Same Story, New Meanings: Tracing the Christmas Story in Famous Artworks

The festival of Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ and this important Biblical event has been immortalized by many famous artists through their artworks. Here’s casting a glimpse at some of the most famous and intriguing ones.

The Census at Bethlehem – Peter Bruegel

Peter Bruegel is known for his humanized depictions of winter. In his paintings, the harshest of winter settings are offset by human activity and closeness and this somehow makes his landscapes seem less bleak and severe. This painting too seems like one of his regular winter depictions, there is the portrayal of a ruthless winter, branches are barren, lakes have frozen over and the sky is a depressing steely grey. However, the town is alive with activity. Barrels are being wheeled, elsewhere, villagers are shovelling snow or skating, many have clustered outside an inn too, eager to take shelter in the warmth indoors. Then, your eye falls on a figure mounted on a donkey, and there’s another walking in front of it. That’s when you realize this is no regular painting but one depicting the arrival of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. We remember the lines ‘they find no room in the inn.’ By setting the scene in contemporary Flanders, the artist seems to be telling his viewers to remember this story, and to be kind to strangers.

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Image courtesy: commons wikimedia

The Nativity – Federico Barrocci

This painting is unique in its depiction of Christ’s nativity. Traditional depictions include the shepherds, the three kings, angels and animals. It’s always a crowded setting and in the midst of all of this lie baby Jesus and his parents – Mary and Joseph. This painting however cuts out everyone else. Even Joseph is relegated to the sidelines and we cannot see his face in the picture. The entire focus lies of child Jesus and Mary. The connection between mother and child is highlighted and Mary’s face says it all. There is a look of tenderness and affection as she gazes at her child. The child is shown gazing into his mother’s eyes and this emphasizes the mutual bond they share. This is perhaps one of the best paintings depicting the bond with Mary and Jesus.

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Image courtesy: wikipedia

Mystical Nativity – Sandro Botticelli

Hailed as a masterpiece of Italian renaissance art, this Botticelli painting is as intriguing as it is beautiful. The painting captures the nativity scene, with Joseph, Mary and Jesus presented in the centre of the painting. There are the animals and the angels, but something about the painting, perhaps the strange positioning of angels and the escaping demons tell you that there’s more to it than meets the eye. This painting is said to be about Christ’s second coming, a promise made in the book of Revelations. At this time, the book says, devout Christians will be reconciled with God and it also heralds the end of the world. What’s interesting about this painting isn’t the message, but Botticelli’s presentation of the message. It’s interesting how he plays with perspective and proportion to create a sense of imbalance, hysteria even, to evoke in the viewer a feeling of uneasiness. The painting seems to tell us – An apocalyptic event is going to take place, ready yourselves. The fleeing demons and the gigantic figures of Mary and Joseph tell you that good will triumph over evil while angels embrace mortal men in a gesture of reconciliation and redemption.

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Image courtesy: archives evergreen edu

Rest on the Flight into Egypt – Orazio Gentileschi

According to the Bible, Mary and Joseph flee Israel on learning of Herod’s plan to kill all male new-born children in his kingdom. After many days of journeying, they arrive in Egypt, exhausted and weary, and stop to rest. Gentileschi captures this moment in his painting. The composition of the painting is interesting and much is done to draw attention towards the theme and important subjects in the painting. For one, Gentileschi avoids placing his subjects in the wilderness and chooses a stark, barren background instead. This heightens the effect of the languishing bodies and one can almost feel the exhaustion Joseph and Mary are experiencing. He also seems to equate the size of his subjects with their importance. Hence, the child Jesus has gigantic proportions. The next important person is Mary, who seems monumental when compared to Joseph. It’s also interesting how the infant has been depicted gazing outside the frame, at the viewer. This involves the viewer further and almost sucks you into the plight of the fleeing couple.

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Image courtesy: commons wikimedia