One of my favourite Yuletide memories comes from about five years ago when me and my uncle Philip were able to sneak a figure of Darth Vader just behind Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in my Grandfather’s Nativity set. Faithful throughout the season, the Sith Lord remained in the holy huddle long into January.
During a hike in Derbyshire this summer, my team stumbled upon a National Trust charity bookshop, and as I rummaged through the library I found a book detailing the depictions of Jesus throughout history. I thought that this might be a good teaching resource one day and so I bought the BBC’s Seeing Salvation: Images of Christ in Art (2000) for a meagre 50p.
To my delight, the book is actually fascinating and is teaching me far more than I arrogantly supposed. This post will briefly examine one historical detail in the story of western Christian art. One theme that became increasingly interesting to artists as the institutional church grew into the Empire was the ‘adoration of the magi’ at the birth of Christ.
For example, the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (Italy) is filled with mosaics that see biblical characters rubbing shoulders with the contemporary aristocracy. In the ‘nativity scene’, the skillful artists have immortalized Empress Theodora and her attendants as those who pilgrimage to see the birth of the God-man, the three eastern originals referenced, or we could say footnoted, in the detail of her royal robe (547AD).
Similarly, and also located in Ravenna, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo holds a 556-69AD mosaic depicting the newborn Jesus in full Roman imperial toga as he greets the wise men from the throne of Mary’s lap. The authors Macgregor and Langmuir comment, “The Holy Family has become a hereditary monarchy” (p.32). Though not originally understood as kings, the Persian pagan priests are subsumed into the politics of power and state in the early church, and “from now on, the adoration of the wise men will be increasingly be seen as a kind of state visit from three monarchs to their new (admittedly superior) colleague”(p.33).
The ‘adoration the magi’ became a staple image for iconophilic Christianity; even the banking dynasty, the Casa de’ Medici had their own Florentine chapel lavishly decorated and well equipped with a Nativity altarpiece painted by no other than Filippo Lippi (1459-61).
It is with this cultural backdrop that the poverty-loving and riches-renouncing “Little Frenchman” of Assisi (1181-1226) created his own Nativity scene in 1223. St. Francis, as many of you already know, was born to a wealthy merchant family but after a conversion experience, he went about preaching the poverty of Christ, tending to lepers, and even once tried to end the Crusades by preaching Christ to the Sultan in Egypt.
It was on the 24th of December 1223 in Greccio that St. Francis is credited with “nothing less than the invention of Christmas” (p.49). Having had a life humbled by the enduring truth and the undoing humility of Christ’s incarnation he created one of the first anti-establishment art installations in history (if you forgive my anachronism).
With the go-ahead of the current Pope, Francis arranged his earthly nativity to be installed in a cave sixty miles north of Rome so that people “should see with their own eyes the hardships He suffered as an infant, how He was laid on hay in a manger with the ox and the ass standing by” (according to poet, and biographer Tomasso da Celano). Deliberately using the concrete people, animals, and objects that were considered to have been at the birth of Christ, Francis does away with the mediating mechanism of paint. In the first ever nativity, we do not see a gold-framed painting of a rounded cherub-like baby Jesus, but we are met with the cold newborn in a desolate cave, warmed with the unexpected arrival of worshippers. The first Nativity was a participatory art happening: people were invited to come and behold the likeness of the Son of God, in all his grot and glory.
The venerated Saint did not set out to create a cute bed for the adorable baby Jesus, or a pantomime for a primary school assembly, but he intended to shock the sensibilities of the anesthetized pre-modern man and expose all to the grittiness of the gospel, “restoring the Christ child to the poor” before the religious academics of the universities and monasteries.
Macgregor and Langmuir succinctly write, “the abstractions of theology become with Francis wonderfully concrete” (p.52). The original and historically contextualized nativity sought to involve everybody, not just shepherds and Kings, but all men and women from every strata of society to see the word made flesh. What a beautiful synthesis of theology of art-action?
My uncle and I had placed Darth Vader inside the family nativity, not because we were irreverent or impious, but because the kitsch grotto has (at least to us) become redundant, the hangover of Sunday school truisms that fail to leave a mark on ‘real life’.
My question is, how are we as artists to ‘do a Francis of Assisi’ today?
Benjamin Harris considers himself a student of art and theology, but somehow gets paid to teach them both.