Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Christmas picture

For Christmas, I want to talk about a painting I saw this week at the National Gallery in DC, a nativity by Petrus Christus:

http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pimage?50+0+0

http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pdimage?50+0

Petrus Christus was a Flemish painter in Bruges in the middle 15th century, considered a follower of Van Eyck. The National Gallery painting is dated around 1450.

Joseph and Mary stand in a stable, accompanied by a bunch of angels, looking down at the infant. The back of the stable opens into a deep perspective landscape with a city in the distance. The figures in the stable are strange. The angels are modeled like adults, but are less than half the scale of the parents (http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pimage?50+0+17). The mismatching of the angels with the other figures makes clear the simultaneous presence of the natural and the supernatural in the event. The angels look human, but are not, unlike Christ who is both. The child lies on the ground, on the hem of Mary’s robe, but sort of haphazardly, like he was just dropped there. He’s oddly scrawny (http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pimage?50+0+18), not a beautiful child, very vulnerable, and that weakness has got to be the point. God taking on human form with its most fragile aspects.

The scene in the stable is framed by a cathedral archway, filled with scenes of humanity’s Fall from the Old Testament done in grisaille, like stone: Adam and Eve covering themselves in shame http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pimage?50+0+11, http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pimage?50+0+13), being cast from the garden, working by the sweat of their brow, their child Cain killing his brother, and I think the last vignette is Jacob deceiving Abraham to gain his blessing. Adam and Eve stand on top of marble columns which in turn are held up by two squatting, straining human figures. The notes on the website describe them as symbols of humanity struggling with original sin, and they reminded me of Buddhist images where gods stand on top of a figure or a corpse, crushing ignorance, substance, ego, or the bonds of Samsara.

The composition’s structure provides a perfect summary of Christian doctrine. The old world, and the world of an individual locked in sin, is utterly changed over by the incarnate God. One passes from a realm without color into a glowing, rich landscape. Cold stone turns to warm flesh. Trying to explain the effect of God’s grace is like talking about dimensions in space past the third. One reverts to metaphors. The difference between third and fourth is moving from a flat drawing into the three dimensions of sculpture.

The multiple scenes of human sin show the same pattern repeating, all of it leading to the Incarnation, to the need for the Incarnation. The Bible is like that, telling the same story over and over, sin and redemption, a series of covenants all pointing towards the Cross.

The painting is packed with symbols. The beams of the stable form a triangle and a triangle inside it, which frames a broken beam with plants sprouting from it, premonitions of the Cross. In the corners of the picture are two small figures of warriors. One thrusts a lance, the other has a sword at ready behind a shield with an ornate lion’s head sculpted into it (http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pimage?50+0+2, http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pimage?50+0+9). I suppose these symbolize the fight against sin, but I couldn’t get the image of Reepicheep, the valiant mouse in the Narnia Chronicles, out of my head. Which of course gets back to the same idea. The same story over and over.

One can talk about art that is spiritual, but a painting like this goes further. It is religious and even theological. It is not clear how much art today succeeds in that integration of theological thinking and aesthetic invention. It’s also not clear how much aspires to it. It may be that our connections to theology are much dimmer now, so that to find aesthetic and theological fluency running together would be remarkable. Maybe artists of the Renaissance nailed it, and these paintings left to us are sufficient.

Merry Christmas.

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