Infancy of Christ metalworks by Haitian artist Jean Sylvestre

When wandering around the Duke Divinity School campus this summer, waiting for a conference talk to start, I inadvertently encountered a stunning seven-work cycle of metal panels depicting scenes from the biblical narratives of Christ’s birth. They were designed and hand-carved from discarded steel oil drums by Haitian artist Jean Sylvestre, who lives in the village of Croix-des-Bouquets, ten miles outside Port-au-Prince.

Steel drum relief sculpting is an art form unique to Haiti, and Croix-des-Bouquets is the center of production, home to dozens of workshops. Once acquiring a drum, the artist first removes the round ends and places them inside the cylinder along with dried banana or sugar cane leaves, then sets the leaves on fire to burn off any paint or residue. When the drum cools, the artist makes a cut from top to bottom, then climbs inside and pushes with his legs and arms to open up the metal, which he then pounds into a flat sheet. Next he draws a design onto the metal using chalk, then uses a hammer, chisel, and ice picks to actualize it. To see photos of this process and learn more about it, visit www.haitimetalart.com.

In Sylvestre’s nativity cycle at Duke—a gift from Drs. Richard and Judith Hays—the characters are depicted as native Haitians. Each scene unfolds against a backdrop of curvilinear greenery that is typical of Haitian metalwork.

My favorite of the seven has got to be the Annunciation to the Shepherds; I love the angel’s wild hair and the one shepherd who jumps backward in fear and surprise. I’m also tickled by the smiling sun in the Nativity panel!

Annunciation by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Annunciation, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 1 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Visitation by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Visitation, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 2 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Nativity by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Birth of Jesus, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 3 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Annunciation to the Shepherds by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Angel and Shepherds, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 4 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Presentation in the Temple by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Presentation in the Temple, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 5 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Adoration of the Magi by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Visit of the Magi, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 6 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Flight into Egypt by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Flight into Egypt, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 7 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Duke Divinity School also owns a fourteen-piece Stations of the Cross cycle by Jean Sylvestre, which is often displayed in the nave of Duke University Chapel during Lent.

“For the Nativity” by John Heath-Stubbs + choral setting

Shepherds, I sing you this winter’s night
Our Hope new-planted, the womb’d, the buried Seed:
For a strange Star has fallen, to blossom from a tomb,
And infinite Godhead circumscribed hangs helpless at the breast.

Now the cold airs are musical, and all the ways of the sky
Vivid with moving fires, above the hills where tread
The feet—how beautiful!—of them that publish peace.

The sacrifice, which is not made for them,
The angels comprehend, and bend to earth
Their worshipping way. Material kind Earth
Gives Him a Mother’s breast, and needful food.

A Love, shepherds, most poor,
And yet most royal, kings,
Begins this winter’s night;
But oh, cast forth, and with no proper place,
Out in the cold He lies!

This poem is published in Collected Poems 1943–1987 by John Heath-Stubbs (Carcanet Press, 1988) and is reprinted here by permission of David Higham Associates.

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John Heath-Stubbs (1918–2006) was an English poet, translator, critic, and anthologist whose lifelong fascination with world history and literature was borne out in his career. He translated poetry from Greek (Sappho, Anyte, Anacreon), Latin (Horace, Catullus), Persian (Hafiz, Omar Khayyam), Italian (Dante, Giacomo Leopardi), and French (Paul Verlaine) and wrote many verses of his own influenced by classical myths, including an Arthurian epic, Artorius.

Described by friends as a “devout” and “committed” Christian, Heath-Stubbs sometimes turned to the lives of Christ and the saints as subjects for his poetry, as in “‘Through the Dear Might of Him That Walk’d the Waves,’” “Dionysius the Areopagite” (on a pagan’s response to the eclipse during the Crucifixion), “Canticle of the Sun” (on the Resurrection), “Alexandria,” “Maria Aegyptiaca,” and “Virgin Martyrs,” to name a few. In his introduction to his Collected Poems, he wrote that he was interested in “the reaffirmation of orthodox religious themes in the poetry of TS Eliot and Charles Williams and others.”

Among other distinctions, Heath-Stubbs was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1973 and in 1989 was appointed OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). At his death, publications celebrated his style and influence:

  • “His distinctive achievement was to forge a modern pastoral out of unlikely sources, a style which can encompass Yeatsian symbolism and dry irony.”—Poetry Archive
  • His diction was conservative, but his lyricism was always modern.—The Telegraph
  • “His finest work is to be found in his huge output of shorter poems. In their technical mastery, wry wisdom and gloriously deceptive lightness, these place him in the company of W.H. Auden and Robert Graves, a major English poet of the 20th century.”—The Independent

Heath-Stubbs was nearly blind from age three, his eyesight progressively worsening until he lost it completely at age fifty-nine. But rather than regard his blindness as a disability, he regarded it as a gift. “As a poet, I have found that blindness actually tends to stimulate the imagination,” he said.

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First published in 1965, “For the Nativity” by John Heath-Stubbs is an ode to the infant Jesus—to he who is Hope, Seed, Star, and Love.

The first stanza is a loose paraphrase of the Annunciation to the Shepherds in Luke 2:10–13, in which an angel tells a group of Jewish night workers that Emmanuel, God-with-us, has been born. Heath-Stubbs uses horticultural imagery: Jesus was planted in Mary’s womb, and now he breaks through into air, blooming for all the world to see. Foreshadowing future events, the “tomb” refers not only to the cave he was born in but also to the cave he’d be buried in. He’d be seeded once again (in death), and again (in resurrection) he’d flower forth with new life. The fourth line embraces the paradox of the Incarnation: that infinite God became a finite human being; the omnipotent Creator, an impotent babe reliant on his mother’s milk.   Continue reading ““For the Nativity” by John Heath-Stubbs + choral setting”