Art News Roundup: Christmas Carols Edition

For those of you in the DC area, this evening at 7:30 pm is the annual Christmas Concert at St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom, located on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 25th Street NW. Our musicians are quite exceptional, as anyone who has visited the parish inevitably comments, thanks both to great talent and the great acoustics of the building itself. The program will include seasonal sacred music composed across many centuries, and will conclude with an audience sing-a-long. A reception will follow in the parish rectory. For more details, please follow this link; hope to see many of you there!

In The Bleak Barcelona

I’ll be heading to Barcelona on vacation in two weeks, and I’m sad to say that the Twelve Days of Christmas there are going to be somewhat dim, thanks to the city’s very dim mayor, failed actress Ada Colau. Not only has Ms. Colau placed an ugly, disrespectful “Nativity” scene by a contemporary artist in front of city hall – which as it turns out cost twice as much as what citizens were originally told it would run – but she now has the unique distinction of having united most of the political parties in the highly fractious region, from left to right, in condemnation of the parsimonious lighting and decorations which the city has installed for the season. Christians are accusing Ms. Colau of deliberately downplaying Christmas, thanks to her hatred of Christianity; secularists are decrying the “gloomy” atmosphere of the city, which will have a chilling effect on the spending of holiday tourists, reduce wages for both union and non-union workers, and thereby cut into anticipated tax revenues. [Ben fet, idiota.]


Jingle All The Way (To The Bank)

You’ll recall that over the summer, I reported on an art dealer who bought an abandoned storage locker in New Jersey full of what at first glance appeared to be minor works of art, but upon closer inspection contained half a dozen late works by Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). Art Net is now reporting that his $15,000 investment has paid off rather handsomely, to the tune of $2.5 million. Meanwhile, an employee at a local auction house in Derby, England, realized that a ceramic pot he had purchased for around $5 several years ago, and was using as a toothbrush holder in his bathroom, was in fact a Bronze Age artifact dating back about 4,000 years; he recently sold it at auction for about $100. The moral of the story here, kids, is: learn your art history.


Five Golden Rings < One Copper Ring

While we associate the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (died circa 36-39 A.D.) with the events of Holy Week rather than Christmas, a remarkable find in Israel is nevertheless worth mentioning as we consider the age into which Jesus was born. Back in 1968, archaeologists excavating at the Herodium, a vast palace-tomb complex originally built by King Herod the Great just south of Bethlehem, recovered a number of items for analysis, including a copper ring whose inscription was too faded to be clearly read with the naked eye. Now however, thanks to modern imaging technology, the ring has revealed its original inscription bearing Pilate’s name. Scholars believe that it was probably a seal ring used by Pilate’s underlings to sign documents on his behalf, much as one might use a rubber stamp bearing a signature in a government office.



No Room at the Bank

This morning while making my way into the office I had a lot on my mind: meetings and deadlines for this last week of work before going on Christmas vacation, things that need to be completed at home before my departure, and some last events and appointments I need to attend to as well.  At this time of year many of us are completely overwhelmed with all sorts of matters that require our attention, wondering where we are going to find the time and resources to address all of them.  One of the things which helps us – or me, at least – to keep things in perspective is the fact that there are decorations all around, to remind us that this is meant to be a joyous time of year, whatever else it brings.

As you make your way through the area of Lawyer Gulch, otherwise known as the K Street Corridor of downtown Washington, there are many of these reminders on display.  The exteriors and lobby areas of the offices, hotels, shops, and other businesses are festooned with Christmas trees, wreaths, lights, and so on, that are a joy to the eyes.  Even as you think about how you are going to squeeze in so many things which need to happen in a very limited time, you have a mental reminder that there is something to look forward to beyond simply having a few days off.

And then I passed by a brand-new office building containing a branch of a major American bank.  Like many “green” buildings, the lobby of the building was white, cold, and sterile, a soulless place looking something like a Stanley Kubrick film set.  While the lobby of the adjoining building was festooned with garlands, paper snowflakes, and the like, this building not only looked as though it was the reception area for the lair of a Bond villain, it had no indication whatsoever that it is Christmastime.

Similarly, the bank which occupies part of this building had no decorations whatsoever.   I actually stopped to look closely for several minutes, since in keeping with the space-age theme the space is open-concept, and allows you to see through from one end to the other.  There was not one sign of anything joyous or festive, not even a potted poinsettia or a Christmas card on a desk.

No doubt those who own and run these businesses have their reasons for behaving in this fashion, and perhaps there are those among my readers who will say that this is more appropriate than decorating with artificial snowmen and mistletoe.  To me, however, what this lack of adornment signifies is cowardice.  For the vast majority of Americans do celebrate Christmas, whether they do so because they are Christians, or because they simply enjoy the traditions as a part of our cultural heritage.  The absence of such decorations smacks not of tolerance, but rather of a vociferous minority which becomes offended if you so much as whistle “Joy to the World” on a city bus.

Truth be told we do not need, strictly speaking, the presence of Christmas trees in order to celebrate Christmas, any more than we need a turkey to give thanks at Thanksgiving or fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July.  They are traditions, and insofar as they are secondary to the primary message while still supporting it, they are good things.  However when their absence is intentional, it makes us question not only that intent, but also whether we have been so focused on our own materialism that we have forgotten to stand up for our faith.

Before you get completely worn down then, gentle reader, with bills, social obligations, and physical exhaustion, I would ask those of you who are Christians to appreciate such decorations as you come across them, and to thank those who have put them on display.  They are a visual reminder for us that all of this “stuff” which we argue about – fiscal cliff diving, the latest epistolae pomum, who will be America’s next top tart – is simply that: stuff.  It ultimately means nothing.

What *does* mean something is the Incarnation: God humbling Himself to come in the form of one of us, to be born in a place where there was no room for Him.  It is rather ironic then, to see that there is still no room for Him in certain places, including places where once He was previously welcomed, or at least acknowledged.  All the more important then, to take the time to thank those who are still celebrating His coming.

NativityDetail of “The Adoration of the Christ Child” by Gerrit van Honthorst (c. 1620-1622)
The Uffizi, Florence