SIN AND SALVATION – ‘The Nativity’ by Petrus Christus, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., c. mid – 1450’s (Part 1)

SIN AND SALVATION – ‘The Nativity’ by Petrus Christus, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., c. mid – 1450’s (Part 1)

The birth of Christ brought God to man, the Cross of Christ brought man to God

You will agree that the above words can hardly be contested. The fact that the Son of God assumed human nature to accomplish our salvation is a mystery beyond our comprehension. Petrus Christus, an Early Netherlandish painter, through today’s painting, attempts to enliven this great mystery. 

Compositionally, the painting is one of Christus’s most complex and significant works. Here the artist profoundly traces the narrative to the dawn of creation, the commencement of time, the fullness of time, and the way to eternity. Characteristic of Chistus, the work is harmonious in colour, as is the geometry and the one-point perspective. Let’s now dive right into the painting. 

Adam and Eve and the Arch

The setting is indeed engaging. The Nativity is enclosed in a shed framed by a Gothic archway rendered in grisaille. At the entrance stand two porphyry columns, connected by a marble threshold. A tiny figure hunches at the base of each column as if holding it up. They seem to bear the weight of the first man and the first woman, namely Adam and Eve. The father and mother of the human race appear embarrassed, acknowledging the fall and their iniquity. Their repentance encounters redemption as they now gaze at the New Adam and the New Eve. It is the dawn of a New Creation.

The arch above presents six illustrations of sin and punishment from the Book of Genesis. Rendered in relief, within each archivolt are the following scenes – The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve earning their bread, the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, Cain slaying Abel, God questioning Cain, and the expulsion of Cain to the Land of Nod. The roundel within each spandrel of the arch depicts two warriors reiterating the dysfunctional state of the world before the introduction of Grace.

Bearing the weight of Adam

The symbolism of the scene deviates from the conventional depiction of the Nativity. Christus emphasizes not so much on the Christmas Narrative as upon the implicit significance of Salvation through the Incarnation and Sacrifice of Christ. He presents the fulfilment of the Old Testament in the context of the fall and redemption.

Notice carefully the last scene in the archivolt. An old Adam appears supporting himself on a spade as on a crutch. Art-historians have contested that the young man kneeling before Adam is not Cain but their third son namely Seth. The wood-of-the-cross tradition claims that at the age of 930, Adam fell ill. Seth then embarked upon a quest to find the oil of mercy or the life-giving branch of the Tree of Life.

Bearing the weight of Eve

The Tree of Life is but the Tree of the Cross. The artist metaphorically presents this through the tuft of grass sprouting from the roof’s central truss right above Christ Child. This marks the end of the Genesis Cycle and serves as an appropriate prelude to the very essence of the painting – the Incarnation, the New Creation, the New Eden.  

The Expulsion

Stay tuned to the next article as we unravel the heart of this work of art.

Joynel Fernandes – Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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