Revealing the Incarnation

The Art of Advent
A Painting a Day from Advent to Epiphany
By Jane Williams
InterVarsity, pp. 152, $17

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Review by Phoebe Pettingell

For those looking to deepen their spiritual appreciation of Advent and Christmastide, these two short volumes of meditations by Jane Williams, using paintings from various artists, prove a most valuable resource. Like her husband, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, she is a systematic theologian, able to express her deep perceptions in clear, graceful prose. Williams has chosen a spectrum of paintings, some familiar, others less so, and her observations on each inspire and enlarge the reader’s appreciation of the subject.

The Art of Advent, originally chosen in 2018 as former Archbishop of York John Sentamu’s book for the season, and prefaced by him, focuses on the strange and complex nature of this prelude to the Incarnation. Advent is a time of renewal, the beginning of the Church year, a promise of the coming of One who will reverse the consequences of the Fall; yet even in the birth of Jesus, his suffering and death is forecast, while the prospect of his Second Coming brings terror as well as hope.

Williams delves into all these topics as she ponders her chosen paintings, beginning with the classic Advent themes of Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven. Death is illustrated by Albrecht Dürer’s engraving of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; Judgment by Hieronymus Bosch’s weird depiction of a dark and broken world of horrors beneath a serene sky where Christ sits over the rainbow surrounded by the righteous, and flanked by Mary and Adam, and angels with trumpets sound the joyful news of order restored as it was originally intended. Hell is again illustrated by Bosch from his “Garden of Earthly Pleasures,” in which every aspect of nature becomes warped and perverse, with humans surrounded by monsters and monstrous creations, while in the background, dark cities are partially illuminated with flame. Heaven, in contrast, is portrayed by Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” radiating the love of the father as he embraces his long-lost boy.

The Art of Christmas
Meditations On the Birth of Jesus
By Jane Williams
InterVarsity, pp. 114, $17

As an Amazon Associate, TLC earns from qualifying purchases.

Musing on a 16th-century painting of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, after the floodwaters have receded, Williams observes:

“John’s Gospel says that “all things” come into being through the creative power of the Son of God, and although the Gospels concentrate on the human reaction to Jesus, there are indications that the created world reacts too. Jesus stills the storm, walks on water, removes sickness, rides a donkey; in other words, he interacts with the physical environment as a human being who is fulfilling the role given to human beings in that first Genesis theology—to exercise God’s power for the good of all creation. In Romans 8, Paul writes that the whole of creation is in bondage and, like us, full of hope …. Creation, too, is waiting for God’s liberation in Jesus Christ, just as much as we are, and the two liberations are inseparable” (p. 61).

Williams does not limit herself to Western art, but includes African and Indigenous paintings that again broaden our horizons. And she often points out that many depictions of the biblical story take place in the artist’s own time and setting, precisely because these events are more than history. For us to fully understand them, they must be present to us as well. At the end of each meditation, Williams includes questions for the reader, which might also be used for group study. This book will continue to expand my understanding of Advent for a long time.

The Art of Christmas: Meditations on the Birth of Jesus concentrates on the various characters that make up the story of the Incarnation: angels; Mary and Elizabeth (with its echo of Hannah in 1 Samuel); Joseph; shepherds; creatures earthly and heavenly, human and animal; kingdoms, earthly and heavenly; the Wise Men; the Holy Family; and so forth, ending with Jesus’ heavenly family of the Father and Holy Spirit.

Each section begins with passages from the Gospels, which, like the Medieval Nativity plays, include not just the birth and what leads up to it, but also the Flight into Egypt and the Massacre of the Innocents (although none of the rich pictures illustrating these events are included). Once again, Williams’s meditations on the chosen paintings are enlightening, even daring. Discussing “The Adoration of the Magi” by Pieter Breughel the Elder, she observes:

[The Black King’s] crown seems to be a series of upright thorns, bound around his head, and he is carrying a golden ship with a long, trailing chain. Whether Breughel intended it or not, a modern viewer sees a slave ship, and a man who knows the cost of human sin, and offers the myrrh to the child who will undergo death on a cross in an unjust world. Although the peak of the Dutch involvement in the slave trade was not until after Breughel’s death, the fabulous wealth of Africa had already inspired rapacity, and the brutal trade in human lives was already underway in other parts of Europe. (p. 76)

In seasons when the cultural emphasis is on sentimental versions of happy families, along with acquisition, so that some churches now hold “Blue Christmas” services for those who can’t feel the expected joy, Jane Williams’s two volumes remind us that these two seasons’ real depth is much more significant and complicated, with a wide range of emotions: yes, the promise of “Peace on Earth and Good Will,” of which Jesus Christ’s Incarnation brought a foretaste, has a fulfillment which will only be completed when he returns to bring New Heaven, New Earth. In the meantime, Williams shows how, in the range of artistic representations she has chosen, Christians can now call God “Our Father.” What we see in these paintings is not just the birth of Jesus but also our own new birth into God’s family.

Phoebe Pettingell is a writer and editor living in northern Wisconsin.

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