This image by photographer and composite artist Christopher Ruane sets the Nativity of Christ on an urban street corner marked “Bethlehem” and casts racially diverse models in the biblical roles. Mary sits on the hood of an old beat-up car holding her sweet newborn with a protective grip—she has presumably just given birth in the backseat. She’s wrapped in a blue afghan, the color traditionally associated with the Virgin. Joseph leans over, gazing proudly at his new baby son. Instead of the traditional cow and donkey looking on, there’s a spotted dog.
In the foreground are the three “wise men,” which here are two men and a woman, offering their gifts to the family. One man brings a candle; another, a rose. A wealthier woman in a fur coat brings gold jewelry. They stand or kneel on the sidewalk before this miracle baby who will be their deliverer, the way strewn with flower petals.
In the middle ground are three young unhoused people around a trashcan fire, standing in for the shepherds. A cloud of steam rises up out of a manhole before their eyes and coalesces with a heavenly apparition, come to personally announce to them the Messiah’s birth.
In the windows of the apartment building in the background are various people occupied with various activities. In one room a couple is engaging in sexual foreplay. Across the way, a man is vegging out in front of a TV. One woman, whose closet is spilling over with clothes, is hugging her collection of designer shoes.
These represent different values or dependencies—for example, materialism, a literal clinging to one’s possessions. But there’s also pain.
On the top floor there’s a young man in a hoodie with a black eye. Maybe he’s abused by his father. Or bullied at school. Or in too deep with a gang. Either way, he is bitter and angry and scared and distrustful and has a gun.
Christ was born into this world of hurt and false loves. He came to call us out of the darkness of these and into light, to give us abundant life in God. The bright star above beckons us all to follow the light to the feet of Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Three wise men ridin’ hard through the cold Lost on some big city street with no place warm to go They are lookin’ for a manger, or a sign in the lights But they’re a long way from Bethlehem tonight
But they heard about a savior And a preacher in the park Who will camp with the homeless Where they shiver in the dark He’ll deliver salvation To the weary and the cold And he’ll bring joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul
The cleaning lady sighs as she closes up the gate This job don’t quite pay the bills, and she’s always workin’ late But all in a moment comes a light from above It’s an angel speaking words of joy and love
And he tells her of a savior And a preacher in the park Who will camp with the homeless Under bridges in the dark He’ll deliver salvation To the weary and the cold And he’ll bring joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul
Four in the mornin’ at the Tradewinds Motel The register reads, “All Full Up,” and the clerk thinks, “Just as well” But out in the toolshed by an old Coleman lamp A little family makes its meager camp
And the wise men bring presents And the angels gather round The cleaning lady slips in through the door without a sound And an old black dog looks on with the rest At the little babe upon his mother’s breast
And there comes a savior (Joy to the world) And a preacher in the park (The Lord is come) And he camps with the homeless (Let earth) Where they shiver in the dark (Receive her king) He delivers salvation To the weary and the cold (Let every heart sing) And he brings joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul He brings joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul
The American folk singer-songwriter Dave Carter was one half of the duo Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, active from 1998 until Carter’s unexpected death in 2002. His songs have been covered by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, and others, and Grammer posthumously released several previously unreleased songs by Carter, including “American Noel.” She and Carter recorded the song sometime between 1999 and 2001 for a series of employee holiday gift compilations commissioned by the president of a hardware store chain.
Like Ruane’s digital photomontage, “American Noel” imagines the Incarnation happening on the margins of a modern American city, attracting low-wage workers and transients, among others. Jesus pitches his tent among the exhausted and despairing, “the weary and the cold,” coming not as an outsider to struggle but as one who will know it firsthand. His childhood, to say nothing of his adulthood, is marked by sudden flight from his homeland to escape a tyrannical king and by an upbringing in a country not his own.
When I was at the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, Netherlands, in 2019, one of the standout pieces I saw was an early fifteenth-century altarpiece from the Middle Rhine region of Germany. The central section, which I imagine would have been a sculpted Crucifixion scene, has been lost, and the surviving panels are arranged in a modern frame.
Ten panels depicting eight scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary decorate what would have originally been the interior wings—that is, visible when the altarpiece was open.
I’ll describe the first four, as they’re my favorites.
All photos in this post are from the museum’s website, which courteously provides them in high resolution under an open-access policy, promoting scholarship and digital engagement. The Annunciation image is a composite I made from two separate photos.
In the Annunciation, Mary sits in her bedroom beside a window in front of an open pink chest (her dowry chest?), quietly reading the scriptures, when the angel Gabriel slips in through an open door, holding a banderole that bears his greeting: Ave gratia plena d[omi]n[u]s tecum (“Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you,” Luke 1:28). He then goes on to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son into the world.
What will Mary say? Four little angels look on in eager anticipation from a tower in the panel above, while in the room two angels already start rolling out the royal treatment, holding up a gilt-brocaded velvet “cloth of honor” behind the young maiden in recognition of her high calling.
A thin column divides Gabriel’s space from Mary’s, creating a sense of threshold. It marks a boundary that is about to be crossed. The separation between God and humanity will be broken down by the Incarnation.
Mary ultimately responds to the surprise invitation with acceptance: Ecce ancilla d[omi]ni fiat michi s[e]c[un]d[u]m verbu[m] t[uu]m (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word,” Luke 1:38).
Mary’s yes triggers the release of a thick stream of light—it looks to me like a golden conveyor belt!—from the heart of God the Father, who is peering down through an upper window. Riding that stream is a haloed dove (the Holy Spirit) followed by a tiny yet fully formed infant Christ who’s holding a cross and headed straight toward Mary’s womb.
The homunculus (“little human”) motif in Annunciation images, though relatively rare, always makes me chuckle. It’s one way artists came up with to visualize the unvisualizable mystery of Christ’s conception, one that includes the Second Person of the Trinity as an actor in the event and shows a very literal descent. Not long after the motif started appearing in the fourteenth century, it was disapproved of by theologians, such as Antoninus of Florence and Molanus, and it was finally banned in the eighteenth century by Pope Benedict XIV as being heretical, since it suggests that Jesus did not take his body from Mary.
For brief commentary on this particular scene by Msgr. Herman Woorts, a Dutch art historian and an auxiliary bishop in the Roman Catholic Church, see this video produced by Katholiekleven.nl:
(To translate the Dutch into your language, click the “CC” button on the player, then the cog icon, and select Subtitles→Auto-translate.)
In the Visitation panel, Jesus and John the Baptizer are visible in their mothers’ wombs, each encased in a mandorla (almond-shaped aureole). This visual device of showing the cousins in utero was not uncommon at the time, especially in the Low Countries; art historian Matthew J. Milliner amusingly calls it “ultrasound Jesus”! Here you can actually see little John kneeling before his cousin in adoration.
Elizabeth has emerged from a door at the right, whose frame is labeled “Civitas Juda,” City of Judah (and notice the dog in the doorway! a traditional symbol of faithfulness). As she and Mary embrace each other in celebration of their miraculous pregnancies and imminent salvation, scrolls unfurl with their words from the Gospel of Luke: Et unde michi hoc q[uo]d mater d[omi]ni mei venit ad me (“And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke 1:43), at right, and at left, Magnificat a[n]i[m]a mea d[omi]n[u]m. Et exultavit sp[iritu]s meus i[n] deo salutalutari (sic) meo (“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Luke 1:46–47). The scrolls provide a delicate, wing-like framing around the two women.
And at their head, in the center, an open-beaked dove descends, signifying the Holy Spirit—an extremely rare appearance in Visitation images. This is God breathing on his daughters, blessing their ministries, receiving their praise. Like the prophets of old, they are filled with God’s power and truth spills forth from their lips.
At their feet flows a spring of water, a possible allusion to Isaiah 35:6b–7a: “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, / and streams in the desert; / the burning sand shall become a pool, / and the thirsty ground springs of water.” Not to mention the Living Water that is Christ (see John 4).
Another charming detail of this panel is the angels, with their wispy red wings, peeking in at this intimate moment from behind rocks. I’m reminded of the epistle of 1 Peter, whose author says that the mysteries of salvation are “things into which angels long to look!” (1:12). Here they seem to whisper their song that will be exclaimed at full blast on the night of Jesus’s birth: Gloria in exelsis deo (“Glory to God in the highest,” Luke 2:14).
Poor Joseph is often overlooked as a player in the Christmas story, and yet he, too, faithfully responded to a (quite terrifying!) divine calling: to be the adoptive father of Jesus, raising him as his own. Though he initially had doubts about Mary’s story of supernatural conception—who wouldn’t?—an angel set him straight, and he ultimately acted in love and loyalty to Mary, and to God. He was an advocate and a provider for his family, looking out for their best interests all along the way.
I mention this because the Middle Rhine Altarpiece shows an actively caring and resourceful Joseph at the Nativity, cooking porridge over an open fire to nourish his hungry and tired wife, who reclines on a rollout mat with her newborn.
Also, notice that his left foot is bare. A legend of unknown origin says that Joseph removed his stockings (German hosen) following Jesus’s birth, cutting them into strips in order to swaddle the child. This narrative detail appealed to popular imagination and was referred to in stories, poems, songs, and the visual arts from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries in the Netherlands and the Rhineland. At the time this altarpiece was made there was even a venerated relic at Aachen Cathedral purported to be the stockings-turned-swaddling bands.
As had become standard in images of the Nativity, this one includes an ox and an ass. The canonical Gospels don’t mention any animals at the birth—though the mention of a manger in Luke 2:7 implies an animal presence. The seventh-century Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew specifically names the ox and ass, citing their supposed adoration of the Christ child as a fulfillment of an Old Testament “prophecy”: “And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib (Isa. 1:3).” These two domestic animals are also mentioned in the Nativity account that appears in the Golden Legend, an immensely popular text from the thirteenth century.
Here the ox is nose-deep in straw, while the ass looks up with his mouth agape. Perhaps he’s excited at having just spotted the Spirit-dove under the rafters.
The shepherds are about to arrive at the stable, as in the right background the birth is announced to them. The scroll held by the angel reads, Evanglizo vob[is] gaudi[um] magnu[m] (“I proclaim great joy to you,” Luke 2:10), and above the shepherd is the inscription Transeamu[s] us[que] Betleem (“Let’s go to Bethlehem,” Luke 2:15).
The Adoration of the Magi
In the Adoration of the Magi panel, Mary holds the Christ child on her lap, who is nude save for a thin diaphanous drape, emphasizing his full humanity. She wears a crown, alluding to her identity (in Catholic tradition) as Queen of Heaven. As in the Annunciation, she’s backed by a cloth of honor, which Joseph pulls aside to see what new visitors have come calling. And again, the ever-present Holy Spirit hovers above!
The pointing angel at the top, with the aid of a star, has directed three magi, portrayed here as kings, from their far-off homelands to the Christ child. Ite in iudeam ubi / nascit rex iudeor[um] (“Go to Judea where the king of the Jews was born”), he says.
Having cast his crown at the child’s feet, one of the magi kneels down and kisses the hand of the King of kings. He presents a container of gold coins as tribute, which Jesus rifles through with curiosity (ooo, shiny!).
Two other magi stand behind with their gifts of frankincense and myrrh. One of them, whom tradition calls Balthazar, is African. In the eighth century the historian Bede described Balthazar as having a “black complexion,” and from around 1400 onward he came to be portrayed that way in art, reflecting the growing visibility of other races in Europe.
Just to give you a full picture of the altarpiece as a whole . . .
So all together, the altarpiece would have told the gospel story from Christ’s conception and birth to the Crucifixion to the Resurrection and Ascension to Pentecost. And it would have served as the backdrop to the celebration of the Eucharist, spiritually forming parishioners week after week.
Art museums are full of such treasures as these. I encourage you to visit one of your local museums (or maybe take a weekend trip to one), find a piece of historical art that intrigues you, and sit with it for at least ten minutes. What do you notice? What is strange to you? What makes you smile? What was the object’s original context? What lineages is it a part of (e.g., what communities has it passed through, what iconographies or textual traditions does it draw from and develop, etc.)? What theological ideas, if any, does it express?
If you struggle to meaningfully engage with an artwork, I’m sure a docent would love to help you.
You might also take a photo of the artwork and share it on your social media. Ask your friends what stands out to them.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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”→