Social critique in two Victorian Nativity paintings

Sometimes we rush to judgment of artworks that at first glance seem dull and conventional. We assume they have nothing to show us. But if we were to look more closely, we might find something unexpected. Even subtly subversive.

Such is the case with The Nativity and its companion piece, The King and the Shepherd, which were commissioned from the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne-Jones in 1887 for the chancel of Saint John’s Church in Torquay, England. Seven by ten feet each, they hung on the north and south walls for just over a hundred years before being sold by the church in 1989 to pay for a new roof. (Copies were hung in their places.) Musical theater composer—and Victorian art collector!—Andrew Lloyd Webber bought them and, in 1997, donated them to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That’s where I saw them earlier this year.

Burne-Jones, Edward_Nativity
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (British, 1833–1898), The Nativity, 1888. Oil on canvas, 81 × 124 1/2 in. (205.7 × 316.2 cm). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Burne-Jones, Edward_The King and the Shepherd
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (British, 1833–1898), The King and the Shepherd, 1888. Oil on canvas, 81 1/4 × 124 1/2 in. (206.4 × 316.2 cm). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Nativity shows Mary reclining outdoors on a rustic bed that resembles a bier with her newborn son, Jesus, both wrapped in shroud-like garments. Her partner, Joseph, who has his cloaked back to the viewer, sits on the ground reading a manuscript in Gothic script; the text is indiscernible, but I presume it’s meant to be the scriptures that prophesy the birth of a savior or his sacrificial death. Three angels stand to the side holding symbols of the passion: a crown of thorns, a chalice, and a jar of myrrh, a traditional burial spice. The painting, therefore, links the entrance of Jesus onto the world stage to his ultimate saving act on the cross.

(Related post: “Birth and death in Lavinia Fontana’s Holy Family painting”)

Burne-Jones, Edward_Nativity (pastel)
Pastel sketch for The Nativity by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1887. The New Art Gallery Walsall, England.

Burne-Jones, Edward_Nativity (detail, angels)

This foreshadowing approach was not new in Nativity art. But in addition to gesturing toward the redemption from sin that Jesus would bring, the painting also quotes from a community lament psalm in which God’s people cry out for deliverance from those in authority who lie and manipulate. Propter miseriam inopum et gemitum pauperis nunc exsurgam dicit Dominus, the Latin inscription reads, which translates, “Because of the misery of the poor and the groaning of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD” (Psalm 12:5a). When God’s people are oppressed, God is aroused to action, and Burne-Jones’s choice of this atypical scripture text for a Nativity painting reminds us of the sociopolitical context of Jesus’s birth, which involved Roman occupation of Israel and a despotic ruler so obsessed with power that he mandated the extermination of Jewish male babies in Bethlehem, thinking he would quash the threat of usurpation. This is the reality into which Jesus was born. And though he didn’t deliver Israel from Rome during his lifetime, he did launch a new “kingdom” and declare a jubilee (Luke 4:16–21).

The biblical inscription speaks not only to Jesus’s day but also to contemporary times, which were marked by high unemployment and great hardship among London’s working class. It’s “a subtle allusion to the social miseries of Victorian Britain,” says Louise Lippincott, curator for the Carnegie at the time of acquisition. She speculates that Burne-Jones intended the painting “as his public statement, albeit a muted one, on 19th-century social horrors. . . . It is quite likely that he was thinking of reports of the bestial living conditions of the London poor that were appearing in the press in the early 1880s.” In 1886, 1887, and 1888, as Burne-Jones was planning and executing the painting, violent strikes and riots were going on in London to protest economic inequality. As people starved, those in power continued to fatten themselves with apparent disregard. The incorporation into this humble scene of a divine vow from the Psalms, where God states his commitment to the poor, expresses hope that God will again arise to deliver from affliction those who trust in him.

The King and the Shepherd extends this critique of the wealth gap by showing the two titular figures—one rich, the other poor—approaching the Christ child as equals. As was and still is common, Burne-Jones combines Matthew’s account of the magi with Luke’s account of the shepherds, showing both as welcome participants in the same event, but uniquely, he chooses only one figure to represent each group. (Traditionally, three magi attend the birth, along with a nonstandard number of shepherds.) An angel leads each traveler by the hand, reminding them to keep their voices low so as not to wake the sleeping infant.

Burne-Jones, Edward_The King and the Shepherd (detail, king)
Burne-Jones, Edward_The King and the Shepherd (detail, shepherd)

“The pairings visually suggest the equality, in the face of divinity, between the wealthy king and the humble peasant,” reads the museum wall text. “In the context of the enormous social inequalities rife in Victorian England, this message smacked of social and political radicalism.” The Latin inscription—Transeamus usque Bethleem et videamus hoc verbum quod factum est quod fecit Dominus [et ostendit nobis]—comes from the New Testament description of the journey of the shepherds. “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem,” they say, “and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us” (Luke 2:15b).

God chose to reveal his Son’s birth not only to bookish scholars or, as tradition has it, royalty, but also to a bunch of blue-collar laborers. The shepherds’ and kings’ mutual presence at Christ’s bedside was only the beginning of the reconciliation across lines of division that Christ came to enact.

For further reflection on the inclusion of rich and poor in the biblical narratives of Jesus’s birth, see “Shepherds vs. Magi: Dynamics of Privilege within the Nativity Story” by Tony Kriz.

All photos, except for the pastel sketch, are by Victoria Emily Jones / ArtandTheology.org.

Roundup: Alabaster Gospels, the lone cathedral-builder, Pacheco at Chichester, lamenting racial injustice

Alabaster page spread

New Gospel-book set promotes aesthetic reading experience: Photographer Bryan Chung and designer Brian Chung, both campus ministers (and no relation), believe that beauty is fundamental to understanding who God is. So they’ve teamed up for project Alabaster: a brand-new design of the holy Gospels, in four volumes, integrated with contemplative photographs. They’ve already well exceeded their funding goal on Kickstarter, which means there’s already a lot of interest in having Bible reading be a visual experience—and at a 7½ × 9½ trim, the books are definitely wieldy, meant to be regularly handled and read! If you want a guaranteed copy, be sure to back the project on Kickstarter, as the number of names in the system will determine the size of the print order. You have until October 7; the publication month is April 2017. This project aligns so well with my mission here at Art & Theology, and I’m thrilled to see it in the works.

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90-year-old man spends lifetime building a cathedral by hand: From Great Big Story: “For 53 years, Justo Gallego has been building a cathedral by hand on the outskirts of Madrid almost entirely by himself. Gallego has no formal architecture or construction training, but that hasn’t stopped him from toiling on this herculean task. At 90 years old, Gallego knows that he will not be able to finish the project in his lifetime. But he keeps at it anyway, day after day, driven by his faith.”

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Shadows of the Wanderer by Ana Maria Pacheco
Ana Maria Pacheco (Brazilian, 1943–), Shadows of the Wanderer, 2008. Polychromed wood sculpture, 260 × 390 × 605 cm. Installation view at Norwich Cathedral, 2010, via Pratt Contemporary Art.

Art installation at Chichester Cathedral speaks to the refugee experience: Shadows of the Wanderer by Brazilian-born artist Ana Maria Pacheco is on display in the north transept of Chichester Cathedral through November 14. A multipiece figurative sculpture in polychromed wood, it has as its centerpiece a young man carrying an elderly man on his back—a reference to the Aeneid’s Aeneas carrying his lame father out of the ruins of Troy. The cathedral has organized events around the installation, including a lecture by Christopher Wintle on the representation of suffering in Pacheco’s art (audio here, transcript here); a series of workshops for schools and colleges exploring the refugee experience, developed in partnership with Amnesty International; a debate titled “Refugees: Problem or Gift?”; an interview with the artist; and a woodcarving workshop. The photo above is an installation view from 2010 inside Norwich Cathedral; to see photos of the work in its current location at Chichester, click here.

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Addressing racial injustice as a church: Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship has compiled an excellent list of resources for churches looking for ways to address racial tensions in America with an eye toward healing, including a prayer service of lament by Paul Burkhart; two litanies by Fran Pratt; a list of relevant hymns, curated by the Hymn Society; an article by Sandra Van Opstal, “Reconciling Witness And Worship: Six Ways To Begin”; and materials from the 2016 Reconciliation and Justice Network conference. I’d like to add to it the lecture series “Race and the Church,” especially Jemar Tisby’s “Understanding the Heart Cry of #BlackLivesMatter,” which I live-streamed with my church back in July. (It definitely sparked fruitful conversation.) For common objections to the movement, like “What about black-on-black crime?” and “Don’t #AllLivesMatter?,” he refers listeners to the video below, produced by MTV.

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SONG: “Light a Candle”: Also on Neeley’s website I found a video performance of the song “Light a Candle” by Mary Louise Bringle (words) and Lori True (music). It’s sung here, to a ukulele accompaniment, by Becky Gaunt, director of music and liturgy at St. Jude of the Lake Catholic Church in Mahtomedi, Montana.

She posted it on her Facebook page in July along with this note:

We cannot continue to let language divide us. We cannot continue to let language distract us from loving one another. We cannot continue to let words like “black lives matter” or “all lives matter” cause us to keep missing the point!

I’m sad and tired. And you probably are too. But now is NOT the time to be neutral! The Sun may be shining outside, but we need to come together and light a candle in this oppressive darkness. This beautiful song by Lori True (amazing text by Mary Louise Bringle) is my prayer right now. I invite you to pray this with me.

Boy with a Candle by Gerard Sekoto
Gerard Sekoto (South African, 1913–1993), Boy with a Candle, 1943. Oil on canvas, 46.2 × 36 cm.

Wilcote altarpiece by Nicholas Mynheer

Oxford painter, sculptor, and glass designer Nicholas Mynheer works almost exclusively on religious themes, fulfilling commissions for churches throughout the UK (he’s working on two right now). His style is instantly recognizable—a distinctive blend of medieval, expressionist, and primitive influences resulting in simplified figures with exaggerated features and compositions full of color and movement.

In 1999 Mynheer was commissioned by St. Mary’s Church in North Leigh, Oxfordshire, to create an altarpiece for its fifteenth-century Wilcote Chapel. He decided to create a hinged polyptych (multipanel painting) that shows three Christ-based scenes in its closed view and then opens to reveal four additional scenes on the wings. (The center panel remains fixed.)

Wilcote Chapel, St. Mary's, North Leigh, Oxfordshire
Wilcote Chapel, St. Mary’s Church, North Leigh, Oxfordshire.

Wilcote altarpiece
Wilcote Chapel polyptych (open view) by Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), 1999. Oil on oak panels. St. Mary’s Church, North Leigh, Oxfordshire, England.

Wilcote altarpiece (closed)
Wilcote Chapel polyptych (closed view) by Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), 1999. Oil on oak panels. St. Mary’s Church, North Leigh, Oxfordshire, England.

One of the challenges of painting a polyptych is figuring out how to arrange various episodes into one unified story, or, if portraiture is used instead of narrative, how to draw multiple figures into thematic coherence. The panels should not be isolated pictures but should speak to one another, aiding the viewer in worship. Mynheer achieves this unity brilliantly by establishing visual links through symmetry, which suggest associations of contrast between an earlier event and a later one: the expulsion versus the resurrection of the saints (sin and redemption), the nativity versus the pietà (birth and death), Jesus in Joseph’s workshop versus Jesus carrying his cross (wood as an innocent building material, wood as a horrendous instrument of execution).

Expulsion

When the wings of the altarpiece are open, the leftmost panel depicts the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they had broken fellowship with God. Miserable and ashamed, the couple departs under the shadow of sin’s curse while a cherub enforces the banishment with a red-hot sword. As they go, though, they step—seemingly unawares—on a snake, foreshadowing the Second Adam who would come to crush Satan, as prophesied in Genesis 3:15.   Continue reading “Wilcote altarpiece by Nicholas Mynheer”