Roundup: Ethiopian illuminations, convent cradles, Women’s Christmas, and more

“The Christmas Story: Images from Ethiopic Manuscripts” by Eyob Derillo: The British Library has a fantastic collection of Christian manuscripts from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ethiopia. This blog post by curator Eyob Derillo shows Christmas-related illuminations from four different ones. Follow the links in the captions to explore each manuscript further.

Flight to Egypt (Ethiopian)
“Flight into Egypt,” from the Nagara Māryām (History and Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary), Ethiopia, ca. 1730–55. British Library Or. 607, fol. 17r.

You can follow Derillo on Twitter @DerilloEyob. He’s always posting fascinating things about Ethiopian art and its intersection with the country’s history, culture, politics, and Christianity, including lots of Ethiopian saints’ stories!

If you enjoyed the blog post, I recommend the highly accessible book The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity, an interweaving of ancient (apocryphal) tales surrounding Jesus’s birth that flourished in Ethiopia, compiled and told by Elizabeth Laird, with the biblical narrative. It’s illustrated in full color with images from the British Library’s collection and is perfectly appropriate for children (and adults!). I’ve perused the Ethiopian manuscripts on the BL website but am not able to decode several of the images because I’m unfamiliar with the tales and cannot read Ge’ez, and Laird’s book helped me out in that respect, at least in part. For a deeper dive into Ethiopian art—which is inextricable from its patrons’ and makers’ Christian spirituality—see the informative and beautifully produced Ethiopian Art: The Walters Art Museum, a catalog from another museum that houses a fine collection of Ethiopian art.

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The Angel of the Lord in icons of the Magi: In this recent post from Icons and Their Interpretation [previously], icons consultant David Coomler spotlights a fresco from Decani Monastery in Serbia that shows an angel on horseback leading the magi to the Christ child, emphasizing supernatural direction. He identifies the same, idiosyncratic figure in a 1548 painting by Frangos Katelanos at Varlaam Monastery in Meteora, Greece, comparing it to two more common appearances of an angel with the magi in Eastern iconography: on foot beside the newborn king’s “throne,” presenting the magi to him.

Journey and Adoration of the Magi (icon)
Journey of the Magi and Adoration of the Magi, 14th century. Fresco, Decani Monastery, Serbia. View a modern copy here.

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SONG MEDLEY: “Christmas Around the World” by Acapals: Acapals is a collaboration of four friends and a penguin who share a love for making a cappella music (despite not sharing much in the way of geography, culture or language).” They are Nick Hogben, tenor, from England; Leif Tse, baritone, from Hong Kong; Jacky Höger, alto, from Germany; and Prayer Weerakitti, soprano, from Thailand. In this video each of them arranged a holiday song in their native language, which they sing together: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (English), “Silent Night” (Cantonese), “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (German), and “New Year Greeting” (Thai). [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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“The Cloister and the Cradle” by Shannon Reed: Some medieval nuns and lay religious women cared for baby Jesus dolls (ceramic or wooden) as a devotional practice—dressing them, playing with them, “feeding” them, singing to them, rocking them in cradles. Full of wit and tenderness, this Vela magazine essay by Shannon Reed explores that practice. “It is difficult to separate my modern reaction to the sight of a grown woman (in a habit!) acting in such bizarre ways, carrying a doll around and pretending it’s real,” Reed writes. “But I try to remember that for these women, this was an empowering opportunity to be Mary, most holy, most blessed.”

Reed considers women’s agency in the Middle Ages, mystical visions made tangible, and the desire for maternal intimacy, incorporating personal stories and reflections, as a single woman without children, about attending baby showers, nannying through grad school, shopping for godchildren, and teetering between enjoyment of her non-mom status and an inclination to mother. As a thirty-two-year-old woman who also does not have kids (though I am married) and is content but constantly surrounded by reminders of what I’m missing, I can relate to a lot of the feelings and experiences Reed articulates here. I chanced upon this essay when trying to find more information about a Beguine cradle I saw at the Met, pictured below (spurred, too, by the description of a Virgin and Child ivory). I found myself unexpectedly moved by the author’s vulnerability and by the connections she draws between modern-day longings for and expressions of motherhood and those played out in medieval Christian convents.

Beguine cradle (The Met)
Crib of the Infant Jesus, 15th century, from the Grand Béguinage in Louvain (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Click to view details of the carved Nativity and Adoration of the Magi at the head and foot and, on the embroidered coverlet, Jesus’s family tree.

To learn more about how some medieval women mediated their relationship with Christ in part through dolls and cradles, see “Crib of the Infant Jesus” from Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index, “Cradling Power: Female Devotions and Early Netherlandish Jésueaux” by Annette LeZotte, “Popular Imagery in a Fifteenth-Century Burgundian Crèche” by William H. Forsyth, “Female Spirituality and the Infant Jesus in Late Medieval Dominican Convents” by Ulinka Rublack, and “Encounter: Holy Beds” by Caroline Walker Bynum.

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The Sanctuary Between Us: A Retreat for Women’s Christmas by Jan Richardson: Every year artist, writer, and Methodist minister Jan Richardson provides a new compilation of her art, blessings, and spiritual reflections as a free PDF download. The subtitle references the Irish custom of Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas, observed particularly in County Cork and County Kerry. “Women’s Christmas originated as a day when the women, who often carried the domestic responsibilities all year, took Epiphany [January 6] as an occasion to celebrate together at the end of the holidays, leaving hearth and home to the men for a few hours.” In this spirit Richardson offers an opportunity “to pause and step back from whatever has kept you busy and hurried in the past weeks or months, . . .  spend[ing] time in reflection before diving into what this new year will hold.”

“Blessing to Summon Rejoicing,” “Blessing of Memory,” “Blessing the Body,” and “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light” are among the several benedictions, thoughtfully introduced and many accompanied by collages, paintings, or encaustics. Some sections also include questions for personal reflection. For example: “How do you experience—or desire to experience—remembering in community? Who are the people who hold your memories with you? Are there ways you experience memory as a sacrament, a space where you know the presence and grace of God at work in your life? For whom might you be (or become) a sanctuary of memory as you help them hold their stories and their lives?”

Wise Women Also Came by Jan Richardson
Wise Women Also Came © Jan L. Richardson [purchase]

The poem “Wise Women Also Came,” printed as an interlude, is especially compelling, describing how, in addition to the wise men mentioned in the biblical narrative, wise women also came to Jesus’s birth bearing gifts—“water for labor’s washing, / fire for warm illumination, / a blanket for swaddling.”

Three Kings Day (Artful Devotion)

Christmas isn’t over yet, so I hope you’re still celebrating! As has been the case for centuries, many Christians spread their holiday festivities over twelve days, from December 25 to January 5, followed by the culminating feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Epiphany commemorates the visit of the magi to the Christ child and thus God’s physical manifestation to the Gentiles. In Spanish-speaking countries and communities, it’s commonly known as Three Kings Day. This year it just so happens to fall on a Sunday.

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Three Kings by Juan Cartagena
Juan Cartagena, Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings), Puerto Rico, 19th century. Painted wooden bulto. Vidal Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

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.” . . .

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 worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

—Matthew 2:1–2, 9–11

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SONG: “Décimas De Nacimiento” (Décimas of the Nativity) by Pedro Flores | Recorded by Los Jíbaros, 1935, with vocals by Vilar and Pedro Dávila (aka Davilita) | Reissued on Where Will You Be Christmas Day?, 2004

 

Los Jíbaros, also known as the Cuarteto Flores, were a popular and influential Puerto Rican group founded in New York in 1930 by Pedro Flores. Their name refers to the peasant farmers of Puerto Rico, who developed a style of mountain music, jibaro music, that’s rooted in music brought to the island by early settlers from Andalusia and Extremadura in southern and western Spain during the seventeenth century.

The jibaro song “Décimas De Nacimiento” is an aguinaldo (Christmas carol; literally “gift”) that comprises four décimas (ten-line stanzas) performed in dialogue. In this traditional poetic form, each line contains eight syllables and follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBAAB—but here the poet has adapted the scheme to ABBAACCDDC. The two singers perform to an accompaniment of three guitars and a guiro (scratch gourd).

En un pesebre nacio
A eso de la medianoche
Un niño que sin reproche
Clamaron hijo de Dios
Una estrella iluminó
El sitio donde María
Tenía en brazos al Mesías
Que acaba de nacer
Al que empezaban a ver
Al amanecer del día

Los tres magos soberanos
De los reinos del Oriente
Vinieron muy diligentes
A ofrendar su Dios cristiano
Y todo el mundo pagano
Recuerda las profecías
Pues sabian que nacería
Pronto el hijo de Israel
Y que lo iban a ver
Al amanecer del día

Todas las aves cantaban
Olian todas las flores
Bonita luz y colores
Las astros del cielo daban
Los buenos sabios oraban
Los réprobos se escondian
En las pajas ya había
Nacido el niño sonriente
Se postró un mundo creyente
Al amanecer del día

Y a través de las edades
Recordando al soberano
El universo cristiano
Celebra las navidades
Dice así, felicidades
El humano se extasía
Y aún pedimos al Mesías
Hijo de María y José
Que algo de su gracia nos dé
Al amenecer del día

He was born in a manger
About midnight
An innocent child
Proclaimed the Son of God
A star shone upon
The place where Mary
Held our Savior in her arms
Who had just been born
They beheld him
At daybreak

The three wise men
From the Orient
Promptly came
To offer gifts to the Son of God
And all the pagan world
Remembered the prophecies
That foretold the birth
Of the Son of Israel
And they came to see Him
At daybreak

All the birds were singing
All the flowers were perfumed
Stars in the sky were shedding
Beautiful light and colors
The wise men were praying
The scoundrels were hiding
Already, in the straw
The smiling child had been born
Everyone fell to their knees
At daybreak

Throughout the ages
In memory of our Sovereign
The Christian universe
Celebrates His birth
With good wishes
Humanity is ecstatic
And we still pray for the Messiah
Son of Mary and Joseph
To shed His grace upon us
At daybreak

This is one of many songs that might be heard at a parranda, a Puerto Rican caroling party that moves from house to house, lasting from around 10 p.m. to dawn on any given night of Christmas. The repertoire is a mix of sacred and secular songs, but unlike in the continental US, they are all festive and upbeat. As the carolers progress to each new stop, the head of that house invites them in for food and beverages. Parrandas are one of the leading social activities of the Christmas season on the island.

“Décimas De Nacimiento” was originally released by Columbia Records on vinyl in the 1930s. In 2004 it was reissued by Dust-to-Digital on a compilation Christmas album produced by folk music preservationist Lance Ledbetter and musicologist Dick Spottswood; there it appears alongside other rare recordings of American gospel, blues, and hillbilly music from the twenties and thirties.

Another vintage recording of the song, by Trio Armonico, can be found on The Music of Puerto Rico: Recordings 1929–1947, released in 2009 by Black Round Records. [Listen on Spotify]

(Related posts: “Flamenco-style devotional singing in southern Spain”; “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”)

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Celebrated annually on January 6, El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos, or simply Three Kings Day, is one of the most important holidays on the Puerto Rican calendar—so much so that Puerto Ricans invented a verb, reyar, that means “to celebrate Three Kings Day.” On the eve of the holiday, children put a shoebox filled with straw under their beds for the animal transports, be they camels or horses, of the Three Kings, who visit their homes with presents between midnight and dawn. Children awake not only to gifts but also to a day of parades and feasting with family and friends. Old San Juan throws an annual festival at the Luis Muñoz Marín Park with live music, food and drink, and free gifts, but the highlight of the day occurs when the Three Kings come walking into town. They start from their unofficial hometown of Juana Díaz in the south and travel around the island, stopping to celebrate in various localities—but no celebration is larger than that in Old San Juan.

(Listen to composer, playwright, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda describe how he grew up celebrating Three Kings Day in New York City in this video from 2017.)

Three Kings bulto
Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings), Puerto Rico, late 19th century. Painted wooden bulto by a member of the Rivera family. Vidal Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Not surprisingly, the Three Kings are among the most popular santos (handmade images of saints and other religious figures) in Puerto Rico. Since camels were unknown to earlier local santeros (makers of religious images), the Three Kings are typically shown riding Paso Fino horses. The gifts they bear may be the three traditional ones—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—or typical Puerto Rican gifts, such as musical instruments. In Puerto Rico, Melchior is shown with dark skin, and he is often given special prominence, especially by santeros of African descent.

The two bultos (small religious carvings) pictured above were gifted to the Smithsonian, along with 3,200-plus other objects, by Puerto Rican folk art collector Teodoro Vidal. Learn more about the Vidal Collection at https://amhistory.si.edu/vidal/. (You may remember me speaking about another bulto donated by Vidal, Señor de la Humildad y la Paciencia, in my Stations of the Cross audio guide.)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Epiphany, cycle C, click here.