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. 

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