The hidden meaning of Christmas art
Carolyn Morrison offers a guide to the meaning and message of Christmas through five very different artworks, from Bruegel to Banksy.
The joy that Christmas brings, coupled with the anxieties of the day, have always been of interest to artists. Down through the ages creatives in word, song and image have grappled with and attempted to interpret what the Christmas message is and what it means for their generation and their times.
1 – The Census at Bethlehem (c.1566) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The hustle and bustle of Christmas Eve has long been a favourite subject matter for artists. Christmas Eve represents the day when, as the Bible tells us, Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem to register for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus. The aim of the census was two-fold. Firstly, to know how many Roman citizens there were in the land, and secondly, to serve for taxation purposes. Non-Roman citizens were also obligated to register for the census and people paid a levy according to their status.
At first glance The Census at Bethlehem (1566) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder portrays an almost idealistic wintery Christmas Eve with people going about their daily business. Children are playing ball in the snow and skating on the ice, people are taking their wares to market, while others are in the process of building new homes. In the midst of it all we see Joseph, who is carrying his bag of carpentry tools with his long serrated saw perched on his shoulder, and Mary, who rides on a donkey, dressed in a magnificent blue cloak.
But take a closer look … down in the lower left-hand corner of the painting you will see amidst this idyllic Christmassy scene, pigs are being led to the slaughter and are being sacrificed to the god Mars on behalf of Roman citizens. Sacrifice and taxation were part and parcel of the census process. The sacrifice of the pigs signals that the census is drawing to a close. Joseph and Mary will have to hurry if they are to register in time. We know they were running late because there was no room at the inn.
Bruegel’s attention to detail is impeccable. Under the eaves of the office where the census is taking place, you can see an oak beer barrel and a large earthenware jug hanging on the outside wall. This is a reference to publicans who during the reign of Roman occupation were often the tax collectors of the day.
Although the census at Bethlehem took place over 2000 years ago, here the biblical story is treated as an ongoing and poignant contemporary event. For Bruegel, the age-old problem of oppression in the form of exorbitant taxes and the quest for religious freedom from the administrators of the occupied state were very real.
In the 1600s poor urban workers were being maltreated by the severe demands of the Spanish administration in the southern region of the Netherlands. Alongside that, there was also a quest for religious freedom. At the time the Calvinists were rising up against the Spanish Catholics, the occupying force. The ruined buildings in the far background of the painting may be representative of the evolving revolt, which led to the eventual destruction of the Catholic monasteries in the Netherlands.
Bruegel’s depiction of Christmas Eve sends both a religious and a politically-charged message that the people of the time would have been able to relate to and understand.
In this depiction of Christmas Eve Bruegel is attempting to amplify the fact that the Holy Family encountered similar trials as the public viewing the painting were themselves experiencing, which would have struck an empathic cord.
2 – Nuit de Noel (Christmas Eve) (c.1952), litho. by Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a humanist but this did not stop him producing sacred art of great quality. In 1952, just two years before his death, he was commissioned to make a stained glass window for the Time-Life Building in New York on the theme of Christmas Eve. No longer able to paint, Matisse made a maquette created from paper cutouts. His portrayal of Christmas Eve is vibrant, colourful, harmonious and subtly imbued with symbolic meaning. The bright yellow star in the top register of the lithograph is clearly a reference to the guiding star that led the Wise Men to the place where Jesus was to be found. Matisse wanted to portray a sense of peace and healing through his art. He wrote:
“I strive for an art of balance and purity. An art that causes no unrest or confusion. I would like to accomplish that people who are tired, strained, broken, may find rest and peace in my paintings.”
The four snowflakes suggest both purity and symmetry, and the contrasting black and white stars add sharpness, while the two brightly coloured squiggly columns at the base of the lithograph bring an energy to the piece, all of which bear testimony to Matisse’s aim that art can be a medium for healing.
Notwithstanding that, Matisse’s depiction of Christmas Eve lacks any real sense of the urgency and grandeur of the biblical narrative. The moving away from the more traditional figurative representation of Mary and Joseph making their way towards Bethlehem reflects the growing secularisation and commercialisation of Christmas, which was becoming increasingly prevalent at the time.
3 – Joseph and Mary Can’t Make it to Bethlehem (c.2005) by Banksy
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The street artist Banksy, ever the social activist, takes a totally different approach to Matisse’s comfortable armchair depiction of the festive season. He wants to provoke the onlooker with the reality of what it means to be displaced on Christmas Eve.
Banksy’s Joseph and Mary Can’t Make it to Bethlehem Christmas card highlights the fact that Mary and Joseph were once refugees. He wants to remind us that they experienced all that it means to be uprooted from their homeland, not knowing what trials might face them on the way. Not knowing whether they would ever reach their destination. Not knowing where they would stay that night.
This image is made to make you feel uncomfortable. It sheds light on the current political situation in the Holy Land today and is a stark reminder of the harsh reality that some people will be experiencing this Christmas Eve.
4 – Nativity at Night (c.1490) by Geertgen tot Sint Jans.
The Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans captures the moment when Jesus is born, which takes place, according to a novena attributed to the apostle St Andrew, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold.
The painting depicts angels gathered around the crib adoring Christ, while one of their number announces the good news to the shepherds, who are situated on the hillside in the far background of the picture.
The faces of Mary and the angels are aglow, lit up by the rays of light that emanate from the child Jesus. In this representation, St Joseph, who is to the right of Mary, is barely visible. This is because Geertgen was heavily influenced by the writings of Saint Bridget of Sweden, an early medieval mystic.
In a vision St Bridget saw the child Jesus being born,“from whom radiated such ineffable light and splendour that the sun was not comparable to it while the divine light totally annihilated the material light of St. Joseph’s candle.’’
This painting was groundbreaking at the time because it incorporated the biblical event with text which came from the mystical writings of sacred tradition.
Geertgen’s depiction of the Nativity attempts to demonstrate the true magnitude of divine light. This is done by emphasising different degrees of illumination. The lesser light is man-made, and comes in the form of the shepherds’ fire seen in the distant background, which is starkly contrasted by the darkness of the night.
There is a much brighter light coming from the angel, which hovers above the shepherds, while it announces the good news that Christ has been born. And then there is the greatest light of all, the divine light, Jesus himself. For Christians, Christ is the light that enlightens the darkened world.
5 – The Nativity (2019) by Banksy
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In 2019 in The Walled Hotel, which is situated near the West Bank Wall in Palestine, an art installation of a ‘modified’ Nativity scene by Banksy appeared. Banksy’s portrayal of the moment of the birth of Jesus draws attention to both the true horror of war and the hope that love and peace brings.
The star of Bethlehem is depicted quite literally as a shooting star. If you look closely you can see a trail of bullet holes going from left to right, yet it is only the star of Bethlehem that actually penetrates right through the wall and breaks the barrier.
Graffiti on the wall of the Nativity scene shows the words ‘Love’ and ‘Paix’. Paix is French for peace, a word which announces the end of war. Banksy’s Nativity, dubbed The Scar of Bethlehem, highlights that only love and peace, which Christ brings and offers to the world, can heal the scars left by war.
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