I don’t see many Christmas cards these days. Between Facebook and email, religious cards with traditional nativity scenes have become less popular.
But the scenes themselves haven’t changed much. A mother and child. Sometimes with a father, sometimes not. Sometimes with animals and a stable, sometimes not. Sometimes with shepherds; sometimes with visiting Magi.
And the child is always holy.
But how does an artist paint holiness?
In some ways, it’s a silly question. I might as well ask, how does a chef cook holiness? Or a seamstress sew holiness? Or a bartender pour holiness?
Because we only have the “stuff” that’s available to us to work with. Whether that’s colours, or notes of music, or recipes.
Visualizing the invisible
It’s easy to draw a baby. It’s not as easy to show that baby as God embodied.
The Christian church has historically claimed that God – also known as Father, Almighty, Creator, all-knowing, immortal, unchanging – became a human infant. Who is none of those things. At least, not yet.
Orthodox churches tend to solve that problem by not making the baby a baby at all. Their icons typically show Jesus as a miniature adult. He may be sitting in Mary’s lap, or held in her arms. But he’s already wise, knowledgeable, making a gesture that conveys blessing. He may have one hand resting on the Holy Book.
Western artists, by contrast, are more likely to emphasize the human side of Jesus. Michelangelo sketched him suckling at Mary’s breast. Donatello carved a very human baby and mother, nose to nose.
Pushing the limits
But how far can one go in making him human? One famous painting by Gentile de Fabriano shows a baby Jesus apparently more interested in a Magi’s shiny bald head than in the presents they bring.
Some artists almost compete to see how far they portray his humanity. A Spanish artist shows Jesus delighted with a bouncing puppy. Max Ernst even portrayed Mary spanking Jesus’ bare bum for some unknown misdemeanour.
But if you make Jesus more human, how do you show him also as divine?
One obvious clue is angels. Some artists make them flying cherubs. Correggio gave them adult legs shapely enough for Baywatch. An English artist, Margaret Tarrant, surrounded her holy family with angels who are almost transparent, as if made of lace.
A second clue is a halo.
The grown-up Jesus obviously didn’t have a halo. If he had, Herod and Pilate and the high priests would have known instantly that he was divine.
A halo is a way of suggesting that light radiates from this person. That this child is indeed “the light of the world.” So an Indian artist, Frank Wesley, painted a darkened stable, with the only light spreading from the child himself. El Greco clothed the baby in white, with everyone else in darker tones, to convey the same impression.
Some artists make both Mary and Jesus glow. Some append haloes that look like a fine gold line, so faint that only a few can discern them. Some stick on haloes as solid as gold dinner plates.
Theology in paint
But the light doesn’t necessarily come from within. Angela Trinidade showed the light coming from a distant star hovering over Bethlehem.
Both versions reflect the artist’s own theology. Does the baby represent a power far off, beyond us? Or does he embody a presence among us, within us?
Even with these variations, though, nativity art remains largely predictable. Mary carries the baby in her arms, like western mothers. Not perched on her hip, like eastern mothers. Or slung on her back, like African or Inuit mothers.
The scene may be a stable, although it often looks like an Italian villa with Corinthian columns entwined with grape vines. But Mary is almost always seated, like us. Not squatting cross-legged on the ground.
In his later years, my father collected pictures of religious art from around the world. They include some art we would have difficulty identifying with. Such as a semi-naked child-Madonna in the slums of Manila. A brown Madonna and child. A black Madonna. A Mary with red hair, like Anne of Green Gables.
You’re not likely to see those on your Christmas cards.
Artists reflect their own culture and society.
And so do we. We want to recognize ourselves in their art. Which is, perhaps, the point of all those nativity paintings and Christmas cards – to let us imagine ourselves in a birth that happened 20 centuries ago, and make it our own.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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I got both praise and censure for the article two weeks ago about the massacre at L’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, December 6 1989. Let’s take the censure first.
The very first letter, from a D. Martin here in Kelowna, ranted, “I take huge offense regarding your article. I guarantee you that if the genders were reversed, not one woman would have stayed behind either. If the men in that room had tried to do something, they would have ended up dead. There is very little, if anything, a person can do against someone with a semi-automatic rifle but end up dead or horribly injured.
“Maybe they could have attempted is to try talking to the gunman, to see if they could calm him down and maybe reason with him. However, not being there you never know exactly what the situation and person were like so we will never know if that might have helped somehow.
“Why is it that men are held to a standard of saving women but, in our time of equality women are not held up to the same standard
A woman who preferred not to have her name used wrote, “I think it's unkind to blame those young men for not taking an action that we have the luxury of reconsidering in the safety of our homes.
“I wonder what the upshot would have been had the women decided to defend themselves. They were not powerless either and, at that point, had nothing to lose.”
Brian Bradshaw wrote, “I follow your columns keenly for their insight and common sense. But I’m not with you on this – a small group of men labelled as cowards by a person who wasn’t there. It reminded me of Trump’s response to a school massacre when he branded the lone guard a coward. ‘I would have rushed in regardless of the danger,’ he said. Of course, he didn’t have to prove his boast.”
And Barb Taft asked, “I wonder if you have followed up on any of those men's lives ? Perhaps they have made a difference in the lives of other women.”
Jim T’s defence: I'm quite sure that if those 50 men had tackled Lepine en masse, they would have overwhelmed him. Even a semi-automatic weapon can’t take out 50 people at once, at short range. Some would certainly have been injured; some would have been killed. But most of them would have survived and would have prevented other deaths.
Over my life, I’ve been in several life-threatening situations. One thing I’ve learned from them is that if no one takes the risk of being first, nothing happens. If someone does take that risk, others will follow.
Bob Rollwagen concurred: “I believe you are correct that if just one had rushed the gunman, everyone in the room would have converged on him. But now the male society tries to cover its role by focusing on the dead.”
Several writers mused on what they might have done, in that situation.
Tom Watson, for example: “I, like you, cannot be certain what I would have done in that moment 30 years ago. I hope I would have crossed the floor to stand with the women, but would I really? It's the kind of question that's difficult to answer in a vacuum. Sharpen it a little finer: If one of the women being lined up against the other wall were my sister, would that have made a difference to how I would have acted? In our lives, there come moments that test our mettle. Few carry as dire a consequence as that day in L´Ecole Polytechnique but in other moments -- where we are compelled to choose whether we stand on the side of truth and justice and ethical action, or on the side that benefits our status or financial well-being or political future…”
John Shaffer experienced that situation, in a virtual sense: “My thoughts went to a role play experience I had in the 1960s with a youth group (there was no real danger in the experience, but it became almost real) when one group played the role of absolute dictator and the other group played the role of pacifist victim. Instead of letting the dictator group pick us off one by one, we did a group hug that could not be broken. It became so intense that the role playing was stopped by a neutral observer. It has been awhile since I thought of that experience.
“One never knows what one would do in a real experience. I have yet to challenge the ‘powers that be’ with a group hug in real life. But we have situations that call for it at the local detention center and in Hong Kong, for starters.
“Sadly, a group hug does not work in real life, but one could live (or die) with oneself afterwards. We will never know if the shooter would have stopped if the men had formed a protective shield around the women. But you would be writing about some heroes on that day.”
Isabel Gibson called that column, “An excellent piece. Despite our biology, ‘all men’ haven't always protected ‘all women’ – otherwise, why would any men have survived the Titanic sinking?
“In the Lepine case, I wonder what the reactions would have been if he had tried to separate a group of adults and children (related or not). Doing the right thing at personal risk is hard. Doing it without any particular forethought, and without any warning, harder still.”
JT aside: In a discussion group locally, a former Mennonite declared his loyalty to non-violence, even if his own life were threatened.
“What would you do if it were Bev’s life in danger?” I asked.
“I’d kill him,” my pacifist friend replied unhesitatingly.
Rob Brown found a contemporary parallel: “At the same time as you write about the men at L'Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal about 30 years ago, we get a story about some men who risked their lives on London Bridge in England. A handful disarmed and subdued a terrorist until police arrived. Real heroes, those chaps. They certainly helped you make your point.”
June Tink thought of the same incident: “Your recounting of the L’Ecole Polytechnique massacre gave me shivers up my spine. I’m a woman, but I too wonder if I would have had the courage to step in to help in such a situation, or if I would have fled. This makes the intervention of ordinary Londoners, who rushed in to stop the recent attempted massacre on London Bridge, even more heroic. As the Lord Mayor of London said, 'They are the best of us’. May we all have the courage to follow their example.”
I’m not sure I deserve this one from Karen Toole: “Bravo, Jim. You as a man are a hero for writing this. I well remember the times when no man would spell it out as you have, and frankly many women preferred silence over the ugly truth of hatred toward women. December 6th was a watershed in my own ministry, a kind of death of my own. After the murders we were asked to place a plaque in honour of one of the women in our church sanctuary. We did it, but that church’s board asked me not to name it as a message, through that woman's life, to end the abuse and name the reality of misogyny in all its horror. Thanks for being a hero in your words. You have crossed many lines to take a stand with the silenced and abused.”
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