Beauty and joy in the paintings of Alma Thomas

I’ve never bothered painting the ugly things in life. . . . No. I wanted something beautiful that you could sit down and look at. [1]

What is more far reaching than beauty? [2]

Alma Thomas
Alma Thomas. Photo © 1976 Michael Fischer, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Last October I saw the wonderful retrospective exhibition Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, co-organized by the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia. Taking its title from the 1970 hit song by Ray Stevens (which was on the mixtape Thomas listened to while she painted), the exhibition shows that Thomas’s creativity extended beyond the studio to encompass interior design, costume design, fashion, puppetry, teaching, service, gardening, and more.

Alma Thomas (1891–1978) was an African American artist best known for her exuberant abstract paintings inspired by the hues, patterns, and movement of trees and flowers in and around her neighborhood in Northwest Washington, DC. Seeking relief from the racial violence in her native Georgia and better educational opportunities, she moved to Washington with her family at age fifteen and remained there for the rest of her life. In 1924 she became Howard University’s first fine arts graduate, and after that taught art for thirty-five years at Shaw Junior High School, leaving behind a celebrated legacy as an educator and a champion for Black youth. She was also an active member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, through which she founded the Sunday Afternoon Beauty Club, organizing field trips, lectures, and other activities to promote arts appreciation.

Though Thomas had been painting for decades, she didn’t develop her signature style—consisting of vibrant paint pats arranged in columns or concentric circles—until about 1965, after retiring from teaching; she called these irregular free blocks “Alma’s Stripes.” Her exploration of the power of simplified color and form in luminous, contemplative, nonobjective paintings means she is often classified as a Color Field painter, and she is particularly associated with the Washington Color School. At age eighty she had her first major exhibition, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1972. She was the first Black woman to receive a solo show at this prestigious museum, and the show won her instant acclaim.

Thomas, Alma_A Joyful Scene of Spring
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), A Joyful Scene of Spring, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 36 1/4 × 36 1/4 in. Collection of the Love, Luck & Faith Foundation. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. “Spring delivers her dynamic sermons to the world each year, drenching one’s soul with its extravaganza,” Thomas said (catalog, p. 167).

The natural world was an enduring source of inspiration for Thomas. She kept a flower garden in her backyard and frequented the green spaces of the nation’s capital. She described the holly tree visible through the bay window of her living room with great relish:

That tree, I love it. It’s the one who inspired me to do this sort of thing. The composition in the bay window reached me each morning—the colors, the wind who is their creative designer, the sunshine filtering through the leaves to add joy. The white comes through those leaves and gives me the white of the canvas. I’m fascinated by the way the white canvas dots around, and above, and through the color format. My strokes are free and irregular, some close together, others far apart, thus creating interesting patterns of canvas peeking around the strokes. [3]

Thomas saw nature as having a musicality, an idea underscored by many of the titles she gave her paintings, which pair terms from classical music especially—such as “symphony,” “sonata,” “concerto,” “rhapsody,” “étude”—with the names of trees or flowers. Nature sounds forth an array of notes, all in resplendent harmony with one another. And its compositions are new every morning!

(Related post: “Nature as extravagant gift from God”)

Thomas’s rhythmic dabs of prismatic color express joy, celebration, and wonder at God’s creation and are reminiscent of those biblical psalms in which nature is said to praise God (e.g., Psalm 19:1–3; Psalm 65:12–13; Psalm 96:11–12; Psalm 98:4–8). Not only is nature animate; it sings and dances and claps its hands.

Many of Thomas’s paintings, whether of outwardly radiating rings or parallel rows, are meant to suggest an aerial view of flower beds or nurseries. “I began to think about what I would see if I were in an air-plane,” she said. “You streak through the clouds so fast you don’t know whether the flower below is a violet or what. You see only streaks of color.” [4]

Thomas, Alma_Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 57 7/8 × 50 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Wind Dancing with Spring Flowers
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Wind Dancing with Spring Flowers, 1969. Acrylic on canvas, 50 3/16 × 48 1/16 in. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Red Roses Sonata
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Red Roses Sonata, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 54 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Cumulus
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Cumulus, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 71 × 53 in. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Eventually, Thomas’s vocabulary of vertically or circularly organized paint pats expanded to include “wedges, commas, and other glyphic shapes formed entirely by her brush and arranged in tessellated patterns” [5], which have the same vibratile quality. Grassy Melodic Chant visually references the path to her garden, which featured dark flagstones with off-white mortar borders.

Thomas, Alma_Grassy Melodic Chant
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Grassy Melodic Chant, 1976. Acrylic on canvas, 46 × 36 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Babbling Brook and Whistling Poplar Trees Symphony
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Babbling Brook and Whistling Poplar Trees Symphony, 1976. Acrylic on canvas, 72 × 52 in. Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. Thomas recalled in reference to this painting, “I would wade in the brook [near my childhood home] and when it rained you could hear music. I would fall on the grass and look at the poplar trees and the lovely yellow leaves would whistle” (catalog, p. 33).

Thomas, Alma_Fiery Sunset
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Fiery Sunset, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 41 1/4 × 41 1/4 in. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Falling Leaves, Love Wind Orchestra
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Falling Leaves, Love Wind Orchestra, 1977. Acrylic on canvas, 21 1/2 × 27 1/2 in. Private collection. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

At over thirteen feet long, the monumental three-paneled Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music (1976) is Thomas’s most ambitious painting and the touchstone of the exhibition. She painted it two years before her death, when she was suffering from painful arthritis, deteriorating vision, and the lasting repercussions of a broken hip. Though she had to adapt her technique to accommodate these ailments, her aesthetic vision is masterfully executed, and most people regard this as her magnum opus.

Thomas, Alma_Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music, 1976. Acrylic on three canvases, 73 3/4 × 158 1/2 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

In addition to her enthusiasm for local, seasonal flora, Thomas was also really interested in space exploration. Like many Americans, she followed NASA’s lunar and Mars missions on the radio and television. She painted Mars Dust in 1971 as Mariner 9 circled the Red Planet, attempting to map its surface but being held up by a massive dust storm.

Thomas, Alma_Mars Dust
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Mars Dust, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 69 1/4 × 57 1/8 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Mars Dust (detail)
Mars Dust, detail

She also painted several works inspired by images taken of Earth during the Apollo 10 and 11 spaceflights, such as Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset (not pictured)—Snoopy being the name of the lunar module. Starry Night with Astronauts is the final work in her Space series.

Thomas, Alma_Starry Night and the Astronauts
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Starry Night and the Astronauts, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 53 in. Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas’s choice to paint apolitical abstractions rather than taking the Black human figure as her subject was somewhat controversial. Members of the Black Arts Movement rigidly insisted that “Black artists should be making work that furthered the goals of Black liberation by speaking directly to their own communities rather than trying to fit into white aesthetic frameworks or addressing non-Black audiences. . . . In the process, they largely rejected visual abstraction because it was rooted in a European modernist tradition, one that had very little to do, they believed, with the lives and urgencies of Black folks.” [6]

Thomas disliked being pigeonholed as a “Black artist” and resisted the idea that responsible art must be oriented toward social activism. “We artists are put on God’s good earth to create,” she said. “Some of us may be black, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is for us to create, to give form to what we have inside us. We can’t accept any barriers, any limitations of any kind, on what we create or how we do it.” [7] And elsewhere: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” [8] In finding success as an abstractionist focused on beauty in nature and in technological innovation, she broke down barriers of what were considered (by both whites and Blacks) acceptable styles and subject matter for African American art.

This doesn’t mean Thomas was indifferent to Black progress. On the contrary, she was deeply involved in advancing racial uplift in her own community.

Thomas, far from retreating from the world, had always flung herself headlong into it. She devoted her life to advancing the lives of her Black students, peers, and neighbors—from her commitment to education (“Education is the strongest weapon we [African Americans] have,” she insisted); to her work to establish an art gallery that would collect the creations of Black people so as to begin to build an art historical archive; to her collaborations with civil rights organizations and publications; to her backyard garden, which she treated as a small offering of beauty in the midst of her gritty surroundings. [9]

Her one political painting, for which she painted two preparatory sketches, is on the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which she participated in.

Thomas, Alma_March on Washington (sketch)
Alma Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Sketch for March on Washington, ca. 1963. Acrylic on canvasboard, 20 × 24 in. The Columbus Museum, Columbus, Georgia. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

She also painted a few explicitly religious subjects, among them the Journey of the Magi and the Entombment of Christ.

Thomas, Alma_Three Wise Men
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Three Wise Men, 1966. Acrylic on canvas, 36 1/2 × 23 1/2 in. Collection of the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Foundation for the Arts. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_They Laid Him in the Tomb
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), They Laid Him in the Tomb, ca. 1958. Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 × 40 1/4 in. Collection of Paola Luptak. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful has left the Phillips but will be at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville from February 25 to June 5, 2022. From there it will visit the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia (Thomas’s birthplace), from July 1 to September 25, 2022.

At the archived Phillips exhibition page, you can find video lectures and conversations and audio commentaries, plus you can take a 360-degree virtual tour of the exhibition. Washington-area readers: if you missed Everything Is Beautiful and want the chance to see Thomas’s work in person, mark your calendars for October 2023, when the Smithsonian American Art Museum will be exhibiting the more than two dozen Thomas paintings in its collection; the show is called Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas.

There is plenty of material out there about Alma Thomas. A few other resources I’ll point you to are the Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful catalog, of which the following video gives you a look inside:

The National Women’s History Museum also curated an interactive online exhibition about Thomas through Google Arts & Culture.

NOTES

1. Alma Thomas, quoted in Eleanor Munro, Originals: American Women Artists (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 194.

2. This rhetorical question of Thomas’s is printed beneath her 1924 senior class photograph in The Bison, Howard University’s annual. Seth Feman and Jonathan Frederick Walz, eds., Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021), 78 (fig. 3).

3. Quoted in Andrea O. Cohen, “Alma Thomas,” DC Gazette, October 26–November 8, 1970.

4. Alma Thomas Papers, untitled statement, Biographical Accounts and Notes, c. 1950s–c . 1970s, box 1, folder 2, page 10.

5. Sydney Nikolaus, et al., “Composing Color: The Materials and Techniques of Alma Woodsey Thomas,” in Feman and Walz, 105.

6. Aruna D’Souza, “What Filters Through the Spaces Between,” in Feman and Walz, 61.

7. Quoted in Adolphus Ealey, “Remembering Alma,” in Merry A. Foresta, A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891–1978 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1981), 12.

8. Quoted in David L. Shirey, “At 77, She’s Made It to the Whitney,” New York Times, May 4, 1972, 52.

9. Aruna D’Souza, “What Filters Through,” 69.

Christmas, Day 12

LOOK: 3 Kings by Helen Siegl

Siegl, Helen_Three Kings
Helen Siegl (Austrian American, 1924–2009), 3 Kings, n.d. Etching and collagraph, 3 × 5 in. (7.6 × 12.7 cm).

Ah, such whimsy!

LISTEN: “We Three Cool Kings” | Words and music by John H. Hopkins, 1857 | Arranged by Eugene Gwozdz, 2015 | Sung by Alan H. Green, Mykal Kilgore, Dennis Stowe, Nili Bassman, Josh Davis, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Linda Mugleston, Brian O’Brien, Mary Michael Patterson, Mike Schwitter, and Rashidra Scoti on Broadway’s Carols for a Cure, vol. 17, 2015

We three kings of Orient are;
bearing gifts, we traverse afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star.

O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshipping God most high.

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Glorious now behold him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies.

This jazzified version of the Christmas classic “We Three Kings” is performed by the Broadway cast of At This Performance… Written in the voices of the magi (whose traditional names are Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar), it propounds the symbolic significance of the three gifts they give to the Christ child. I love how the arranger has layered those middle three verses!

Launched in 1999, Carols for a Cure is an annual collection of seasonal songs sung by members of the Broadway and Off-Broadway theater community to raise money for the charity Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS. Its latest volume, number 21, was released in 2019.

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.