Modern Christmas paintings: Adorations

Albin Egger-Lienz (1868–1926), Christmas Eve (1903), oil on canvas, 95 x 95.5 cm, Museum Schloss Bruck, Lienz, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

In this third and final article celebrating the feast of Christmas in modern paintings, their themes are the Adorations of the shepherds and by three foreign kings, wise men or magi. The latter are of particular interest, as the word magi implies their wisdom involves astrology and possibly darker arts, a strange association indeed for the birth of Christ. Most visual artists have therefore opted for the rather safer interpretation as kings, while still showing the star that guided them to Bethlehem.

Blake, William, 1757-1827; The Adoration of the Kings
William Blake (1757–1827), Adoration of the Kings (1799), tempera on canvas, 25.7 x 37 cm, Brighton and Hove Museums & Art Galleries, Brighton, England. The Athenaeum.

William Blake’s version of the Adoration of the Kings is more conventional than his Nativity. It has retained more of its original beauty, with the three wise men presenting their gifts to Jesus and his parents. At the left, shepherds are outside tending to their flocks of sheep beneath a stylised star, and at the right are the traditional ox and ass.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1875), oil on canvas, 147.9 x 115.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Wikimedia Commons.

In the account of the nativity of Christ in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8-15, an angel appeared to shepherds around Bethlehem and announced the nearby birth, as shown in Jules Bastien-Lepage’s The Annunciation to the Shepherds of 1875.

This could have been the artist’s painted manifesto, showing how he builds on tradition rather than discarding it. It strikes compromise between the gilding and Renaissance look of the angel, the rural realism of the shepherds who have come from Millet rather than Bethlehem, and the wonderfully controlled looseness and gesture of the darkened landscape. He wastes not a brushstroke in telling its simple story, in the almost averted facial expressions, arms frozen in surprise, hands which have just been tending sheep, even their bare and filthy feet.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), William Morris (1834-1896) and John Henry Dearle (1859-1932), The Adoration of the Magi (1888), wool and silk tapestry woven on cotton warp in 1894, 258 x 384 cm, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.

This exquisite tapestry was designed in 1888 by Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and the lesser-known John Henry Dearle. This version was woven six years later for the Corporation of Manchester, and is one of ten known examples. The composition was taken from a watercolour by Burne-Jones from 1887, then photographically enlarged into cartoons, coloured and decorated with flowers by Morris and Dearle.

Edward Stott (1855–1918), Adoration of the Shepherds (date not known), pastel, 37 x 33 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In the early twentieth century, the British Impressionist artist Edward Stott painted a few religious motifs, including this undated pastel nocturne of the Adoration of the Shepherds.

Albin Egger-Lienz (1868–1926), Christmas Eve (1903), oil on canvas, 95 x 95.5 cm, Museum Schloss Bruck, Lienz, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Albin Egger-Lienz’s Christmas Eve from 1903 is a re-interpretation of the Adoration of the shepherds set in a Tyrolean cowshed, with skilful use of light. I suspect its title has been mistranslated, and should instead refer to Christmas night.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), Angels Appearing before the Shepherds (c 1910), oil on canvas, 65.3 × 81.1 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Angels Appearing before the Shepherds from about 1910 adopts a more radical approach in his mixture of loose brushstrokes, rubbings, and scumbled passages akin to Symbolism. Its colours are restricted, with a single patch of orange at the lower right indicating a small open fire, amid an abundance of blues and a few greens. The angels at the left are so ethereal that they could at any moment dissipate like a puff of smoke, and the three shepherds are almost insignificant by comparison.

Kazimierz Sichulski (1879–1942), Adoration of the Magi triptych (1913), watercolour and tempera on paper laid on canvas, 154 x 312 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1913, Kazimierz Sichulski painted one of his mixed media triptychs showing the Adoration of the Magi. The centre panel is a fairly conventional Nativity, complete with the Holy Family and a standard ox. The left panel has two of the magi and the ass, and the right completes the set of three magi.

Kazimierz Sichulski (1879–1942), Adoration of the Shepherds triptych (1938), oil on canvas, 102 x 222 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Sichulski painted this later triptych of Adoration of the Shepherds in 1938, using oils in freer style. This is perhaps set among the Hutsul people of the Carpathian Mountains, one of the artist’s favourite settings.