The Nativity

It would be easy to write off this off as just another greeting-card version of the familiar Bible story. But look again.

Nativity, c. 1420, Robert Campin, courtesy Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon

For more than a century, a body of work was identified as being by the so-called Master of Flemalle. These paintings are now generally attributed to the Belgian painter Robert Campin. These attributions are controversial because the artist didn’t sign or date his output. However, the works in question all bear the hallmarks of Campin’s workshop: keen observation, oil paint rather than egg tempera, and complex perspective.

It would be easy to write off his Nativity, 1420, as just another greeting-card version of the familiar Bible story. But look carefully at the corner post emerging from the collapsing wattle-and-daub wall of the stable. “This is an exact portrait of a specific piece of battered, reused timber,” wrote Martin Gayford. “Every knothole, insect tunnel, split, roughly carpentered joint and variation in the grain of the wood is represented with close-focus precision. Beneath, the footing of the wall has been studied with the same fascination, especially a single, knobbly flint.” From there, let your eyes travel to the perfectly realized landscape in the background.

The Annunciation, 1420-25, Robert Campin, courtesy of Museo del Prado

That wooden post, rather than the crowded cast of characters, is the centerpiece of this extraordinary painting. Why was it so important? It’s a symbol of the cross, but it’s much more than that. Renaissance painters were interested in realism because they recognized that Christianity is, ultimately, grounded in tangible reality. This Nativity was meant to teach something more than just the bare-bones Bible story.

According to Christian doctrine we humans are triune beings, made of body, soul and spirit. We’re supposed to be spirit-led, but our faith never denies the importance of our physical crust. Creation started with a physical world, and moved on to a physical man, made from the dust of the Earth. Only at the end did God breathe the spirit of life into that thing he’d made ‘in his own image.’

The two surviving wings of The Werl Altarpiece, 1438, Robert Campin, courtesy of Museo del Prado

So, ours is a physical world operating on physical laws, which is perhaps why science and industry found such fertile ground in the Christian world. But periodically the natural order of things is upset by miracles. This is not just a New Testament thing; see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.

For modern man, miracles are a tough idea to swallow. If you reject the possibility of miracles in general, then the Nativity makes no sense. But that’s a modern rationalist viewpoint, certainly not shared by most of mankind through history.

The Marriage of the Virgin, 1420s, Robert Campin, courtesy of Museo del Prado

Of course, God can do anything he wants to. It wasn’t ‘necessary’ for Jesus to enter the world through a virgin birth, or to be in human form at all. But there’s no reason he couldn’t, either, and Matthew and Luke both said it happened that way.

As important as his paternity is, the Bible narratives actually emphasize his mother. The fact that he was born of woman was the key to Christ’s humanity, and this—that he came down to earth and shared a literal, physical body—is what made his death and resurrection so important. He really was one of us.

Look at the angels at the top. They’re in a different scale, and they have wings. They’re truly otherworldly, because they’re not like us. But that ugly, mewling baby in the foreground? He’s just an ordinary helpless newborn. As he entered the world like mankind, so we have the promise we’ll leave the world like him. We will share the Resurrection. That is the true miracle of the Nativity, and the message of this remarkable painting.

Six Days of Advent: The Annunciation to Joseph

The Dream of St. Joseph by Georges de La Tour.
Most of us aren’t even aware that there was an Annunciation to Joseph. The Merode altarpiece, below, pretty much reflects our impression: we’re there (in the guise of the donors) listening as the Angel Gabriel drops his world-changing news, while Joseph whittles obliviously off to one side.

The Mérode Altarpiece, by Robert Campin and assistant, 1425-28, shows Joseph’s usual place in our thinking about the Assumption; he’s off to one side, whittling.
Had the Angel of the Lord not spoken to Joseph, there would be no Christmas story. Mary would have been (quite legitimately) abandoned by him and quietly exiled, stoned, or worse. But few artists bothered painting his side of the story.
I posted my own painting of the subject recently; I imagined it was as if a bomb had gone off in Joseph’s life. Historically, those few artists who bothered followed the Bible account more closely and painted him sleeping.
Joseph’s Dream, c.1790 by Gaetano Gandolfi could betaken as an Annunciation of the Virgin Birth. However, the angel is pointing toward the wilderness and Joseph has a staff. That probably means he’s about to become a travelin’ man, as in the Flight to Egypt.
Any idea that he was significantly older than Mary is a myth, similar to the Penitent Magdalene (and equally suspicious as to motive). But that is what the church taught, so that is what artists frequently painted. No surprise, then, that they actually preferred painting Mary, who was presumably younger and prettier and fully awake when Gabriel stopped by.
The Dream of Saint Joseph, 1642-43, by Philippe de Champaigne. I hesitate to pass judgment on paintings, but that dangling angel actually makes me wince. I’m almost certain Mary feels the same way.
The Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph bearing three different messages (in Matthew 1:20-21, Matthew 2:13, and Matthew 2:19-20). Each time, his vision was in the form of a dream; two of these dreams relate to the Flight into Egypt. Is there some confluence between the dreams of this Joseph and the dreams of his namesake, who rose to be Vizier of Egypt after being sold into slavery by his brothers?
Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin isn’t an Annunciation, but it does show Joseph acting on his dream. Raphael painted this in 1504. Perugino painted almost the exact same painting in 1503 or 1504. One of those dudes owes the other an apology.
Georges de La Tour was almost alone in projecting serious thought onto the subject of Joseph’s first vision. His Joseph has fallen asleep while reading Scripture (which ties him to the standard iconography of Mary). A childlike angel gently touches his arm.
De La Tour used candles to describe his subjects’ souls; although we can’t see the flame itself, this one is elongated and smoking, implying that the wick is overlong. That, combined with the shadow of the scissors on the table, tell us that de La Tour was painting an old man at the end of his days. (It has been proposed that this might in fact be a painting of the Infant Samuel waking the priest Eli. It works charmingly either way.)

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Nothing lasts forever

The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435), by Rogier van der Weyden. The majority of his work was probably destroyed; we can only guess at its extent.
I recently wroteabout the destruction of Egyptian antiquities during their recent political revolutions. This is by no means the only targeting of antiquities in the current Muslim insurgency. The demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001 is the most memorable example, but Hindu sites across Asia have also been targeted.
Iconoclasm—the deliberate destruction or mutilation of religious art and symbols for politico-religious motives—has a long and broad history. Sometimes this occurs to oppress a disfavored religion or ideology, and sometimes it occurs to purify a movement from within.
English Altarpiece (c. 14th century) destroyed during the Dissolution.
The Protestant Reformation, in particular, showed marked hostility to graven images—at least until it could replace the preceding genre with its own. As a fan of Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin and other Early Netherlandish Painters, I’ve often wondered about the destroyed altarpieces of northern Europe. There were certainly masterworks we will never know about; were there great painters also lost to history forever?
Bildersturm (or Beeldenstorm, if you’re Dutch) was a series of violent outbreaks against religious icons during the 16th century. In France, these took the form of unofficial attacks by Huguenots that were resisted by the Catholic majority. In Germany and England, looting was organized by the government (after forcible conversion of the population). In the Low Countries, the religious revolution was closely tied with the political revolution that was the Eighty Years War.
Relief in the Cathedral of Saint Martin, Utrecht, damaged during 16th century spasm of Reformation iconoclasm.
Protestant leaders like Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin actively suppressed religious imagery within churches under their control. Martin Luther was less dogmatic, allowing artists like Lucas Cranach to create Protestant altarpieces to replace the Catholic ones. (These Lutheran altarpieces, in turn, were subsequently threatened by a wave of Calvinism a few decades later.)
In the Lowlands, the furor touched off on August 10, 1566, when the chapel of the Sint-Laurensklooster in Steenvoorde (now in northern France) was looted. This touched off a wave of iconoclastic destruction that rapidly spread north. Within two weeks, the attacks had spread to Antwerp, Ghent and Amsterdam.
Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists 1562, by Antoine Caron.
In England, Henry VIII had already looted the rich monastic properties of their treasure, but it took the Civil War and the Commonwealth to finish the destruction of English medieval church art. Between the dissolution of the monasteries in 1535 and the restoration of Charles II in 1660, almost the entire treasury of pre-Reformation art in England was destroyed.


Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!