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Christmas In Art

Spent a really eventful Christmas Eve and Christmas in Hong Kong this year! It’s really funny to see the residential areas being so strangely quiet, and then you go out to Tsim Sha Tsui and it’s like, everyone decided to hang out here so come join the party! Beyond all the sparkling lights, decorations, sweet carols, and general merriness, it’s as good a time as any other to look at Christmas in art. I find it fascinating how there are so many paintings about the angel Gabriel going to Mary to tell her about the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ, and others showing the newborn baby Jesus. There are also a lot of other paintings depicting other Christian stories, but that would have to be for another time. :)

Painting about Christian stories was big among Western painters, especially during the Renaissance period from the 15th – 16th centuries with a strong Christian/Catholic core that was very much infused into the art of the time. So there are actually many paintings with the same names, like The Annunciation, The Nativity, The Adoration of the Magi, The Last Judgment, etc. It’s really a little difficult to pin down the paintings I want to look for since so many of them were painted around the same years, but there’s really an entire trove of related paintings out there!

As a Christian myself, I found it really interesting when I first started learning Western art history to find that there were so, so many paintings depicting biblical events. It should be noted though that many of them contain imagery and iconography closer to Catholicism, like the haloes and clasped hands. There are many variations to these depictions, and I realized a little while later that they were not necessarily trying to be “truthful”.

There’s always been debate in the realm of art history about art being truth, or art depicting the truth, but really, I think art is all about depicting a personal kind of truth to an artist, and the fun comes in deciding as a viewer whether you agree with their truth.

| Cover picture: Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1442-1443, fresco, Convento di San Marco, Florence |

I started having this idea in mind ever since my second assignment for Fine Arts which was to do a visual comparison of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation (the one below) and Rogier van der Weyden’s Annunciation – same story, same subject matter, same figures, but entirely different visual effects, feelings, mood, color palette, and of course, style. Angelico was Italian, while Weyden was Flemish so there’s naturally a difference in cultural artistic style.

Angelico - Annunciation
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1440-1442, fresco, Convento di San Marco, Florence

Angelico painted a range of Annunciations, and the two pictured in this post are already very different from each other. The later Annunciation (cover picture) is apparently located at the top of the staircase at the San Marco Convent, while the earlier Annunciation is a wall fresco located in one of the rooms that monks lived in and would meditate on, which explains the former’s more colorful background and the latter’s overall bareness and simplicity.

Both have the angel Gabriel on the left telling Mary on the right the news of Jesus’s birth. I really like the later Annunciation for the gorgeous garden colors and my favourite Corinthian capital (the decorative head of the columns; they have three styles: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian). The earlier Annunciation gets less points on the aesthetic aspect but what really stands out in this painting, compared to other Annunciations like Weyden’s, is the strong focus on the actual event, the importance and phenomenonality of it.

Weyden - Annunciation

Rogier van der Weyden, The Annunciation, c. 1440, oil on panel, center panel of triptych in Louvre Museum, Paris

Taking Weyden’s Annunciation as a comparison, I find the facial expressions and the hand gestures of Gabriel and Mary unclear and their interaction doesn’t feel as if a highly significant event is occurring. Weyden also placed it in a bourgeois interior setting familiar to the Flemish at the time, that I feel can be extended to represent the honor bestowed on Mary. Her influence, especially in Catholic circles, seems to be implied in the kind of respectable lifestyle that she ought to have had, captured in the luxurious details of her room.

Yet in my opinion, the extravagance of Weyden’s Annunciation detracts from the titular event. There’s no one way of depicting or imagining the setting and details, and it is arbitrary in the first place, but I do prefer the stronger emphasis on the God-sent occurrence in Angelico’s Annunciation.

To put it simply, I find Annunciation paintings that are clearly centered on the event preferable to those that are centered on other decorative details. Angelico’s Annunciation and Weyden’s Annunciation represent the two camps to me, so making for a very interesting comparison.

Murillo - Annunciation

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Annunciation, c. 1660-1665, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

That being said, I found other related paintings pictured in this post with a mixture of the two also very charming, like Spanish painter Murillo’s Annunciation. The diversity of Annunciations doesn’t end here though, there are also other Annunciations that one can say to be filled with histrionics, but I find those almost comical.

When looking at paintings of The Annunciation, I naturally started veering towards other paintings of The Nativity. Like with the Annunciation paintings, there isn’t only one way of looking at the subject. I like di Pietro’s and Ghirlandaio’s inclusion of animals in their Nativity paintings, hahaha! ;)

Pietro - Nativity

Sano di Pietro, The Nativity, c. 1445, panel, Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums, Italy

Ghirlandaio - Nativity
Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Nativity, c. 1492, oil and tempera on panel, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, UK

Yet even within Ghirlandaio’s oeuvre of Nativity paintings, Ghirlandaio goes from a peaceful, picturesque scene of Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus in not-a-manger to a Nativity scene with a formal, traditional gold background that gives a mural-like feel to me. The colors are so gorgeous here!

Ghirlandaio - Nativity
Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Nativity, c. 1492, tempera on wood, Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums, Italy

The last unique style in depicting a biblical story I want to share is the use of chiaroscuro, an Italian art term for the technique of shading and creating very dark areas of paint in contrast to bright areas. Caravaggio is probably the best example in his use of chiaroscuro. Here though, we’re looking at Correggio and Maratti, two other Italian painters.

Correggio - Holy Night

Correggio, Nativity (Holy Night), 1528-30, oil on canvas, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Maratti was inspired by Correggio’s painting, which explains the similarity in the use of chiaroscuro and the depiction of Mary in the way she cradles baby Jesus and looks down at him with almost the same expression. Correggio’s version is more joyful, with many other people and angels looking at baby Jesus in a happily overwhelmed way, while Maratti’s version is more intimate and really sweet overall. I like them both in different ways!

Maratti - The Holy Night
Carlo Maratti, The Holy Night (The Nativity), 1650s, oil on canvas, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

I’d only been planning to talk about the comparison between Angelico’s Annunciation and Weyden’s Annunciation all along, but these other paintings started popping up on my Instagram around Christmas and it made me curious to look up the other kinds of Annunciations and then Nativitys in art. I hope this has added color to the way you think about Christmas, and biblical art in general, the way it has for me! :D

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1 Comment

  • Reply Larry

    Good work. You bring Bible, Christmas and art together. I enjoy the reading.

    January 15, 2016 at 6:03 PM
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