Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Feasts and Remembrances in the Octave of Christmas

Follower of Simon Bening, The Angels Announce
the Birth of Jesus to the Shepherds
From a Book of Hours
Flemish,  c. 1500-1525
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 E 3, fol. 85v

Some of the major Church feasts bring with them a week of other celebrations.  This is known as an octave, from the Latin word for the number eight.  In times past many more feasts had octaves attached to them.  Most no longer do, while for most that remain the days of the octave are simply labeled "x day in the Octave of y" (for example, third day in the Octave of Easter).  

Christmas is, however, different.  It retains a daily differentiation for its octave, with each day of the octave having its own, very distinctive character.  Thus, we see:

December 26 - Feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr.

December 27 - Feast of Saint John the Evangelist:

      - When Knowledge of Iconography Is Lost (click here)
      - Images of John as Evangelist (click here)
      - The Figure With The Chalice (click here)
      - Martyrdom, Miracles and Death of John the Evangelist (click here)
      - Witnesses to the Crucifixion (click here)
      - The Last Supper (click here)

December 28 - Feast of the Holy Innocents (click here)

December 29 - Feast of Saint Thomas Becket (Currently an optional memorial) (click here)

December 30 - Feast of the Holy Family (In years where there is no Sunday between December 25 and January 1 (i.e., because both the feast days fall on Sundays) the feast is celebrated on December 30.  If there is a Sunday between those dates, the feast is celebrated on the Sunday instead) (click here)

December 31 - Feast of Saint Sylvester, Pope (Currently an optional memorial)

January 1 -- Feast of Mary, Mother of God (click here)

While I have not yet produced an essay on the iconography of Saints Stephen or Sylvester, I have produced essays on the other days.  You can access these essays by clicking the links above as indicated.

Have a Merry and Blessed Christmas Octave!

© M. Duffy, 2023

Friday, December 22, 2023

On the Iconography of Christmas


Luisa Roldan (called La Roldana), Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Spanish, c. 1690
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Advent/Christmas Season has figured heavily in the history of Western Christian art from the early fourth century onward.  There is a tremendous amount of material available and over the years of this blog I have written a great deal about the iconography attached to the various days and weeks.  To make the material more accessible to readers I have gathered below most of these essays into a series of useful links for connecting to what I have already written on the various subjects (much as I have done for Holy Week and the Easter season).  

Although the specific readings these images reflect do not form part of the liturgy in every year, each year does touch on most of them.  

Please note that occasionally one or more of the essays mentioned may be unavailable at times.  This is because I am attempting to keep the essays updated with new images or images that have become available in more detailed versions, thanks to improving technology and expanded access to images.

So, here goes...

Last Week of Advent/Preparation for Christmas

The O Antiphons.  These are a series of antiphons (short verses that precede and follow the prayer of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer (Vespers) during the last week of Advent.  They offer meditations on the significance of the Child born on Christmas Day.

The O Antiphons (introduction)  click here

  • O Wisdom, O Holy Word of God!  click here
  • O Flower of Jesse's Stem!  click here 
  • O Key of David! Come, break down the walls of death!  click here   
  • O Radiant Dawn! O Sun of Justice!  click here  
  • O King of All the Nations!  click here  
  • O Emmanuel! Savior of all people, come and set us free! click here

Nativity (central group of figures) from the Metropolitan Museum Christmas Tree
Italian (Naples), Late 18th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Annunciation

The apparition of the Archangel Gabriel to the young woman of Nazareth named Mary is the event that begins the events of the life of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, the Gospel readings for Mass on the last Sunday and last week of Advent, focus on it.  It has also been a principal topic for artists for many centuries, and is quite frequent on Christmas cards as well.  I have written extensively on the iconography of the Annunciation and my work can easily be accessed through the guide that I put together last year.

  • Links to the Iconography of the Annunciation  click here

The Consolation of Saint Joseph 

An angel reveals to Joseph that Mary's pregnancy comes from God, not from a man.  Joseph acts on his dream and marries Mary, becoming the guardian of the Son of God.

Circle of Antoine Le Moiturier, Nativity
French, c. 1450
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Birth of Jesus

The Nativity

Mary and Joseph are unable to find lodging in a crowded Bethlehem and find shelter in a stable (or cave) where Mary gives birth and places her child in the manger where the animals usually feed.  Angels announce the good news of his birth to the shepherds in the fields, who come and adore him. 

The Holy Family

Images of the three members of the Holy Family. 

  • Jesus, Mary and Joseph! – The Holy Family  click here  

Altarpiece with Scenes of the Infancy of Christ
Northern French, Late 15th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Aftermath

The Visit of the Wise Men

Wise men, led by a star, come from the East to visit the newborn child and offer him rich gifts.

  • How the Image of the Wise Men Was Formed  click here

The Holy Innocents

King Herod the Great knows about the prophecy of a new king in Israel.  After hearing the story of the wise men he decides to ensure his throne by eliminating this new born king.  So, he orders the massacre of all infant boys under 2 years old.  

  • The Holy Innocents – Nearly Forgotten Baby Martyrs  click here

The Flight into Egypt  

An angel warns Joseph about Herod's plans and orders him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to wait for Herod's death.  The Holy Family flees.

  • The Flight into Egypt -- The Holy Refugees, The "Simple" Images (Part I of a Series)  click here
  • The Flight Into Egypt -- The Variations (Part 2 of a Series)  click here
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part I of 3  click here  
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part II of 3  click here  
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part III of 3  click here

Related Feasts  

The beginning of the new year brings with it two feasts that are reflections on the Christmas story rather than narrative depictions of the Gospels.  These are the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on January 1 and the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus on January 3.

I wish you all a Blessed Christmas and a Healthy New Year!

Christmas Tree with 18th Century Presepio
Italian, 18th Century (tree modern)
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

For those of you who live in the New York area or who may be visiting, the glorious Christmas Tree with its 18th Century Italian Presepio figures (sometimes known as the Angel Tree) is again on view.  This year it can be visited until January 7, 2024.  As always, it is well worth the visit.  

© M. Duffy, 2021, 2022 2023.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The Iconography of the Annunciation


Attributed to the Egerton Master, Hours of Rene of Anjou
French (Paris), 1410
London, British Library
MS Egerton 1070, fol.15v 

""    "Be pleased, almighty God,
 to accept your Church’s offering,
 so that she, who is aware that her beginnings
 lie in the Incarnation of your Only Begotten Son,
 may rejoice to celebrate his  mysteries on this
 Who lives and reigns for ever and  ever."

     This is the Offertory Prayer of the Mass for the Feast of the Solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25.

        Please note in 2024 this feast has been moved to April 8th.  The customary date on Monday of Holy Week, which took precedence.


     At its very beginning Christianity makes an astounding claim.  This is that one of God's greatest messengers, the Archangel Gabriel, visited a teenage Jewish girl in the Galilean town of Nazareth and announced to her that she had "found favor with God" to become the mother of a special child.  He told her that her child would be a son and would be named Jesus and that "He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  Her quite reasonable answer was that she didn't see how this could be as she was a virgin, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”  (Luke 1:26-35)

      The angel responded with the mysterious words: “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God."  And at these words the girl, whose name was Mary, gave her consent.  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”  And, nine months later, a baby boy was born in a stable in the Judean town of Bethlehem. (Luke 1:35-38)


     This is the Annunciation.  It is a feast day of the church that is celebrated on March 25th each year.  The date of the event that it commemorates is unknown of course.  But there was a belief in the early Church that March 25th was the day on which Jesus was both conceived and crucified.  It is difficult to say whether this thinking influenced the date chosen for the celebration of Christmas, the feast of the birth of Christ, as nine months from March 25 is December 25.  Or it may have been the other way round, with the date chosen to commemorate the birth of Christ dictating the date on which the Church celebrates his conception.

     The Annunciation is a major event in the New Testament, and therefore has a long and complex visual history.  Artists have tried to convey some of the mystery surrounding the event and to convey the ways in which thinking about this event developed over time.  A list of the many ways in which this iconography has been developed through the centuries is listed below.   Please feel free to explore.

© M. Duffy, 2022

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
The English translation of the Order of Mass, Antiphons, Collects, Prayers over the Offerings, Prayers after Communion, and Prefaces from The Roman Missal © 2010, ICEL. All rights reserved.

O Key of David! Come, Break Down the Walls of Death!


Pseudo-Jacquemart, The Harrowing of Hell
From the Petites Heures of Jean de Berry
French (Bourges), c. 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18014, fol. 166r

The antiphon for December 20 reads:  "O Key of David, opening the gates of God's eternal Kingdom:  come and free the prisoners of darkness!"

This plea echoes the words found in the Apostles Creed regarding what is known as the Harrowing of Hell.

The Apostles Creed, prayed by virtually every Christian denomination that uses a creed, says of Jesus the "He descended into hell" following His death and before the Resurrection. 

The fact that this subject is found in the Apostles Creed testifies to its early appearance in Christian belief, as does the Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday, which is a reading from the Divine Office for Holy Saturday.  

This beautiful reading, part of the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours for Holy Saturday states:
"Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell.

The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them
worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity."

This belief is that during the time between His death on the Cross and the Resurrection, Jesus descended to limbo to free the souls of the previously deceased just who were confined in waiting there.  Limbo is a place of darkness and peace, but not of the Presence of God, which had been lost through Original Sin.   Their souls were confined to limbo because had been barred from entering heaven by Adam's sin, but they were set free by Christ's saving death.  For them He truly became the Key of David, breaking down the walls of death and leading the captives to freedom and joy.  

There is a long tradition of images in art illustrating this subject. 

In the East the tradition culminates in the dramatic and dynamic Anastasis of the church of Saint Saviour in Chora in Istanbul, in which Christ seems to drag Adam and Eve from their graves.  

Anastasis (Harrowing of Hell)
Byzantine, 1316-1321
Istanbul, Church of Saint Saviour in Chora

In the West the image appears in the Klosterneuberg Altarpiece by Nicholas of Verdun, as well as in many paintings.

Nicholas of Verdun, Harrowing of Hell
Mosan (Meuse region), 1181
Klosterneuberg Austria, Klosterneuberg Priory

There are two distinct types of iconography that apply to most of these images. In one, Christ breaks down actual gates, which are often shown thrown to the ground or hanging off their hinges.  

Harrowing of Hell
From the Psalter of Christina of Markyate_
English (St. Alban's), 1124-1145
Hildesheim, Dombibliothek
Page 49

Workshop of Duccio, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Giotto Workshop, The Harrowing of Hell
Italian, c. 1320-1325
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek

Fra Angelico, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1437-1445
Florence, Museo di San Marco

Master of the Osservanza, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, c. 1445
Cambridge (MA), Fogg Museum

In the other Christ leads or sometimes drags the souls of the dead from the 'mouth of hell', shown as the jaws of a whale-like monster or from a cave that resembles an open mouth.

Harrowing of Hell
From Miniatures of the Life of Christ
French (Northern), 1170-1180
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 44, fol. 11v

Andrea da Firenze, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1365-1368
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Capella Spagnuolo

Alabaster Relief, Harrowing of Hell
English, c. 1440-1470
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Luca Penni, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, c. 1547-1548
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In both types He carries the staff, topped with a cross or with a pennant bearing a cross, that is His banner of victory over death.

Later images show Christ dragging the souls of the just from a more generalized image of a limbo jammed with just souls in waiting.  In these images the iconography of the gates or the mouth of hell is not as emphasized as in the earlier images.

The Harrowing of Hell
From a Book of Homilies
German (Lower Rhine), c. 1320-1350
Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum
MS W. 148, fol. 21r

Friedrich Pacher, The Harrowing of Hell
German, c. 1460s
Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts

Andrea Mantegna, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1468
Private Collection 

Agnolo Bronzino, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1552
Florence, Church of Santa Croce

Tintoretto, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1568
Venice, Church of San Cassiano

© M. Duffy, 2023

Sunday, December 17, 2023

The O Antiphons

Follower of the Coetivy Master, Initial O
From a Book of Hours
French (Loire Region), c. 1470-1480
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G1.II, fol. 232v

For the convenience of readers I am reposting this listing of the O Antiphons. 

In the week before Christmas, the Liturgy of the Hours (the official daily prayer of the Church) includes a series of special antiphons preceding the recitation of the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55) during Evening Prayer that are collectively called the O Antiphons.  In the English-speaking world most Christians are familiar with them as they are paraphrased in the complete verses of the well-known Advent hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel", which is a free translation of the medieval Latin text.

The O Antiphons refer to Christ under eight different titles.  These titles connect the events of the Old Testament that forecast different aspects of Jesus and the salvation He came to give.

To see the images these titles reflect, click on the title of the antiphon below:

December 19 -- O Flower of Jesse's Stem!

In recent years a revival of lay interest in the Liturgy of the Hours has brought more awareness of these special texts.

Here is a video of Ely Cathedral Women's Choir singing the traditional English version of "Veni, Veni, Emmanuel".

© M. Duffy, 2017