THE WEARY WORLD REJOICES – ‘The Nativity’ by Robert Campin, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, 1420
Undeniably, this Christmas is different. All is not merry nor bright. Anxieties, frustrations, disappointments, perplexing situations, impatience, fear, failure, pain, loneliness, loss, and even tragedy has crossed our paths. We were unprepared and are still uncertain. But have you ever wondered at the first Christmas, the real Christmas? – An unexpected Messiah from the wrong side of the town is caught in a census with nowhere to go. His ordinary family is welcomed by the poor and the pagans. His extraordinary birth is marked by unspeakable horror and murder. Emphatically then, the first Christmas was far from merry and bright!
Robert Campin, an Early Netherlandish painter, through his painting titled ‘The Nativity’ provides a glimpse of hope amidst hopelessness. The panel painting was executed in 1420 and is housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon.
Against a fine and fictitious landscape, Campin has presented to us a dilapidated barn. The ramshackle wooden stable bears witness to the baby born in straw poverty. The thatched roof of the stable is broken and the walls half-destroyed. Through the ruins, we see the oxen and the ass, strangely unaware of the significance of the moment.
As we peer further into the rickety room, we encounter a group of poor shepherds hoping to catch a glimpse of the Saviour. Interestingly, the artist places the shepherds are the very core of the painting. Could this indicate to the heart of the Shepherd, born to save His sheep?
Above the thatched roof of the stable hover three angels. Their presence adds melody to the moment. ‘Glory to God in the Highest and Peace to His people on earth’, they proclaim. Dressed in traditional blue, green, and red, the three angels embody the principal Christian virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.
Defying gravity, notice the fourth angel, dressed in white. Not only does it announce the birth of the Redeemer but also holds a phylactery that reads – ‘Touch the Child and you shall be healed.’ These words hearken to the episode of the ‘Incredulous Midwife’, based on apocryphal sources. The narrative is rarely recognized despite its cameo appearances in art. The story goes thus:
To help Mary in childbirth, Joseph went in search of a midwife who arrived after Jesus was born. The midwife, Zebel (whose face we do not see in the painting) recognized that Mary was a Virgin despite the birth. She praised God and hastened to tell friend Salome, who refused to believe. Like St. Thomas, Salome sought proof. On extending her hand towards Mary, her hand withered and was paralyzed.
Fr. Warner D'Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael's (Mahim), St Paul's (Dadar East), Our Lady of Mount Carmel, (Bandra), a ten year stint as priest-in-charge at St Jude Church (Malad East) and at present is the Parish Priest at St Stephen's Church (Cumballa Hill). He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.