The Light has come: Christmas and Epiphany through Art

Fleur Dorrell looks at three different images of Mary, the Magi and the Star.

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The Newborn, 1648, Georges de La Tour (1593 – 1652), Oil on canvas. 29.9 x 35.8 inch.
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Light has come: Christmas and Epiphany through Art.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

Georges de La Tour was a French Baroque artist who spent most of his professional life in the Duchy of Lorraine. He became a master painter whose works were collected by several French kings. In the 1630s La Tour began to develop his nocturnes or evening mood pictures. He would portray a few biblical figures, or sometimes just one person, magically caught in the light and shadow of a flickering candle flame. These religious chiaroscuro scenes are stylistically similar to Caravaggio in both his treatment of subject and colour. La Tour died in 1652, probably of the plague but his legacy is one of enduring beauty.

Scholars disagree on the meaning of this painting’s title ‘The Newborn’ or ‘Newborn Child’ – painted in 1648. Is it a Nativity scene or a domestic scene? What we see first is a young mother gazing intently at her swaddled infant, illuminated by a candle held by an older woman. De La Tour personally suffered from a history of family infant mortality – he had 10 children and only three survived into adulthood. Perhaps it is a window onto guarded grief that we sense in this group.

There is undoubtedly an introspective mood, and there are enough signs to suggest that it is The Nativity. The artists brushstrokes depict the sheer fragility of a newborn baby whose life still hangs in the balance, yet open up the eyes of faith in the light of the Christ. Mary’s own life, given to God in one act becomes a shrine, a new Ark of a new Covenant, conveyed in her triangular form enclosing her son. Her story is one of vulnerability and self-sacrifice. She not only holds her baby boy and learns the art of motherhood, but holds God made man in her loving embrace. Here heaven and earth meet in a sacred encounter. Instead of her traditional blue, La Tour robes her in red. Red for bloodshed. Jesus is born to die, and she will witness that death.

La Tour captures a moment in time before the heartbreak. An inner realisation and reflection of the scale of this pure gift.  The canvas emphasises this act of contemplation echoing Luke 2:19 ‘But Mary treasured all these things in her heart…’ .. Yet who is the matronly figure with Mary? Is it St Anne her own mother? Although St Anne isn’t mentioned in any of the Gospels, her name as Joachim’s wife appears in the apocryphal writings from the 2nd century onwards. It was Pope Sixtus IV who introduced the devotion to St Anne in 1481. In art she is often depicted as Mary’s teacher as well as her mother. Here we delight in the maternal genealogy of Jesus joining grandmother and mother in their homage to the mystery of this new life.

The painting appears to be deceptively simple in composition. Only on close inspection do we see its complexity. The intense red of Mary’s dress is achieved by tiny dots of colour of varying hue, and similarly, St Anne’s lilac garment is almost pixilated in effect. Just as the ambience is concentrated on a moment of adoration and silence, so also the colours focus on a limited but concentrated palette so that the details, where we encounter them, are more powerful in their revelation. Mary’s collar is elaborately decorated, her fingers beautifully defined as she carefully holds her baby, and both her and St Anne’s profiles are painted with an exceptional delicacy of line. St Anne’s hat is textured and her chin given weight through age.

Turning to the candlelight half-covered by St Anne’s hands, its light becomes a blessing and protection towards her grandson revealing the Christ Child’s own light. There is a double revelation here of the divine light and of the Virgin Birth. Transcendence and immanence enfolded in one small bundle. Mary’s hands are so careful in their holding of Jesus, her fingers lightly embracing his weight and purpose. They reflect reverence before the incarnation, the revelation of the holy in the ordinary.

A deep calm becomes evident the more we look at this painting in the figures so focused and still. The overall impression is of a more modern style of art since no other Nativity at this time employs or arouses such exquisite gentleness of form or grace. Wonder and silence are all we can offer in return. We are invited to simply gaze – we daren’t make a sound or move a muscle. Faith is wrapped up as perfect gift and tender truth.

In Advent, this image helps us to draw close to Jesus, but not just at his birth. With his tight swaddling he prefigures the shroud at death. Bound like a mummy and with eyes closed, he is prepared for what is to come. Without any other symbols in this darkened room, the newborn child becomes timeless. Jesus is born today in eternal love. 

Clementine Hunter (American, 1886/87–1988),
The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men, 1957. Oil on board, 48 x 78 inch. Photo courtesy of Neal Auction Company.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
(Isaiah 60:1)

Our next artist couldn’t be more different from de la Tour and challenges our Christmas reflections afresh. Clementine Hunter was born out of a family of slaves at the Hidden Hill plantation, Melrose, from the Cane River region of Louisiana. Hidden Hill was the inspiration for the harsh and brutal conditions described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Originally built by free people of colour during the early 19th century, Melrose was purchased in 1884 by Joseph Henry. Mr Henry’s daughter-in-law Cammie Henry transformed the plantation into a creative haven for artists and writers. It was in this environment that Hunter developed her distinctive painting style and became a celebrated self-taught folk artist.

She began working at Melrose as a farm labourer at the age of 15 and continued to do so for most of her life, even into old age. Hunter could neither read nor write and didn’t begin painting until she was in her fifties. She would paint at night after all her chores had been done, and on whatever surfaces she could find – window blinds, jugs, bottles, gourds, snuff boxes and iron pots, using discarded oils from travelling artists. Hunter painted what she saw around her and what she felt to be important. So she depicted 20th century life on the plantation in all its seasons. Hunter’s output covered everything from manual labour: picking cotton, pecan nuts, chopping woods and laundry, to religious scenes from the Bible, family life and children playing. She painted the ordinary and familiar with as much power and attention as the spiritual and transcendent.

During her early artistic career, Hunter would sell her paintings at the local drugstore for a dollar or less, but by the time of her death, despite living mostly in poverty, her paintings were selling to dealers for thousands. She received significant recognition during her lifetime, including from several US presidents. Today Hunter’s work can be found in the collections of many institutions including the Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. She was granted an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by the Northwestern State University of Louisiana in 1986. Hunter is the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the present-day New Orleans Museum of Arts.

She painted chiefly from memory and from a lifetime of observing the daily routines and events of her plantation. Everything was imbued with the same colours and depth, whether depicting the feeding of the birds or Christ’s crucifixion. There was no regard for perspective or scale, since her originality lay in conveying emotion and incident rather than technique or detail. The power of the palette for Hunter was in the distribution of paint, and with colours she could never reproduce more than once. The aim was not to represent a standard pictorial trope but to capture the passing of the day and the signs and symbols of her Catholic faith.

In this narrative painting from the Annunciation to Christmas and Epiphany-tide, the pregnant Mary is led by the archangel Gabriel in brilliant white. The angel continues to guide Mary down a grassy footpath into a farmhouse ready for her to give birth. Then Joseph takes over as Mary’s guardian and Mary sits on a stool with the newborn Jesus in her lap. A little lamb lies at her side bleating as Mary looks ahead. Christ is born on Melrose Plantation in the southern US, surrounded by sheep and chickens, horses and palm trees.

Three men in wide-brimmed hats bearing gourds as gifts come towards Mary. Just above this visual journey and dead centre in the upper frame, Hunter paints a massive yellow star. Following this light makes for an easier pilgrimage no matter the distance. Two white-robed angels, supported by a celestial choir of others, trumpet the good news of the Saviour’s birth from East to West. This wonderful scene is so alive. We can hear the horses neighing and munching in the trough, the chickens flapping and clucking along the path. We hear the angels making music in the sky while Gabriel and Mary fulfil God’s plan. Joseph is keeping watch while the Wise Men draw near. In the baking heat humanity and divinity come together with joy.  This is not a nocturnal nativity despite the star – it is a Caribbean Christmas where the palm trees bow towards the truth.

Hunter was able to see the sacred in the everyday – God’s grand story unfolding in her immediate environment. From the slavery and poverty of a plantation, Hunter painted the Christ-child who is born in all our hearts, wherever we live and die.

“I paint the story of my people. The things that happened to me and the ones I know. My paintings tell how we worked, played and prayed. God puts those pictures in my head and I puts them on canvas, like he wants me to… ” Clementine Hunter.

Who were the wise men and what kind of star did they follow?

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
(Matthew 2:1-12)

Thanks to Matthew’s Gospel, we know that a star at Bethlehem had guided the wise men from the East to find Mary and Joseph and their son Jesus Christ. Today, we continue to decorate our Nativity scenes, Christmas cards and trees with a bright star. We sing carols such as We Three Kings that refer to a ‘Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright; westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.’ However, Matthew doesn’t tell us what type of star it was or what it actually looked like. All we know is that it was special and that it appeared to travel a great distance.

Some astronomers say that the star could have been a comet because it moved and there is evidence of a comet appearing in 5 BC (in ancient Chinese records). Others speculate it was a planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which happened three times in 7 BC, first calculated by the astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1603. While other experts maintain the star was actually a supernova (the explosion of a star), also mentioned in Chinese records as occurring in March to April of 5 BC. Or perhaps these wise men may have been alerted by a particular arrangement of stars or the appearance of a planet in the constellation Leo (the constellation of royalty). This could have meant that some important event was happening, and Jupiter and Venus both appeared in Leo several times in 2 and 3 BC.

Yet these theories, interesting as they all are, fail to explain how ‘the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was’ in Matthew 2:9. The position of a fixed star in the heavens varies at most one degree each day. No fixed star could have moved before the wise men that quickly as to lead them to Bethlehem in such a short space of time. Neither a fixed star nor a comet could have disappeared, and reappeared, and then stood still. So we see, with the wise men, that God’s power is revealed in quite a different way: first from people not of Jesus’ own land, second, with the guiding light of a star that will then vanish, and third, in Bethlehem, where a king sits not on a throne in glory, but in a stable as a helpless baby. The true star then becomes the Word made flesh not the celestial body directing our gaze.

The wise men were known as astrologers from the East or what we call astronomers. Astrology among the Persians was treated more like a science than the modern ideas of predicting one’s life through horoscopes. Astrologers were highly educated in mathematics, philosophy and current events. They believed that the stars revealed truths about human life and history, and they studied the movements of heavenly objects to gain insight into how the world worked. The word magi in Persian means philosophers. St Jerome tells us the Chaldeans, following the Hebrews, also called their philosophers magi .The Roman authors Pliny and Tertullian also testify that Near Eastern peoples generally applied the name magi to their wise men and astrologers and this is consistent with Matthew’s rendering of this word. However, Matthew doesn’t tell us how many of them visited Jesus. Some Church Fathers speak of three Magi because of the three gifts. Yet early Christian art includes everything from two to eight people. The names of the Magi are also as uncertain as is their number. Although traditionally they are referred to as Gaspar or Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.

And then there are discrepancies about how long the wise men stayed before they made their way home, where home actually was, and given that their route back was different, just how far away did they really live?  There are chronological inconsistencies about when Herod decided to implement his reign of infant slaughter and whether Jesus was still in the stable by the time the Magi arrived. Nevertheless, the Magi adore the child as God made man, and offer him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The giving of gifts was in keeping with Eastern tradition. The purpose of the gold is clear since Mary and Joseph were poor but we don’t really know the meaning of the other gifts even though much has been explored as to their symbolism. Perhaps there is an echo of the gifts in Isaiah 60:6 brought as offering to God in the Temple in Jerusalem.

In the fourth century the Eastern Churches celebrated the three feasts of Christ’s birth, the Adoration of the Magi, and Christ’s baptism on the one day, the sixth of January; whereas, in the West, the Birth of Christ was celebrated deliberately on the twenty-fifth of December because it was at the time of the winter solstice celebrating the new light bringing new life..

The ancient Greek liturgy testifies to the importance of this event in the early Church. In a very popular Christmas hymn known as the Troparion (an Eastern Orthodox Christian hymn of one stanza), the faithful sing:

“Your Nativity, O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light of wisdom;
for by it, those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore You,
the Sun of Righteousness, and to know You, the Orient [Rising] from on high.
O Lord, glory be to You.”

God of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany,
you have given us many signs and prophecies
about your Son Jesus Christ’s birth,
and they have been fulfilled.
Help us to see from the past to the present,
the present into the future,
that your loving hand guides all things.
May your glory remain forever within our reach.