Our own contemporary lens has given us images of Bethlehem and the Nativity that lead us to believe that they looked a certain way. We have that image of the little town of Jesus’ birth, all small block-like homes silhouetted against a night sky, a tiny stable illuminated in the foreground by a predominant and unlikely perfect pointed star. Our nativities are usually pictured as neat groupings of different Christmas characters, mostly looking sweet and children’s story friendly. Really, nobody knows what these looked like and our imagination depends so much on the way others have chosen to envision the scenes.
Today I want to give you Part 2 of Christmas in masterpieces, two paintings that give a distinctly unique perspective on some familiar images of the season. The first is The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel (1566) and the second is Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence by Caravaggio (1609).
On first viewing this painting appears to be a landscape of a European town from centuries ago. That interpretation would be correct but wouldn’t tell the whole story as just off center at the bottom of the painting is a familiar Christmas sight: Joseph leading a donkey with his wife Mary sitting on it. This is Bethlehem as seen through the eyes of Pieter Bruegel. The artist was known to depict biblical events in his own contemporary settings and this painting is no exception.
In some ways you could play a game of Where’s Waldo with this painting (only rename it something like Do You See What I See? to make it Christmas-friendly). There are so many wonderful things going on in this painting that you just want to take a few minutes to check them all out. There is of course the congestion of the census-taking locale, where Joseph has to navigate his donkey between some huge barrels on wagons. There are chickens feeding, people making food, people walking across a frozen river and on a frozen pond (even what looks like a crude form of hockey happening in the bottom right of the painting). There are people doing who-knows-what in the center – Is it work? Is it play? Is it some strange form of dancing done in Flanders?
All I know is that this painting is a blast and a half. It also shows Bethlehem exactly how it likely was in spirit – A gathering of a bunch of humans doing human things like work and play and waiting and arguing and cooking and who-knows-what, barely taking notice of a man leading his pregnant wife on a donkey. This was the scene of the first Christmas – no fanfare by any stretch but plenty of day-by-day going on.
To me, Bruegel’s painting centers the story of the birth of Christ squarely in the flesh, that is, in the human side of the account. And that is very refreshing and real.
Dramatic and unforgettable, Carvaggio‘s Nativity scene is a powerful piece of art in its own right, apart from the subject matter. Michelangelo Merisi da Carvaggio was known for a dynamic use of dark to bring out the light, making his images resonate on a deeply emotional level. He breaks with traditional imagery here in having the Christ child only partially illuminated, not the source of the light, and not a halo to be found anywhere. This is one of my favorite depictions of Mary, as she appears very likely as she was: A young woman of humble birth, taken with the exhaustion of child-birth, with a look of melancholy as she gazes at her son.
How did St. Francis and St. Lawrence make it into a Nativity scene anyway? Can you imagine those pieces being available for your own Nativity set you put up on your mantle every Christmas? “Ah, yes… Mary, Joseph, Jesus… the shepherds and that one lamb (not much of a flock)… a cow… the wise men… angels… and, of course, a couple of saints born hundreds of years after this happened!” In other words, don’t get upset if your child puts his Iron Man and Wonder Woman action figures in with the Nativity set – It’s all been done before.
An interesting side-note of art history: This painting was stolen in 1969 in what authorities believe was a Mafia heist. The masterpiece has disappeared and its whereabouts unknown, leading some to think it was destroyed. That adds an extra note of emotion to a piece already heavy with it.
Regardless of the ode to a couple of Saints and to it possibly no longer being with us, to me in his painting Carvaggio has captured the emotional core of the Christmas story: The wonder at the birth of the Son of God and the sorrow that will bring, to Mary, to all that loved him. There is as much of the Cross in this artwork as there is the manger.
Tomorrow will be part 3 of this series of Christmas in masterpieces in which those wise guys from the East, the Magi, will play a prominent role.