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.]

santjaume

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.

ceramic

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.

anillo

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“Wonderful” Honthorst: A Newly Restored Nativity With A Very Special Beastie

Just in time for Christmas, one of the most beautiful and charming paintings of the Nativity in the history of Western art has been conserved and restored for future generations.

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1622) by the Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), now in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, Germany, is probably well-known to you from Christmas cards, ornaments, and the like. The subject was one which the artist painted several times during his career, but this is certainly his finest composition. Thanks to a grant from the local government in North Rhine-Westphalia, the picture has been restored, and is now the centerpiece of an exhibition titled “Wonderful – Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds”, detailing the history and extensive research that went into the preservation of this masterpiece, as well as comparing it to other depictions of this Biblical scene.

In its review, Art Daily duly notes the loving and joyful expressions of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the shepherds, the wonderful depiction of light radiating from the Infant Jesus amidst the nocturnal gloom, and the presence of a very faithful beastie. “The scene is also witnessed by an ox,” AD points out, “lovingly warming the child with his breath in the cold night air. It does not seem too far-fetched to suggest an allusion to St Luke’s Gospel, as well as to the emblem of the painter’s guild that Honthorst had recently entered. With this image Honthorst proudly demonstrates that his lively art has the capacity to enable the beholder to become a witness of the Holy scene.”

Two bits of explanation are needed here, for those unfamiliar with Christian iconography. The authors of the four canonical Gospels – Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – have long been associated with four different animals mentioned in visions experienced by both the Prophet Ezekiel and by St. John the Evangelist in the Bible. Think of them as heraldic symbols, much in the same way the bald eagle represents the United States, or the Lion and the Unicorn represent the British Crown. In St. Luke’s case, he is represented by the sacrificial ox, since his Gospel begins with the story of St. Zechariah, father of St. John the Baptist, offering sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem, and St. Luke emphasizes the sacrifical nature of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in expiation for the sins of mankind.

In addition, St. Luke is also the patron saint of artists. This patronage stems from an ancient, pious belief that St. Luke was not only a physician – according to his friend St. Paul the Apostle – and writer of both his Gospel as well as the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, but a painter as well. He was made the patron saint of artists’ guilds all over Medieval Europe, some of which still exist today, and in order to succeed and get the best commissions, artists needed to become members of these early forms of trade unions. Oftentimes an applicant to one of these guilds, such as Honthorst, had to create an original work for submission and evaluation by a guild committee, similar to the way in which today, an apprentice might demonstrate a particular skill set or final product in order to receive a certification or license.

The connection with St. Luke in this painting is most obvious in the fact that both the familiar story of the shepherds and the Nativity’s nocturnal setting both come from St. Luke’s Gospel. In St. Luke 2:8-14, the Evangelist describes how there were shepherds near Bethlehem “keeping the night watch over their flock,” who were startled by the sudden appearance of angels, announcing the birth of the Messiah. The shepherds then decided to go see for themselves, as St. Luke recounts:

When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.

When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.

All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

St. Luke 2:15-20

There is no mention in the Bible of any animals being present at the Nativity, but because of St. Luke’s description of the Christ Child being laid in a manger, artists have traditionally included animals in pictorial representations of the scene. A donkey is the animal most commonly shown in these images, but an ox, sheep, and camels are often present as well. Some artists keep things simple, showing no animals at all. Others add all sorts of creatures to their depictions, whether for symbolic or picturesque purposes, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find Christmas images that contain depictions of birds, monkeys, rabbits, and all sorts of other beasties.

Interestingly, Honthorst has chosen to eschew not only the donkey but also the sheep in his painting, and in fact he makes the ox a key figure rather than just part of the background. What is particularly charming here, in addition to the fact that, as Art Daily pointed out in their review quoted above, the ox is warming the Christ Child with its breath, which is just visible curling out from around its nostrils against the rich ochre yellow of St. Joseph’s mantle, is that St. Joseph himself is resting his clasped hands on the animal’s head, as he leans smilingly over the manger. Note as well that the ox is the only one in this painting who looks out at the viewer. None of the humans even notice that we are present at the scene. The ox however, is inviting us in to the picture with a glance, and, in the manner of tame animals like cats and dogs, seems to be asking us, “Did I do good?”

“Wonderful – Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds” is open now at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, and runs through, appropriately enough, February 4, 2018, the weekend of Candlemas (the traditional end of the Christmas season.)

Nadal

The Politics Of The Manger

On Friday, the Vatican unveiled this year’s version of the Nativity Scene in St. Peter’s Square which, in addition to portraying the Birth of Christ, pays tribute to migrant refugees and to the recent Italian earthquakes. In a speech at the blessing of the scene, Pope Francis called attention to the sufferings of the migrants, and compared their situation to that of Christ at His birth in Bethlehem. Somewhat incongruously – to my mind, anyway – a donation box at the scene allows visitors to help pay for repairs to churches damaged during the earthquake, rather than aid the migrants.

Meanwhile in Barcelona, over the past several years the unveiling of the city Nativity Scene has become something of an act of political theatre. The display is set up on the square fronted by city hall and the provincial government and, depending on the political persuasions of the mayor, the visitor sees either a traditional representation of the Nativity, or an irreverent art installation with political undertones. The latter is the case this year, thanks to the city’s viciously anti-Catholic mayor, failed sitcom actress Ana Colau. I will have the great displeasure of seeing this monstrosity in person next week; stay tuned to my Instagram account for details.

Given the appalling state of Christianity in Europe at the present time, perhaps at the unveiling of its Nativity scene it would have been more prudent of the Vatican to focus on evangelization, rather than remonstration. In an increasingly pagan Europe, where many nominal Christians do not even bother to get their children baptized any more, it would seem that the Church’s problem is not one of raising awareness regarding the plight of others, but rather a lack of self-awareness regarding its own plight. In the case of Barcelona, and other cities whose governments use Christmas as an excuse to make a political statement, Christianity has become an easy target for the airing of all sorts of views. In fact, Christmas is now the perfect time of year in which to strike a blow against the reason for the holiday itself, by openly mocking Christ through taxpayer-funded art installations.

It seems to me that a Nativity scene, should one decide to display one at all, ought to be about celebrating the Incarnation, rather than drawing attention to causes. On a daily basis, in every form of media, we are inundated with messages about every cause under the sun: not just migrants and refugees, but the environment, disease, poverty, natural disasters, and every conceivable permutation of social justice issue. All of these problems and concerns deserve our concern, discussion, and, where warranted, support.

Yet, does not God deserve just a little bit of our undivided attention? Is a simple Nativity scene too tempting an opportunity to resist turning it into a visual press release? The Birth of Christ came about, not as a reaction to Roman political unrest or Jewish theological disputes or the like, but as the way in which God chose to save us from our sins. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we be permitted to remember that, at Christmastime, in an unadulterated fashion.