The Nativity Scene – A ubiquitous part of our Christmas lore, a common decoration and motif in and outside our homes, a source of controversy at times, and an undeniably sweet and homey image that never fails to draw us into the spirit of the season. We recreate them as live scenes, we satirize them in memes, we see them everywhere in the days leading up to December 25.
Today in part 4 of my series of Christmas in masterpieces, we take a look at two very different scenes of the most famous stable in history. The first is The Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco (1612-1614) and the second is Dream of Joseph by Rembrandt (1645).
The Spanish master El Greco was known for his elongated figures and dramatic use of shadow and light. His lines are on the move in this painting, making the whole piece pulsate with life. I am struck by the ragged look of the shepherds, barefoot with beat up items of clothing to cover them, looking very much like the lower-rungs of society that they were in Jesus’ day. The shepherds have become such a cutesy part of our Nativity scenes and Christmas plays that we’ve forgotten the scandal of angels coming to them first – first! – with the news of the birth of the God King. These were people considered the trash of their times, uneducated, crass, poor and dirty. Yet they are chosen to be the human heralds of the beginning of the Good News:
When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. – Luke 2: 17-18
The power of this work comes, however, from the explosion of light off the Christ child. We are used to images of Jesus kind of glowing in our Christmas artwork, but here he is fairly blasting light, illuminating what would presumably be a very dark place with his own radiance. Mary shines brightest in this light, of course, but every other figure is given shape and form because of it too, including the strange, little naked cupids floating above.
There is enough of the common imagery of Nativity for us to recognize this scene, but also plenty of elements that remove it from a feeling of the commonplace. That is not altogether a bad thing, of course. We have often made our Nativity scenes so pop culture that we forget the foundation of divinity and miracle that gives it gravitas and a sense of the eternal. This may not be my favorite Nativity scene, but it still serves its purpose to remind me of the power of God becoming a human, of the forever becoming temporal, of the Word becoming flesh.
There is much of the ways of the flesh in Rembrandt’s Christmas masterpiece, that is, in the need we all have for sleep, especially after exhausting experiences. In this scene, an angel is coming to Joseph to give him specific instructions, following on the heels of the visit by the Magi:
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until the I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” – Matthew 2: 13
The man in question was King Herod, the puppet king set up by the Romans to rule Palestine. When the Magi came to him in Jerusalem, expecting to find there the answer to the star that told them of a newborn king of the Jews, Herod’s own wise men had pointed them to Bethlehem as the place of the Messiah’s birth in prophecy. Since they had left, the shrewd king had stewed in jealous rage, waiting for them to return with news of where to find this child. Whereas the Magi had adoration in their minds, Herod had infanticide in his seething brain.
An angel had told the Magi to go back home on a different route, with no stops at Herod’s place along the way. Then he went to Joseph and the scene depicted here by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn.
In the Christmas story, Joseph receives two angel visits in dreams on two separate occasions. The first was back when he discovered that Mary was pregnant before their wedding. Then the angel told a distraught Joseph the news that the Holy Spirit was responsible for her being with child, and to continue with his plans to marry her. The dream pictured here is clearly the second dream, as the surroundings suggest the stable, with the newborn child sleeping, wrapped in those swaddling clothes, lying in manger, with Mary’s comforting embrace around him.
This is a very delightful painting, warm and human as Rembrandt so often communicated his subject matter. He pulls that off despite the presence of an obvious supernatural visitor. You can almost feel the coziness of the place, smell the hay and animal smells, hear the snoring of Joseph, the gentle breathing of a contented but exhausted Mary. To me his stable comes across as the most real and comforting Christmas stable ever depicted in art. It isn’t a frightening, dark place like El Greco’s stable, and it isn’t too otherworldly or artificial, it is just the kind of place you’d imagine these people could bed down in for the night.
Art history is full of images of a radiant Christ child, an adoringly attentive and aging Joseph, and a Mary shining with divine grace. Rembrandt gives us a distinctly earthy Holy Family, a pair of rustic and lower class people grabbing much needed sleep after the birth of their child in extraordinary circumstances. To me, this is a refreshing image that draws me in and makes me want to curl up for some sleep myself, after giving that jovial cow on the right a good pat on the head or two.
Christmas is about so many things that glow from this painting, but the treasure here is the recapturing of the serene and silent moment in time that would one day become spectacle.
Tomorrow is the final day of this series of Christmas in masterpieces, we’ll finish not with glory but with danger and death. If that doesn’t seem very Christmas-like to you, then you’ve not read the Christmas story to its shocking end.