My December has started in a very busy atmosphere of visiting Manchester. I didn’t make it to any of Christmas markets but I once again tested my ability to organise travel. I believe I am very good at it, although in future I would greatly prefer for it to be organised for me. I was lucky, nonetheless, to have come back on December 1, as very soon the storm Xavier came down on Europe, and many flights had been cancelled, trains delayed, and roofs torn off in Manchester. I didn’t experience any of it, so I have been quite fortunate.
I shall hope to make up for my absence (cats being ill, me teaching-editing-translating almost at the same time) with a regular Christmas time feature, this year focusing on the visitation from the Magi to bring the newly born Jesus the gifts. There were some posts from previous years dedicated to the same subject:
And this year’s first painting is The Wise Men Enter Jerusalem by William Hole. Like many Europeans and particularly Englishmen of his time (e.g. William Holman Hunt), William Hole visited Palestine (around 1900) to study the background for a cycle of his religious paintings illustrating the life of Christ. He subsequently also painted several works on the subjects from the Old Testament.
In this painting we see the wise men enter Jerusalem on camels – a nod to a tradition, earlier depicted by James Tissot.
One of the highlights of the 33rd Antique Salon in Moscow in October 2012 was a showcase of German medieval and Renaissance paintings, generously offered by Russian private collectors one time only. The significance of this cannot be underestimated: when Russian collectors of the 18th c. began to acquire Western paintings, these were mostly by the renowned French and Italian masters. German painters, including the Cranachs, the Breugels, Duerer and Aldorfer, were practically neglected. As a result, at the Hermitage you can admire Leonardo’s Madonna Litta and Madonna Benoit, but it’s no small feat to find a German master.
Contemporary private collectors in Russia fill in the gap, albeit unless they bequest their paintings to one of the Russian museums, it is unlikely that people will ever see these beautiful artworks. We would agree, however, that this Nativity scene is a splendid example of German Late Medieval painting.
Workshop of Hans II Strigel, Nativity (1450-147980)
(Matth. 2: 1-12, Luc. 2: 1-7. Wood, oils)
The curators noted that this Schwabian painting follows the traditional depictions of Nativity that had been current throughout the 15th c. A 1504 scene of Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Duerer puts Madonna in the bottom left corner, with the stables behind. Not only do the stables have the same triangular roof, but the cattle also make a part of the scene. The Schwabian painting dates back to the second half of the 15th c. and belongs to the workshop of Hans II Strigel from Moemmingen, Upper Schwabia. It is loosely inspired by the Revelations of St. Brigitta whereby the Nativity scene consists not merely of Madonna, Joseph and the Child at the stables, but also by three angels and two shepherds. The painting belongs to the collection of M. Kocherov.
The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
I came across the lovely creations by Tampa Textiles group. Each tapestry, or a wall hanging, has the size of 36″ by 26″, and is usually made of fiber-optic material. You can view all Christmas galleries at TT’s website. And if you prefer something Santa-Claus-ey or snowy, there is something for you, too.
Titian, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1533, Galleria Palatina, Florence, Italy
A rather sombre interpretation of the subject of Adoration by Titian directs the viewer to the bottom right corner of the painting where the cloth and the baby Jesus emit light on the hands and face of Mary. Joseph is making a silencing gesture to the visitors, indicating that the newborn is asleep.
And we’re starting with the carved scene of the Adoration of the Magi (top). It can be found in Rome, in Vatican, so those of you who are Italian or regularly visit Italy can find this carving on a 3rd century sarcophagus. In Vatican, as well, there will be two 4th c. sarcophagi with the same theme, so we can actually see how the depiction evolved in just a hundred years. If anything, it became more elaborate, compared to the earlier carving where figures are crowded around enthroned Our Lady. The carvings from the 4th c. sarcophagus from St Agnes cemetery at the Museo Pio Christiano in Vatican demonstrate original imagination and impressive skill of the carvers: the scene now includes camels on which the Magi rode, following the Star of Bethlehem. One of the depictions (below) also contains the scene of the Massacre of the Innocents.
Adoration of the Magi, 4th c. A.D., Vatican, Rome
Another curious point is the headgear of the wise men: the commissioners and carvers of the 3rd c. and one of the 4th c. sarcophagi were clearly of the opinion that the Magi came from Persia, thus adorning their heads with a Phrygian cap. However, on another 4th c. sarcophagus the headgear is more ambiguous, and looks similar to the later depiction of the Magi wearing Arabic head scarves. Where all depictions seem to agree is the way the gifts followed one another: the first is myrrh oil, followed by frankinsence, followed by gold.
Adoration of the Magi, 4th c. A.D., Museo Pio Christiano, Vatican, Rome, St Agnes cemetery
It is the first Sunday of Advent today, which means that Christmas is just around the corner, and that Los Cuadernos is opening its annual season of daily December posting. I spontaneously decided four years ago that I would be posting every day in December, if only to provide those who run around with Xmas errands with something lovely to read and to look at. For a couple of years it’s been merely daily posting, however, in 2009 I’ve opened a Christmas in Arts label, and I was delighted to see that throughout the year the posts I wrote in December 2009 have been attracting a lot of interest. Which certainly means that I’ve started something unique and worthwhile.
Well, well, my dear friends, the season is back, and we will be celebrating upcoming festivities in paintings, poetry, some prose, opera, and even film. Along the way there will be a presentation of something I’ve been working on recently, so gather round and see.
This year, as well, the topic will embrace both Western and Eastern winter holidays traditions, if only because I want to tell you about a couple of Russian films that I won’t be able to do unless I include Orthodox Christmas in the picture.
Also, over the years Los Cuadernos de Julia has established a very good relationship with Santa Claus, so you can send us your Santa pictures and letters, and they will come up on this blog.
Still in 1890, Burne-Jones had received an opportunity to revisit his design as a full-scale painting, The Star of Bethlehem, which has been presented to, and housed at, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. A photograph from Victoria and Albert Museum archives shows the artist walking up and down the ladder with his easel, while working on the watercolour painting. The watercolour differs from the tapestry design primarily in the choice of colours. The subdued reds and gold of the tapestry become the rich blues and green of the painting.
Exeter College Chapel
The Star of Bethlehem
in BMAG’s hall
When I visited Birmingham in December 2008, I had the chance to take a photo of the painting, as it hangs in one of two Burne-Jones’s halls at the Art Gallery (full-size photo). You can compare it with the original tapestry that can be viewed online, in a virtual tour of the Exeter College Chapel. The image on the right is a screengrab taken during the tour.
I am finishing 2009 on a high note with a trip to Sheffield on 29th December. It was a good trip and an interesting experience, which I will be talking about… in 2010!
Arthur de Mowbray, Nativity
Christian Fell, Nativity
In the meantime, a visit to Sheffield Cathedral has brought us two examples of Christmas-themed sculpture. I could not establish the author of the wooden carved group, although what I did manage to find suggests Arthur de Mowbray as the sculptor. It is a boldly carved Nativity scene, with careful work carried out on the minute details.
The second example is a now complete Nativity group by Brian Fell. It was produced in parts for Sheffield Galvanize Festival, and this year Mary that was created in 2008 was joined by Joseph and Jesus, and all three can now be found at the west end of the church (this part of the cathedral was built in 1966). Fell follows the same approach to depicting the baby Jesus as we have seen in the marble group at Manchester Cathedral: the newly born is wrapped up in sheets. In this sense, the wooden Nativity group that stands close to St Katharine Chapel is traditional in that it appears to follow the canonic depiction of Jesus in the nude. Fell’s group, with Joseph holding the baby, produces a similar effect of intimacy and parental amazement, as does the work by Josefin de Vasconcellos in Manchester.
St Joseph with Jesus,
R.C. Church of St Marie, Sheffield
A slightly different example, still in Sheffield, is this painted sculpture of Joseph and baby Jesus in the wall of the Roman Catholic Cathedral Church of St Marie. It is simply beautiful and deserves to be included in the post. Together with Fell’s Nativity and de Vasconcellos’s Holy Night, this is a fairly rare example of Joseph with baby Jesus depicted in art, especially in sculpture. Joseph is seen here with his flowering staff. In short, Sheffield has brought us several Nativity scenes that focus on fatherhood of Joseph rather than motherhood of Mary.
Nativity, Sheffield Town Hall
Inside Sheffield Town Hall there was an elaborate Nativity display, one of the loveliest ones I have seen in the last few years. And below is a Nativity scene from Llandudno photographed outside Marks&Spencer in December 2007.
All of us who love soul will know Gladys Knight. Midnight Train to Georgia, I Heard It Through the Grapevine… And a wonderful version of a traditional Christmas song, Do You Hear What I Hear? I don’t know about you, but for me Knight’s has long been the best version of this song, soulful, strong, magical, and the most hopeful. And the video below contains not just this beautiful song, but also Gladys Knight’s recital of a poem ‘Twas Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863).