Christmas in art is usually represented via the Adoration of the Magi. There are dozens of paintings with three wise men of the East kneeling in front of the cradle, with the Virgin presenting her Son, and Joseph standing back, respectfully. Artists played with light coming from the star right onto Christ, with angels cheering up or even dancing (Botticelli), with various saints and benefactors attending the scene, but few dared to capture the Christmas spirit beyond a trite illustration of the Bible. Most artists didn’t have the creative liberty to experiment. Clients wanted the Magi, and a client’s wish was just as sacrosanct as the story itself, if not more so.
My favourite representation of Christmas is the Holy Family with Angels by Rembrandt (St.Petersburg, the Hermitage), painted three years after Rembrandt’s wife died leaving him a widowed father.
Rembrandt makes the observer actively present, and not a passive voyeur, by using three light sources, with the observer being “responsible” for one of them:
The stove represents a problem though. It is, most likely, a stove like this one:
So the light must travel from the bottom up, and strangely enough, it lights up Joseph’s instruments as if the flame is as high as the stove itself. Rembrandt twisted physics to show the earthly, man-made light (even if it is as huge as implied in this painting) is something far inferior to the light created by God or (!) the observer.
This is the genius design of Rembrandt: the observer walks in, lets the light in, and in its intensity it is almost equal to the celestial light. Don’t you feel holy, standing there, in front of Infant Christ, with the Virgin presenting Him to you?
Yes, Rembrandt makes you not just present, he hints at your holiness as well, and by that he fills your heart with holiness. Even non-religious people say they feel something extraordinary in front of this painting.
Joseph is busy making a yoke (an obvious reference to Christ’s destiny and role), and he doesn’t seem to be afraid of waking his son. It means you shouldn’t be afraid too. Take your time, digest the scene. Rembrandt doesn’t want you to feel an unwelcome intruder (unless, of course, you wear clogs and keep playing your violin).
The Virgin checks on her son, but it becomes a presentation of Christ to you.
So, you are holy, and you are being presented with the Son of God, who would make this individual holiness possible, by showing the road to fighting sin.
I am not religious, but I am awed.
I have to mention the red cover of Christ and the cherry-red dress of the Virgin. Besides their symbolic reference, these “details” create heat in the picture. infant Christ and the Virgin not only give you the opportunity to become a righteous man, they also give you warmth and comfort, which are much warmer and more comforting than the man-made heat of the stove.
Merry Christmas, my dear readers!