Different takes on the Christmas story
In my native country Germany we unpack our presents today, so I wanted to share with you some resources I have discovered. I was looking for work that told the Christmas story from an angle I was not familiar with.
A lot of the depictions of the nativity are so familiar that we forget that the story is depicted through a particular cultural lens. In the bible we are just presented with the bare bones of the story, so there is a lot of room for imagination!
Here are some of the resources I have unearthed:
1. Nativity paintings from around the world: These were collected by blogger Victoria Emily Jones, who used to write a blog called "The Jesus Question". The blog is no longer updated, but her collection of non-western nativity scenes can still be accessed. Here are the links to her two compilations:
Nativity Paintings from around the World | The Jesus Question
More Nativity Paintings from around the World | The Jesus Question
I have recently participated in a nativity play for the first time. My husband and I both played men from the East, who find Jesus by following a star for potentially thousands of miles. They are variously described as magi, astrologers or kings in the West, so I found this Aborigine version of the scene intriguing. It is called Dreamtime Birth by Aborigine artist Greg Weatherby.
My eyes were immediately drawn to the huge hands, which appear to offer both shelter and blessing to the new parents.
I also liked the inclusion of animals which are native to Australia. It reminded me that the bible does not specify which animals were present at Jesus' birth - we just assume that they were an ox and a donkey because these are the animals that have often been depicted in Western art. (Given that the bible says that Jesus was placed in a feeding trough for animals, it is likely though that he had to share his first home with animals.)
Here is the description of the work by Boomerangsdownunder: “A daring, original work that sets Jesus Christ’s birth in the Central Australian outback. In bold, earthy colours native emus, goannas, kangaroos and Dreamtime Beings pay homage to the new-born child. And millions of stars illuminate the Great Ancestor’s omnipresent hands while presenting the divine gift to Aboriginal Spirit parents near legendary Uluru.”
2. Daily advent reflections by the Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture and the Arts: Biola have been putting together daily reflections for both Christmas and Easter, which incorporate music, poetry, artwork and a commentary for many years. You can explore the whole collection of Biola's reflections here
Their chosen artwork is often work that I would not typically associate with the season. To me, the painting chosen for 15th December 2022, called Heaven and Earth by artist Grace Carol Bomer has an Easter feel to it, as the "nest" at the bottom of the image looks like a head with a crown of thorns. It was a helpful reminder that the nativity story is only one act of the cosmic drama.
Here is a very different artwork that attempts to depict that Jesus' birth, crucifixion, resurrection and eventual reign are all part of the same drama. This one is called The cradle that led to the cross by Jane Lazemby - you can check out her thoughts on her piece here:
3. Depicting angels: When depicting scenes from the nativity, there is also the question of how to deal with angelic visitors. I like this thought-provoking perspective taken by artist Brian Kershisnik
Joseph, who is often depicted as a serene tower of strength in traditional nativity scenes, looks exhausted and overwhelmed - and who can blame him, given the exhausting journey with his heavily pregnant wife and the complications in finding a suitable place to stay? In contrast, Mary appears to be enjoying a bonding moment with her newborn. Forgotten is the pain of giving birth.
And then there is the crowd of angels squeezing into the scene to take a closer look, yet they go unnoticed - though Brian says the dog has a sense of what is going on: Only the dog can see the glorious river of angels. The mortals depicted, like us, are understandably and rightly distracted...
The work reminds that the spiritual and physical dimensions intersect in ways we often fail to perceive.
I hope this eclectic collection of different artworks will help you to approach Christmas day with curiosity and anticipation. Expect the unexpected.