Wednesday, 29 December 2010
Just before Christmas a friend and ex-colleague came to the University to give a lecture on the nativity as painted by Jan de Beer. In one sense this was another example of the best laid plans because the painting, which is part of the Barber Collection, has been away for conservation and the lecture was intended to celebrate its return to the gallery. However, the work needed proved to be more extensive than had first been thought and so Martin had to speak to slides rather than the original. One of the points that he made was that nativity paintings can normally be pinned down to one gospel version or another. Extremely obvious when you think about it - I'd simply never thought about it. Interestingly, the de Beer is a St John nativity. And yes, there is no account of the nativity in St John, but what Martin was picking up on was the centrality in this painting of the light sources and the recurring idea in John's gospel of Jesus as the light of the world.
Walking around the Birmingham exhibition this afternoon it was clear that his thesis was correct. Even though I am no biblical scholar I could place each of the works in respect of the version of the nativity story it was exploring. What was perhaps more fascinating was the way in which the paintings also reflected the times in which they had been created. The Burne-Jones kings could have walked straight out of one of his Arthurian tapestries and the shepherds in the stained glass window created as a memorial to the fallen of the First World War were clearly men who had known the horror of the trenches.