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.
Right before us, Campin presents a splendidly dressed Salome pleading for forgiveness. The scroll surrounding her reads ‘I will believe only what I have touched.’ Attending to her repentance, an angel appears and advises Salome to cradle the Christ Child. The converted believer was instantly healed.
The unconditional providence of the Almighty is best witnessed at the heart of the foreground. Following the vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden, the Immaculate Virgin, dressed in white, is seen kneeling before Christ Child. She lowers her eyes and holds out her hands in praise and adoration.
Right before the tender mother, to the earth He lies – small and helpless, God made man, the Word now Flesh! With an uplifted chest, the Giver of life seems to gasp for his first human breath. The bare earth beneath Him radiates with joy! Next to the Saviour sits the elderly Joseph. The faithful saint is seen holding a candle in one hand and with the other, he shelters its flame. Does this not express the protective role of Christ’s foster father in God’s marvelous plan of salvation?
Observe closely how wonderfully ‘the Nativity’ alludes to the Holy Trinity. The artist has placed Christ Child, His foster father Joseph, and the white-winged angel in symmetry. Don’t miss the other awesome-threesome details including the three angels, the three shepherds, the three women, and the three aspects of nature – land, water, and sky.
Far across the land, the wintry sky still breaks into a new morn. All of Creation nonchalantly seems to be illumined by the mystery of the Incarnation. The tiny radiant rays emanating through the new-born Christ encompass the weary world. It lights hope against all hope. It compels us to reflect – Light need not be merry and bright to dispel darkness. Even a little guiding light can steadily shine.
Joynel Fernandes – Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
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