different visual context, as a reminder of the events which were taking place at the eastern end of the Mediterranean during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus. In The Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ (c 1852-54), the emperor sits on his throne, overseeing a huge gathering of people from all over the Roman Empire. Grouped in the foreground in a quotation from a traditional nativity is the Holy Family, whose infant son was to transform the empire in the centuries to come.
Fritz von Uhde’s Sacred Night triptych, painted in 1888-89, shows three scenes from a contemporary recasting of the story of the Nativity. In the centre is a very modern interpretation of the classic Virgin Mary and Child, with the adoration of the magi on the left, and a delightful angelic choir singing amidst the rafters of the barn on the right.
Uhde’s undated Christmas Night concentrates on the Nativity, in this atmospheric modern interpretation of the Holy Family of Joseph, the infant Christ, and the Virgin Mary in their improvised accommodation in Bethlehem.
Maurice Denis was another artist who transcribed events described in the Bible into modern settings. One of the most impressive of these is his thoroughly modern Nativity from 1894, in which the birth of Jesus takes place in a contemporary French town. Behind the Holy Family are the traditional ox and ass, and the guiding star burns bright in the sky.
Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale’s watercolour of The Nativity is a contemporary interpretation of the cowshed, singular in the dress of the mother attending to her infant. Joseph is absent, though, as is the traditional ass or donkey.
Joseph Stella’s Crèche from 1929-33 is an ingenious framing of the Nativity. At its centre is the Nativity ‘crib’ so often shown at Christmas, with an audience who appear to have been drawn from the artist’s home city in Italy, playing traditional bagpipes in homage.
That conveniently lead us to the third and final article tomorrow, showing the adorations by shepherds and three foreign kings, wise men or magi. Until then, I wish you a merry Christmas!