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  • Russ Ramsey

Nativity Art for Christmas

In preparation for Christmas, today’s Art Wednesday is devoted to nativities. A nativity relies on Biblical text and the artist’s imagination. Some nativities are warm, others alien, some pious, others gritty, some theologically sound, others heretical.

Peter Paul Rubens, Adoration of the Magi, 1618

One of the earliest nativities, engraved on a sarcophagus from 4th century Rome. This carving foreshadows how nativities will come to be made up of a particular set of components—star, mother, child, father, magi with gifts, animals, shepherds, and manger.

4th-century sarcophagus, Milan; one of the earliest Nativity images

This intricate image of the Madonna and Child comes from the Book of Kells (an Irish illustrated book containing the Gospels in latin plus other texts, tables, and art.), c. AD 800. It is the oldest nativity image in Western manuscript art.

Madonna and Child, Book of Kells, c 800, Earliest western nativity image

Leonardo DaVinci, Adoration of the Magi (unfinished), 1482. For the Magi’s visit, DaVinci, depicted Jesus as a young child, not a newborn, which is Biblically accurate. DaVinci’s move from Florence to Milan left this very busy painting unfinished.

DaVinci, Adoration of the Magi (unfinished), 1482

There are countless stained-glass nativities around the world. Some are reverent and beautiful, others not as much. I love the composition of this window by F. Zettler (1878-1911) at St. Gertrude’s in Stockholm. Majestic and crude at the same time.

Nativity, F. Zettler (1878-1911) at the German Church (St. Gertrude’s church)

El Greco, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1614. This one is all about the light. The viewer doesn’t look at this painting and think it’s a picture of a glowing baby. But it is. The entire scene is lit by the Christ Child, the Light of the World.

El Greco, Adoration of the Shepherds Lit By The Christ Child, 1614

Peter Paul Rubens, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1608. Artists often distill a narrative to a single frame. Rubens knew angels didn’t appear to the shepherds while they were with Mary and Joseph. He’s telling several parts of the story in one image.

Peter Paul Rubens, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1608

Rembrandt, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1646. One of my personal favorites. Another example where the light comes from Christ himself. I love the intimacy, reverence, and warmth of this work. It is quiet, but filled with a sense of gravity.

Rembrandt, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1646

That’s all for this Nativity edition of Art Wednesday. Have a great Christmas. Remember, hope has come. Glory to God in the highest.

Rembrandt, Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, 1634




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