Advent, Day 20

LOOK: The Nativity by Christopher Ruane

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity
Christopher Ruane (American, 1981–), The Nativity, 2014. C-print, 52 × 48 in. Click the link to zoom in.

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.

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity (detail)

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.

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity (detail)

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.

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity (gunman detail)

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. 

LISTEN: “American Noel” by Dave Carter, 1994 | Performed by Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer on American Noel, 2008

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.

Roundup of religious art exhibitions

Religion is heavily present in every medieval and Renaissance art museum collection, and curators are constantly organizing exhibitions that highlight this fact. To a smaller extent, religion is also present in contemporary art, and my appreciation goes out to those institutions that have picked up on this and have chosen to mount shows with religion up front and center. Here’s a list of just some such exhibitions currently running that have crossed my radar. (Follow the links to view more images.)


“Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Embroidery,” Victoria and Albert Museum, London, October 1, 2016–February 5, 2017: In medieval Europe, embroidered textiles were indispensable symbols of wealth and power. Owing to their quality, complexity, and magnificence, English embroideries (referred to as opus Anglicanum, “English work”) enjoyed international demand among kings, queens, popes, and cardinals, and here one hundred of them are brought together. Treasures include the Butler-Bowdon Cope, the Syon Cope, and the Tree of Jesse Cope—ceremonial cloaks made for use in church services and processions, featuring images from the lives of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints. (I love the interactive zoom function on these! To help you navigate the densely packed imagery, details of interest are tagged and can be clicked on to magnify and to reveal a textbox of information.) Hear contemporary embroiderer James Merry discuss some of the aspects of their technique and design that blow him away:

Syon Cope
The Syon Cope, 1310–20, England. Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


“Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, September 26, 2016–January 8, 2017: “This landmark exhibition demonstrates the key role that the Holy City played in shaping the art of the period from 1000 to 1400. In these centuries, Jerusalem was home to more cultures, religions, and languages than ever before. Through times of peace as well as war, Jerusalem remained a constant source of inspiration that resulted in art of great beauty and fascinating complexity. This exhibition is the first to unravel the various cultural traditions and aesthetic strands that enriched and enlivened the medieval city. It features some 200 works of art from 60 lenders worldwide.” I especially love the four Gospels in Arabic borrowed from the British Library, whose geometric illuminations bear an obvious Islamic influence.

Arabic Gospels
Folio from an Arabic Gospel-book, 1335, Jerusalem. Opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper, 10 5/8 × 7 7/8 in. (27 × 20 cm). Collection of the British Library (Add. MS 11856).


“The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Siena,” Getty Center, Los Angeles, October 11, 2016–January 8, 2017: “Manuscript illuminator and panel painter Giovanni di Paolo was one of the most distinctive and imaginative artists working in Siena, Italy, during the Renaissance. This exhibition reunites several panels from one of his most important commissions—an altarpiece for the Branchini family chapel in the church of San Domenico in Siena—for the first time since its dispersal, and presents illuminated manuscripts and paintings by Giovanni and his close collaborators and contemporaries. Through recent technical findings, the exhibition reveals his creative use of gold and paint to achieve remarkable luminous effects in both media.”

Adoration of the Magi by Giovanni di Paolo
Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, ca. 1403–1482), The Adoration of the Magi, 1427. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands.


“The Key” (organized by Caravan), Riverside Church, New York City, September 21–November 6, 2016: Founded by US Episcopal priest Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan develops initiatives that use art as a bridge for intercultural and interreligious dialogue. The organization’s 2016 exhibition is in the last leg of its Cairo-London-New York journey. It showcases the work of forty Middle Eastern and Western artists from different monotheistic faith backgrounds, each of whom was given a four-foot-tall fiberglass ankh to develop into a work of art. Known as the “Key of Life,” the ankh is an ancient hieroglyph originating in Egypt but spreading throughout Asia Minor; today it is used as a symbol of pluralism, tolerance, and harmony. I especially like the ones by Sergio Gomez, Arabella Dorman, Fatma Abdel Rahman, and Isaac Daniel.

The Key exhibition (Caravan)


“Incarnation, Mary & Women from the Bible,” Romsey Abbey, Hampshire, England, October 12–November 6, 2016: Having already stopped at Guildford, Norwich, Chichester, Durham, and Hereford Cathedrals, Chris Gollon’s latest series of paintings on women of the Bible is now at Romsey Abbey. It includes the standards, like Eve, Rachel, Hannah, Delilah, Bathsheba, the two Marys (the Virgin, and Magdalene), and Salome, as well as some unnamed and even implied women, like Judas’s wife. It also includes some extrabiblical female saints, like Lucy, Cecilia, Julian of Norwich, and Ethelflaeda. I’m really attracted to the sad quality of many of Gollon’s women, and to the emphasis on hands (much like Eduardo Kingman!).

Contemplation of Eve by Chris Gollon
Chris Gollon (British, 1953–), The Contemplation of Eve, 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 24 × 18 in. (61 × 46 cm).


“Medium: Religion,” Gallery of Art and Design, University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, Missouri, September 22–October 28, 2016: This exhibition—“meant to inspire, contemplate, and strengthen faith”—features seven contemporary artists whose work engages religion: Tobi Kahn, who creates Jewish ceremonial art like etrog containers, shalom bat chairs, and omer counters; Chris Clack, whose work explores the relationship between Christianity and science; Kysa Johnson, whose Immaculate Conception series links images of the Virgin with asexually reproducing yeast and bacteria; Justine Kuran, known for her quilled hamsas (palm-shaped amulets); Scott Freeman, whose The Wall Remaining laments the long-suffered disunity between Jews and Christians; Tashi Norbu, trained in the art of traditional Tibetan Buddhist thangka painting; and Raudel Arteaga, who deconstructs famous religious paintings into their geometric basics.



“Illuminations: Works by Vanessa German, Peter Oresick, and Christopher Ruane,” Carlow University Art Gallery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, September 8–December 9, 2016: “‘Illuminations’ features the work of three local artists who evoke the traditions of icon painting or biblical parables to bring out focus on the overlooked and to cast light into the shadows of our present day,” says gallery director Sylvia Rhor. Works include responses to last year’s Charleston church shootings, literary figures painted in the style of Russian icons, and sacred stories updated through the use of photography and digital technology.