Sacred Art and Christmas

It’s Christmastime, and a great time to look at the sacred art of the season. Modern Nativity scenes encompass everything: The Holy Family, a host of animals, shepherds, angels, and the wise men. You could often find several of these images in any Cathedral. This is because in the historic church they do not all represent the same event. We will be looking at three of the sacred art themes we associate with Christmas…the Madonna and Child, the Nativity, and the Adoration of the Magi.

Madonna and Child
Madonna and Child by Fra Filippo Lippi and Pesellino c 1470 courtesy National Gallery of Art, D.C.

The image of Mary and the infant Jesus is known the world over. It is used to commemorate the season’s most tender and quiet moments. While it is a symbol of the season, it is also used throughout the year. Many of these images have nothing to do with the Nativity. Madonna simply means “Our Lady.” This references the status bestowed on Mary as
the virginal mother of Christ.

Madonna and Child from Roman Catacombs of Priscilla.

The first possible image of the Madonna and Child was found in the Roman Catacombs of Priscilla. These catacombs were an early burial site for wealthy Romans (Many of whom were Christians) during the late 2nd century through the 4th century.
Madonna and Child on a Curved Throng Byzantine Era

Byzantine images of Mary and Jesus often display the infant’s features as an old man. Artists would do this to remind viewers of Christ’s divine nature.
Madonna and Child by Carlo Crivelli Renaissance

It was during the Renaissance that artists began to paint Christ resembling a cherubic baby. These artists often added symbols that pointed towards the crucifixion, like carnations, pomegranates, and the goldfinch.

The Nativity, The First Day of Christmas
The Nativity by Giuliano Traballesi Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, D.C.

The Nativity (Christmas Eve/Day) marks the beginning of the Twelve Days of Christmas The Nativity story follows the narrative found in the Biblical book of Luke. The first live nativity scene is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, in 1223. He supposedly had just returned from a visit to the Holy Land. The nativity usually contains the entire Holy Family, a créche (manger), stable, animals, and angels. These scenes tend to be humble, quiet moments, mixed with awe
and wonder.
The Nativity by Petrus Christus c. 1450 courtesy National Gallery of Art, D.C.

Netherlandish artist, Petrus Christus, portrayed “The Nativity,” (found at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington) as a single act inside of the larger story the Fall and Redemption of man. The arch that frames his work gives it a theatrical air. The carvings on the arch point to moments in the larger story.

Epiphany, The Adoration of the Magi, and Twelfth Night
The Adoration of the Magi Benvenuto di Giovanni c. 1470-1475 courtesy of National Gallery of Art D.C.

While the Nativity points to a quiet moment, the Adoration of the Magi is usually filled with spectators. It commemorates the story, found in the Gospel of Matthew, of the wise men following a star to find the infant Christ. The first suspected representation of this story is also found in the catacombs of Priscilla. By the Renaissance, the story of the wise men was known in the church as the Epiphany. It is the point where Christ revealed himself to the gentiles. Epiphany is celebrated 12 days after Christmas. In England, Twelfth Night was a huge, and rowdy party. In Florence, a city that actively associated itself with this story, every five years they would hold a long parade that wound through the streets. While these paintings can hold a reverent tone similar to the Nativity scene, they are often depicted with great fanfare, and sometimes even a parade.
The Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli 1478-1482 courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, D.C.

Part of a Bigger Picture

Christmas has grown to be the largest celebration in the Christian calendar. The images we associate with December 25, often carry a deeper meaning than we expect. Decoding the stories, and symbols in paintings gives us a deeper understanding of what we are looking at. The more time we spend with a painting, the more we will appreciate it.

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