One role of art for hundreds of years was to illustrate Bible stories for the illiterate masses who came to church. Artists could make a lot of money gaining a Catholic Church contract and so competition was great. This led to the creation of some amazing works of art in Western culture.
For this week, I want to share with you the Christmas story in masterpieces, two paintings a day for five days. I’ll share with you my take on these works but, hopefully, you’ll also linger with them for a moment. We often can look back on history with a patronizing eye or with a sense of our own advanced superiority. If we take the time to really look and attempt to understand the vision of the Christmas story told from times past, it is amazing how revealing it can be about us and how our human story remains consistent, despite the gap of ages, eras and cultures.
The first two paintings I’ll share today are The Annunciation by Botticelli (1489) and Mary and Joseph on the Way to Bethlehem by Hugo van der Goes (1475)
Botticelli is best known for his Birth of Venus which is considered his masterwork. The fine details and flowing shapes of The Annunciation are very indicative of his painting. The message he sends through this image is striking. The angel Gabriel is bowing down on one knee to deliver his message to Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah. The look on his face is one of concern and sympathy, giving his phrase “Do not be afraid” a whole different meaning from how it is often interpreted. Mary’s face is particularly beautiful but also shows the emotional sense of resignation and obedience to God.
Botticelli has painted an Italian countryside out the window. This seems only natural as he likely had no idea what the Palestinian countryside would look like. It also causes the viewer of the time to be able to find themselves in the story. Like our modern takes on Shakespearean plays, the contemporary context draws people in and helps them relate it to their own time and place.
My favorite aspect of this painting is the outreached hands, fingertips just inches apart from each other, seemingly soon to touch. That sense of imminent contact creates a tension between the two figures but also a direct connection. It sums up the scene so perfectly in that way; a scene that would have been deeply emotional, joyful but also sad and frightening.
I must admit to absolutely loving this piece, which is part of the Portinari Altarpiece, painted by Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes. The landscape and the animals are as much a part of this scene as Mary and Joseph, the typical donkey is followed by a just-visible cow making its way around the large rock formation. The artist has done a wonderful job picturing a concerned Joseph carefully helping his pregnant wife down a slope. She’s presumably not on the donkey because he feels its safer to help her down himself. It is such a beautiful image of care and concern without being overstated.
The colors of this piece are so warm and earthy, again making it easy for the viewer to enter into the scene. I’m not sure if he meant it this way, but the predominance of the large rock formation draws my mind immediately to all the references in scripture of God and Jesus as the Rock:
I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. – Psalm 18: 1-2
The idea of God as protection, the image of Joseph giving loving care to Mary, the warmth of this whole piece of art radiates so much of the heart of the Christmas message.
Tomorrow, Part 2 of this series that will feature a unique take on the little town of Bethlehem and a dramatic and dynamic Nativity scene.