Sister Wendy's Nativity looks anew at the Christmas story and invites us to consider the true significance of Christ's life. Her personal selection of over 40 beautiful paintings from manuscripts held by the Vatican and Italian State Libraries (many seen here for the first time) illustrate stories that are familiar to us all, yet whose significance is so often elusive.
Sister Wendy begins the story by looking at the events that proceeded the birth of Christ--the Creation, the Garden of Eden, the Annunciation, the Visitation leading us to the Nativity story itself--the birth in the stable, the shepherds, the magi. The story continues with much-loved episodes from Christ's time on earth--the Feeding of the five thousand, Peter walking on the water. The last Supper. Finally, she reflects upon the meaning of the crucifixion, resurrection and Christ's eventual ascension into heaven to embrace eternal life.
The charming, provocative and often humorous illustrations in this book are the testament of artists who dedicated their lives to producing paintings in praise of God. Sister Wendy blends her artistic knowledge with her spiritual insight in order to help us understand the meaning contained for all of us in their exquisite pictures.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Sister Wendy Beckett is a Carmelite nun and the popular host of a variety of BBC television series, including Sister Wendy's Odyssey, Sister Wendy's Grand tour, and The Story of Painting. She is rapidly becoming familiar to American audiences through her programs here on public television. She is the author of a number of books, including The Mystical Now: Art and the Sacred, A Children's Book of Prayer in Art, and The Gaze of Love. Born in South Africa, raised in Scotland, and educated at Oxford University, Sister Wendy currently resides in a hermitage in Norfolk, England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Nativity (II)
The major artist who painted this miniature has a great sense of drama. Color is of secondary importance to him, crucial only insofar as it highlights the narrative, the personal interactions, the profoundly religious nature of the scene. Here Joseph is still apprehensive, and very much an outsider. The strange object in his hands is probably a lily, a symbol that he is not the physical father of the newborn child. Mary, wonderfully composed of graphic lines and pleats, is portrayed as a real mother. She has swaddled her child, she holds him and suckles him. Her face expresses only a tentative happiness, tense and exhausted, as is common with firstborn children. The little Jesus is shown as an ordinary baby, tight within his wrappings, and gazing at his mother's full breast with mild surprise. The artist here is not concerned with making any attempt at realism. He likes patterning and must have taken much pleasure in painting the elaborately decorated feeding trough that rises from Mary's bed. The bemused ox and ass eye each other across it, as baffled as humankind has been ever since.
What this picture, minimal in its narrative, but immensely powerful in its conviction, makes clear is that what happened in the stable at Bethlehem is not subject to human explanation. The ox and the ass are, as it were, our surrogates--present, impressed, but fundamentallv uncomprehending. Mary and Joseph do not understand either, and Saint Luke is to add that "Mary pondered all these things in her heart." What it all meant Would reveal itself later, after Christ's death and resurrection, and then through the ages of Christian thought and prayer. We are still at a loss, just like the animals in the stable; like them, we can see the outline of its meaning--and this artist is particularly good with outlines.
But beyond that? Like Mary and nervous Joseph, we believe that this holy birth has transformed our lives, not only revealing the love of
God, unearned and total-, but also showing us the potential of our own enfeebled selves. It is beyond us to take all of this in--but we do believe.
Anon., Psalter, Venice, 1270-80
The Nativity (III)
This tiny picture, with the D of 'dens' expanded to take an insertion, is one of the few illuminated manuscripts to show a midwife.
This was a legend, fruit of that intense curiosity of the early church to know more than the gospels told them. The gospels were not meant to be "biographies." They never describe Jesus, for example: how we would love to know what He looked like! They are concerned only with his message--with what he was and what this meant for us-and the attractions of holy gossip seem not so much to have been resisted as not to have presented any temptation at all.
The story of the midwives is typical of the desire of later generations to enter more fully into the reality of that strange birth in a stable.
Joseph, so runs the legend, hurries into the village to fetch a midwife. The woman comes and is astonished to find that her patient is a virgin. Back she rushes to tell her colleague, Salome, who mocks her. In retribution (exactly the kind of thing God never does) Salome finds that her arm has withered. It is only when she touches the child, sorrowing, that her flesh becomes healed again. The intention of the story is a good one, illustrating as it does that lack of faith actually damages us, makes us less whole, and that being restored to belief brings us back to full integrity again.
But God is not punitive in his actions, and this is something His Son would spell out again and again. Perhaps the artist was aware of this. His little midwife holds the baby with a firm hand, a diminutive angel waits to hand her a diaper and Joseph, like the ox and the ass at the top, peers into this strange world with uncomprehending respect. It is a tender little work, and Mary is delightfull relaxed. Maybe, like any young woman who has given birth to her firstborn, she is watching to see how the midwife deals with the child's bodily needs, to learn from her. It is an image of secluded happiness, and the controlled riot of flowers around the border serves to underline the peaceful stillness within.
THE NATIVITY Anon.,
The Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Modena, 14th Century
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