A Brief Overview Of The History Of Christmas Through Art

Throughout history, artists have given us their portrayals of Christmas in beautiful paintings. Over the last few centuries, they have left us works of art that share the story of Christmas.

Due to the lack of literacy in the pre-Renaissance and Renaissance era, the Catholic Church and wealthy merchants commissioned painters to illustrate the story of the origin of Christianity, the Christmas story. The church relied on artists to convey these stories given in the Bible to parishioners through paintings, as very few people could read. Artists and painters fought for profitable church contracts, leading to some of classical art's most striking masterpieces.

Sure, now we can read, but images are much more fun to look at. Let's learn about the history of these paintings so that we can appreciate the beauty of their artwork during this season of joy.

1. Annunciation by Giovanni da Fiesole (Fra Angelico, Madrid) - 1424-1435

The Prado Annunciation, an altarpiece known now as Fra Angelico, was painted by Giovanni da Fiesole in the 1420s. The painting was originally intended for the Observant Dominican convent of Fiesole. The Annunciation remained at San Domenico until 1611. At this time, it was sold to the King of Spain and taken to Madrid. It is now part of the collection of the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Annunciation by Giovanni da Fiesole

 La Anunciación, by Fra Angelico, Wikipedia, public domain.

According to historical consensus, The Prado Annunciation is the first version of three altarpieces by Fra Angelico representing the Annunciation.

The viewer's attention is drawn to the Annunciation despite the pictured surface being divided into three parts (the garden, Angel's arch, and the Virgin's arch).

The flowered garden represents the virginity of Mary, and the multiple plants and seedlings represent symbolic values. Painted with great accuracy, these symbolise Christian values and beliefs as we know them today. The palm is easily recognizable as Christ's martyrdom and the red roses are the blood of the Passion of Christ. Adam and Eve, seen to the left, talks about the cycle of human damnation. Mary's humility in accepting her to-be-born child symbolises the deliverance from this damnation.

A ray of divine light illuminates the scene from the left, where there is a dove representing the Holy Spirit. We see Mary bending forward submissively in acceptance of her duty. On her knees, she holds an open book representing the scriptures. The beautiful gold and blue and pink colours bring to life the various details in the painting. This painting is a reminder of Mary's humility and faith.

2. Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes - 1475-76

Hugo van der Goes is considered a master of light and minute descriptive details. The Portinari Altarpiece is a large triptych. It was commissioned by an Italian named Tommaso Portinari, who was living in the Netherlands. The triptych represents the Adoration of the Shepherds and is filled with figures and religious symbols. The painting depicts baby Jesus lying on the ground surrounded by angels. The shepherds fall to their knees in front of him.

Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes

Portinari Triptych by Hugo van der Goes. Wikipedia, public domain.

The left panel shows Joseph and Mary, who are travelling to Bethlehem and the right panel shows the Three Magi also moving towards Bethlehem. The upper left part of the central panel and also the lower right corner show two angels. Two angels are also standing on the right-hand side of an angel who is down on his knees. The clothes worn by the angels are usually worn at a solemn high mass. Together with the sheaf of wheat, which is also found in the central panel, they symbolize the Eucharist, a reminder of the holy sacrament that takes place at the altar. The angel with the darkest colour robe that is almost like a shadow represents the presence and threat of Satan. He is represented in the painting as if he is about to fly away in the presence of Jesus, symbolizing Jesus' power over him.

The ox and ass are a part of what we have now come to know of as Christmas and have religious significance as people who worship Jesus, looking up, and those who don't, looking down.

Dressed in a red robe is Joseph, the husband of Mary. The sandal in the painting represents the removal of shoes on entering a sacred place.

The flowers in the painting, including the iris, lily, columbine, carnation and violet, all have medicinal properties and represent healing.

The diagonal scheme of the Portinari Altarpiece was highly revolutionary; usually religious paintings of that time had a central figure. The peasants in his painting are ordinary everyday people, and this shows how God values everyone who comes to him. In this depiction of the Adoration, the shepherds are portrayed with individuality and given prominence, unlike other paintings that show them grouped together.

This painting is considered to be one of the greatest Renaissance paintings.

3. Sistine Madonna by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino known as Raphael - 1512 - 1513

The Sistine Madonna is one of the world's most extraordinary Renaissance masterpieces. In the centre of the painting, we see Mother Mary striding toward the earthly realm holding baby Jesus. She steps out of the world of angels, depicted as cloud angels in sky blue, towards the world. Pope Sixtus II kneels on her left, showing her the way. To the right-hand side kneels St. Barbara, a martyr from the third century. Two cute little cherubs are perched at the bottom of the painting, making the composition complete.

Sistine Madonna by Raffael

Sistine Madonna by Raffael. Wikipedia, public domain.

This painting was commissioned by Pope Julius II. It is regarded by historians as one of the greatest religious paintings of the Italian renaissance. It was the last of Raphael's Madonnas and also one of the last pictures he completed himself. It now hangs at the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden.

With a harmoniously designed and well-balanced perspective, the figures enjoy a connection through gestures bringing them all together into a pictorial relationship. The faces have skilful aesthetic appeal, and the colour palette adds to the warmth and richness of the painting. It exemplifies Raphael's unique skill. It speaks of mystical nativity and the bond between a mother and child.

4. Adoration of the Shepherds by Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio) - 1609

Michelangelo Merisi was born in Milan in the northern region of Lombardy, Italy, in 1571. Commonly known as Caravaggio, he was often arrested for his unruly and rebellious behaviour. He fled Milan after wounding a police officer in a tavern brawl. From there, he went to Rome in pursuit of classical techniques.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Caravaggio

Adoration of the Shepherds by Caravaggio. Wikipedia, public domain

Caravaggio painted his figures against vast, empty backgrounds and did not use the Renaissance technique of decorative backgrounds. As he progressed in his style, he started to use subjects that became more spiritual, and thus, The Adoration of the Shepherds in 1609 was born.

Mary is seen in the centre holding baby Jesus. Her robe is bright red. The three shepherds lean forward, looking at her and her child with adoration. One of them also has a red-coloured cloth over his arm as if in connection with Mary. Joseph stands behind them. A faint halo defines their heads.

Caravaggio's work was unique in that his figures were represented as ordinary people of the times. He was sometimes criticized for being vulgar because he did not represent divinity in a more stylized way. His figures appear in ordinary robes and are barefoot. There is just a single light source, as if from a candle, and the background is dark. Biblically, Mary and Joseph were extremely poor, and Caravaggio has given a realistic rendition of their circumstances.

Caravaggio has seated Mary on the ground as a simple young mother, in all humility. Critics feel that as the Queen of Heaven, she was not given her place in the painting. One of Caravaggio's most famous paintings, it would appeal to the masses, something that any common person can connect with.

5. Winter Landscape with Church by Caspar David Friedrich - 1774 – 1840

Christmas would never be complete without the obvious symbolism associated with it – snow, a fir tree in the background or foreground, Mary and Joseph all bundled up in warm clothes, and Jesus in swaddling clothes.

Winter Landscape with Church by Caspar David Friedrich

Winter Landscape with Church by Caspar David Friedrich. Wikipedia, public domain.

Caspar David Friedrich's Winter Landscape with Church has all the makings of a Christmas scene in our modern times.

Showcasing a rather desolate-looking winter scene, we see a line of fir trees standing in the foreground against a snowfall. In the distance, we see a church lost in the fog but heroically braving the darkness and cold, which is very symbolic of Christianity and Christ's fight against evil.

Looking closely, it is possible to see a man and a pair of crutches that lie abandoned in the snow – perhaps someone who has come to the church for refuge.

The church's steeple and the fir trees rising up in the gloom are symbolic of hope. In the birth of Jesus and his resurrection, Christians find rebirth from sin and pain. The new shoots of grass in the snow tell of a new season, a new beginning.

Friedrich was famous for painting expansive landscapes. One can see in his paintings mountains and vast empty coastlines, which are haunting and remain in the viewer's mind. And within this lonely domain, one can usually see a human figure, small and insignificant, in the background. The small size of a human in these settings is perhaps his way of showing how we measure up against the universe.

Art historian William Vaughan thought Friedrich's paintings were attempts to capture "man's yearning for the infinite and his perpetual separation from it." But Christmas brings us closer to the realm of the infinite and the divine.

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