Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Nativity Trail

At this time of year the plans of mice and men are probably best not laid at all. Last week everything came unstuck because of the weather and this week the cause of the disruption is an outbreak of flu which is apparently gathering momentum apace and threatening to reach epidemic proportions. One of the casualties is my friend Margaret, with whom I should have been spending today, and so I filled the space in the diary by going into Birmingham to see the Nativity Trail organised by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

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.

Perhaps the painting I liked the most was Gentileschi's account of The Rest in the Flight into Egypt. Not the topic you think of most immediately when looking for nativity subjects, perhaps, but still very definitely part of the story. What I love about this, apart of course from the donkey, is the very human face he has given to Mary. I'm not sure how well it's going to reproduce here, but there is nothing saintly or ethereal about this young woman. She is tired and frightened, but still determined to look after the child. I will give Joseph the benefit of the doubt and assume that he has been walking while Mary has been on the donkey. Otherwise I might have 'thoughts' about his lack of concern for his family. He looks as though he might never get up again. Some of the reproductions I've seen have no donkey and looking at the Birmingham version it does appear as if he was a bit of an after thought. Perhaps Gentileschi discovered that the could paint donkeys' heads but not their bodies and so blanked out his efforts with a slab of rock. Now that really would be human.


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