Sunday, December 25, 2016

Love's Pure Light -- Light From Darkness

Federico Barocci, Nativity
Italian, 1597
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Silent Night, Holy Night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child,
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace, 
Sleep in heavenly peace.

There is probably not one church in the world where the famous carol, "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" in one of its many translations, is not sung sometime during the Christmas season.  And there is good reason for this.  The Scriptures read during the midnight Mass for Christmas emphasize the darkness pierced by light.

In the first reading we hear the words of Isaiah "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwell in the land of gloom a light has shone." (Isaiah 9:1) and the Gospel of Luke tells us that at the birth of Jesus "Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock." (Luke 2:8).  Hence, the image of the Nativity created in our minds is of an event that takes place in the dark, not a metaphorical dark, as darkness is used in the Old Testament Scripture just cited, but a real dark, the dark of night.

In our minds we see Mary and Joseph, their quest for a place to stay for the birth frustrated by the late hour and nowhere to shelter but a stable. We imagine the birth taking place in the darkness, perhaps lit only by a candle.  We see the shepherds on the nearby hills, astonished as "the glory of the Lord shone around them" (Luke 9:9) and arriving at the stable in the dark to see "the infant lying in the manger" (Luke 9:16).

Even though this emphasis on darkness is very strong it was many centuries before it was explored by artists.  Initial images of the Nativity presented the scene against a golden background in a kind of eternal timelessness. 
Pietro Cavallini, Nativity
Italian, 1296-1300
Rome, Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere
Although replaced in the later middle ages by indications of landscape and interiors, this remained pretty much how things were seen until the early fifteenth century.
Lorenzo Monaco, Nativity
Italian, c.1406-1410
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

At that time, artists began to explore the possibilities of using the darkness of night and the brightness of the newborn Savior and of the angels announcement to the shepherds to add realism to their images of the Nativity.

Gentile da Fabriano, Nativity
Italian, 1423
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

Fra Angelico, Nativity
Italian, 1440-1441
Florence, Convento di San Marco
from Fleur des histoires by Jean Mansel
French, c.1450-1475
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 56, fol. 14
Probably the supreme effect of these early attempts to show the effect of light piercing darkness is the Nativity painted by the Dutch artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans.  In this work the darkness is broken by two light sources:  the Child in the manger and the angel on the hillside beyond.  All the other figures in the scene are partially and realistically revealed by the light coming from these two sources.  Thus, in the stable, we see the angels, the ox and ass and Mary and Joseph themselves fitfully revealed by the mystic light shining from the True Light that shines in the darkness (John 1:5-9).  Similarly, in the background, the hillside and the dim figures of the shepherds are revealed by the light shining from the angelic messenger.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Nativity
Dutch, c.1490
London, National Gallery
From this point on many artists began to explore the effects of this mystical light on nighttime Nativity scenes.  They are frequently referred to by the title "The Holy Night"
Jean Bourdichon, Nativity
from Hours of Frédéric d'Aragon
French (Tours), 1501-1504
Paris, Bibliotheque naationale de France
MS Latin 10532, fol. 134

Jean Bourdichon, Nativity
from Grandes heures of Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 51v

Defendente Ferrari, Nativity
Italian, 1510
Turin, Museo Civico d'Arte Antica

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Nativity
German, 1515-1520
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie

Correggio, Nativity
Italian, 1528-1530
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie
Giorgio Vasari, Nativity
Italian, 1546
Rome, Borghese Gallery

Caravaggio, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence
Italian, 1609
Palermo, Formerly Oratorio di San Lorenzo

Gerrit van Honthorst, Nativity
Dutch, c.1620
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

Guido Reni, Adoration of Shepherds
Italian, c.1640
London, National Gallery
Carlo Maratti, Nativity
Italian. 1650s
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie

Antonio Balestra, Adoration of the Shepherds
Italian, c.1707
Venice, Church of San Zaccaria

One of the most interesting parts of these paintings is the fact that they show the light emanating from the Christ Child and, in the background of some, the angel who is addressing the shepherds in the fields. Natural light may be present as well, from a lantern or candle, but it is the supernatural light that is the most powerful light source in these works.

And this brings us back to "Stille Nacht".  In English the third verse runs.

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love's pure light;
Radiance beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth

What these artists imagined is the radiance beaming from the tiny Son, love's pure light, .
James Tissot, Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

A Blessed Christmas!

© M. Duffy, 2016

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