CHRIST-MASS – ‘The Nativity’ by Petrus Christus, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., c. mid – 1450’s (Part 2)
‘Christmas waves a magic wand over the world, and behold everything is softer and more beautiful’ – Norman Vincent Peale
These words truly resonate with the spirit of Christmas. But what does the word Christmas mean? The Catholic Encyclopaedia states – ‘The word Christmas in late Old English is Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ.’ If Christmas spells Christ’s Mass how is it related to the Holy Eucharist? The answer to this question is revealed in today’s painting. Titled ‘The Nativity’ this devotional work of art dates back to the mid-1450 and was executed by the Early Netherlandish painter Petrus Christus.
Before reading further we encourage you to explore the profound prelude to the painting in Part 1 of this article. Having comprehended the context, we now move to the heart of this work of art. The scene is simple yet serene. It subtly illustrates the fulfillment of the Old Testament through iconography. The sculpted figurines on the arch depict the Fall of Humankind while the scene within it announces the Redemption. Thus the artist spares no effort to enhance the emotion and devotion to the Nativity of Christ.
Let’s sneak into the shed. At the centre of the scene, we encounter the Holy Family. The Immaculate Mother stands in awe before her little baby, yet a baby God. ‘How can this be?’ was her query to the Angel. Nine months later Mary marvels at her new-born for truly ‘With God nothing is impossible.’ Accompanying her in contemplation is the faithful St Joseph. His green and red robe are an instant indication of the colours of the season.
Notice the little babe blissfully lying on the ground. The blue veil beneath him signals his extension from Mary and the unique union they share. The naked new-born also embodies the virtues of simplicity, humility, and poverty. They hearken to the words – ‘My kingship does not come from this world’ (John 18:36)
The space inhabited by the Holy Family is Holy Ground. Notice that St. Joseph holds his hat in his hand and his pattens are respectfully removed and placed beside him. The scene recalls the famous episode of the Burning Bush in the Old Testament. Just as Moses encounters God for the first time in the burning bush, so also does the faithful saint see the face of God in His Son, Jesus of Nazareth.
A detailed glance within the shed depicts the presence of the ox and the donkey, traditional symbols of the Old and the New Testament. A dilapidated wall fringes the rear of the stall. Four shepherds (two active and two passive) seem to be chatting amiably. Notice that the ones in blue are seeing and listening while the ones in red do neither. Doesn’t this remind us of Matthew 13:13 – ‘That is why I speak to them in parables because they look and yet do not see; they hear but they do not listen or understand.’
With this, we move to the ‘Holy of Holies’ where senses seek and faith suffices. Observe that the birth of Christ is graced by the presence of divine beings. They are smaller in scale and are clothed in Eucharistic vestments. Notice that none of them wear the chasuble – the principal garment of a priest. You guessed it right! The artist presents to us not just the baby Messiah but also Christ the High Priest. The shed serves as a ciborium over the altar and Mary, Joseph, the angels and all of nature together celebrate the First Mass at Christmas beneath its shelter.
Ponder calmly at this Nativity. Here Christ serves as both Priest and Victim. His sacrificial nature is echoed in the Netherlandish landscape in the background. The two domed structures represent Jerusalem and the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. In this way, the artist places the Nativity against the backdrop of its purpose – Christ Passion, Death, and Resurrection. While the glorious Gothic arch demonstrates the sins of humankind, nestled within it is He who ‘Takes away the sins of the world’ and how blessed are we called to the Supper of the Lamb.
Doubtlessly, the best way to celebrate Christmas is by giving our best in participating and celebrating the Holy Eucharist – the true Christ-Mass.
Joynel Fernandes – Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum