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‘Visio Divina’ and the Art of the Nativity

I recently reviewed a beautiful book, Divine Love: Art of the Nativity by Sarah Drummond, which occupies a place at the intersection of art history and theology. Drummond traces the various themes, characters, and symbols found in the Western art tradition depicting the birth of Christ and the events leading up to it. Her careful research, which covers the earliest Christian art up to the Renaissance, reveals the developments in those traditions over time, such as the eventual inclusion of midwives in the birth scene, despite their not being mentioned in the scriptural text, the shift from depicting Jesus’ birth in the setting of a cave to a stable, and the choice of the ox and ass as the animal representatives beside the manger, and the theological themes that each of these traditions embody.

Reading Divine Love made me more attentive to the art surrounding the Christmas story, while I have been using art as a reflective tool in the parish Bible study that I lead. As we have studied the women of the Gospels on Wednesday mornings this fall, one of our spiritual disciplines has been looking at art of those stories through the practice of visio divina.

Visio divina is a “riff” on the more traditional spiritual practice of lectio divina. Rather than focusing on the biblical text and its words, it uses visual art as the medium by which God speaks to us through his Word. While acknowledging that an artist’s interpretation of a biblical story represents the artist’s perspective, limitations, and biases, taking in the artist’s vision of the story, its characters, and its themes can deepen our understanding of and appreciation of the text and lead us into prayer. We consider how through a host of artistic choices — the style of the painting, the placement of the figures, their posture and facial expressions, and the use of symbols — artists bring these stories to life in a unique way. Reflecting on art in a conversation with others can be a powerful experience, as we glean unexpected lessons from other people’s observations and insights.

As I have done further research, gathering images of these stories to share in our Bible study, I have been drawn to art of the nativity from a period later than those that Drummond’s book covers — the turn of the 20th century. In particular I have been struck by the work of three artists, who sought to depict events from Scripture in a new way — Henry Ossawa Tanner, James Tissot, and Gari Melchers. Though different in their backgrounds, they had a common artistic goal: to paint with greater realism than much of the religious art that had preceded them. Tanner and Tissot both went to great lengths to do so, visiting the Holy Land in order to gain a sense of the New Testament’s original setting, landscape, and culture, so they could imagine and depict these familiar Bible stories in a way that reflected their original context.

In the spirit of visio divina, I offer the three following images as spiritual food for your reflection on Christ’s birth this Christmastide, accompanied with brief biographical information about the artist and my reflections on how these works can lead us into deeper devotion and prayer.

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

Tanner (1859-1937) was an African American artist. The son of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, he made his home in Paris as an adult and took two extended trips to the Holy Land, which informed his many religious paintings.

In his depiction of the Annunciation, Gabriel is a slim column of light rather than an ornate angel with wings; the placement of the shelf behind Gabriel forms the shape of the cross and foreshadows how the course of events unfolding here will ultimately lead to the cross. The rumples in the bedclothes, rug, and clothes are an exercise of artistic realism that add to the sense of how Gabriel has burst upon a very ordinary scene that is not carefully curated and prepared.

Mary is young, a little afraid, pensive, and yet composed. The tilt of her head suggests she is listening carefully and pondering “what kind of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). I like to think Tanner chose to depict the moment just before she says, “How will this be?” rather than the moment that so many depictions show, the moment of Mary’s acceptance: “Let it be to me according to your word.” Reading Amy Peeler’s book Women and the Gender of God recently has made me more attentive to the complexity of Luke’s depiction of Mary, which Tanner communicates here — she does not just immediately accept the role in demure submission, as she is shown to do in so much of the art of the Annunciation. Rather, she is taking in Gabriel’s words, considering the possibilities and ramifications, and asking questions. Gabriel takes her seriously and honors the mental, emotional, and spiritual process she goes through as she absorbs his announcement and God’s invitation, and allows her the time and space to come to her “yes.”

Do we think God expects us to turn into religious robots and offer instant obedience when asked to do something that will stretch us beyond what we think we can handle? Is there something God is asking of us, inviting us to do with him, and we think the holiest response would be to bypass any spiritual struggle on the way to saying “yes”? Can we see how God honors us in our discernment with his gentleness and patience, and how our “yes” to cooperating with God, while we accept that it will involve suffering, will become the path to great joy as well?

St. Joseph Seeking a Lodging in Bethlehem, Tissot, 1886-94

James Tissot (1836-1902) was a French artist who, after having a religious vision in a church in Paris in the middle of his career, began work on an extensive series of 365 paintings depicting stories from the life of Christ. He traveled to the Holy Land multiple times in order to see firsthand the places where these events occurred.

In his depiction of Joseph seeking a place to stay in Bethlehem, Tissot captures the narrow and chaotic streets of an ancient city. Joseph is all action, facing away from the viewer, calling up to an innkeeper, who gestures “no room” with his hands. Mary waits on the donkey’s back, not serene and placid but anxious and shy, holding her hand up to her face, perhaps shielding herself from the gaze of prying eyes looking at her from the window above. Three of the figures in the composition have their backs to the viewer, communicating a lack of connection to or concern for this couple’s plight. Three other figures — the child on the stairs on the right, and the women in the window on the left — look down on them in detached curiosity, but they do not offer help. Here, unlike in Tissot’s visitation, there are no family members greeting them with open arms, just a faint hope that someone will have mercy on them, a hope that grows dimmer with each rejection they receive. Tissot’s attention to Mary and Joseph’s feelings at this precarious moment is reminiscent of his painting The Anxiety of St. Joseph, which shows Joseph in his carpentry shop before the angel’s message in a dream, mulling over the news that Mary is pregnant and wondering what he should do in response.

Jesus came into a situation that was uncertain, to parents who were marginalized, sent on this journey far from their home in Nazareth by the Roman imperial system and without resources to pave the way before them. What a relief to know that God doesn’t turn up his nose at messy situations, that God doesn’t turn away when we feel at the end of our rope, left without good choices, far from comforting scenes. May we be encouraged that God doesn’t wait for us to have it all together before deigning to come and dwell among us.

The Nativity, Gari Melchers (1891)

I was surprised, when I first came across this image, to realize it was over a hundred years old; I expected the artist to still be living. As a member of the naturalist movement, Gari Melchers (1860-1932) sought to bring a realism to his work, born of out his goal to “paint only that which is ‘true and clear.’”

In contrast to so many manger scenes, in which all are at their best, composed, well-groomed, and piously adoring the Christ child, Melcher depicts Mary and Joseph’s rumpled exhaustion, Mary slumped beside Joseph as she leans on him for support. Joseph is vigilant, watching over the baby and his wife, but his shoulders appear heavy with the clock resting over them, and perhaps also with the responsibility that now lies upon him. And yet, given all that, they are mesmerized by the baby lying before them, who is the source of light in the scene rather than the lantern that sits on the floor behind the small manger. Joseph’s hands are folded in a very natural way, and yet they are also folded in devotion, as in so many nativity scenes that precede this one.

Emmanuel, God with us — the one who took on our flesh and came to dwell among us — is barely more than a smudge on the page. But he is here with Mary and Joseph in this simple and bare space, here in the midst of their struggle and fatigue, and already radiant, showing himself to be the one who gives light to every person (John 1:9). May we take heart that God is ready to enter into even the simplest and most tiring moments of our lives, ready to enlighten our lives with his presence.

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