The Art Of Christmas

The Art Of Christmas – a talk by Valerie Woodgate on December

Valerie began by telling us that she endeavours to use paintings from Galleries that we can visit and see the paintings for ourselves. Valerie then took us through a fascinating story of  how the Christmas story is shown in art throughout the centuries and with different interpretations.

The birth of Jesus is relayed in only two of the gospels so painters had only these two accounts to use.

The early painting by Duccio in 1311 ( in the National Gallery ) is part of a larger painting . The wings are purely symbolic. Duccio tells the story through body language and colour. The angel has ethereal colours and  the colours of Mary are very earthly. The divide between Mary and the Angel appears very often in Italian art.


There are similarities with the Fra Angelica painting of 1435 (currently in the Prado ) – the blue robe and the expression of humility On the left can be seen Adam and Eve – a mixing of the Old and New Testaments. Augustine said that the Old Testament is the New Testament covered in a veil, and the New Testament is the Old Testament unveiled. Mary was known as the new Eve and Jesus was the new Adam


The Annunciation by Fra Filippo Lippi from the 1440s (currently in the National Gallery ) shows Mary with a book. The dove has golden rays coming from it .


The altarpiece attributed to Thomas Camin is set indoors in comparison to the Italian paintings. Instead of a dove we have a child himself. The clear glass symbolises the virgin’s womb and the child is coming through the glass. The white lily shows purity.


The Annunciation by Grunewald 1512-16 depicts Mary still reading


Whilst the ‘Madonna de Paro’ by Piero de Francesco shows Mary heavily pregnant and her face full of sorrow.


In the ‘Census at Bethlehem’ by Jan Bruegel the Elder from the 16th century was painted at a time when people were expected to pay half of their monies and crops to the Hapsburgs of Spain and this can be seen in the painting.


St. Francis was responsible for moving the story away from divinity to humanity. The Madonna and Child – a mosaic – depicts the divinity 


Whereas the ‘Birth of Jesus ‘- a Persian miniature from the 18th century shows a baby who is hungry so the palm is shaken for food 


The Russian icon dating from the 16th. century is not to scale. In this size is related to sanctity. At the front we can see Joseph being tempted by the devil.


The ‘Mystic Nativity’ by Boticelli (National Gallery ) was painted at a time when people were afraid that the world was ending thus the Virgin was painted very large- too large in fact for the stable.


The ‘Holy Family’ by Rembrandt  1640 (currently in the Louvre) contains no symbolism –



Valerie then talked to us about  the paintings of the visits by the shepherds. Paintings of the shepherds did not appear until 1500.

‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ by Bassano in the1500s. It is set in a ruin which symbolises the end of the old religion and the birth of the new. The lamb is often used to represent Christ.


The ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ by Poussin in 1634 shows how Poussin has used composition very well. The people at the front appear like an arrow leading to the baby 


Compared to Poussin’s painting, the ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’  by Rembrandt – 1646 shows how the artist has used light to draw attention to the baby. There is also a feeling of humility which is not in the Poussin painting.


Valerie then concluded her lecture with paintings of the Kings.

The Adoration of the Kings by Jan Gossaert from the early 16th century  (in the National Gallery) is a most beautiful painting where the kings represent the ages of man and different parts of the world.


The painting of ‘The Adoration of the Kings’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is so very different – the kings are wearing glorious robes and the child is shrinking away as myrrh is being offered (which depicts death) 


We were all enthused by this  very fascinating and comprehensive study of Christmas art.