Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Nativity

Title: The Nativity

Artist: Arthur Hughes

Medium: Oil and gold leaf on canvas

Size: 36 x 61 cm

Date: 1858

Location: Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

While in Bethlehem for the census, Luke 2:6-7 records that when the time came for the baby to be born, Mary gave birth to her firstborn, a son, and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes.

If ever there was an opportunity for God to enact his plan with a majestic flourish, it was at Jesus' birth. But God did not presume upon humanity when he stepped in to redeem it. There was no pretense in this arrival. Rather, God chose to identify in the humblest way with those made in his image.

Hughes painting of the nativity is unusual in its depiction of Mary as an adolescent; she is traditionally portrayed as a fully-grown woman. Here, Hughes shows her undertaking one of her first duties as a mother, wrapping her child in swaddling bands, an act which prefigures his entombment. The tenderness and care with which she carries out her task further reminds us of her youth and, that as a first time mother, she has much to learn in order to look after the infant Christ. Despite her bewildering predicament she is aided by two angels and watched by three others from above. Their presence highlights the fact that she is not alone and that both mother and baby will be watched over by God. A vivid palette of purple and pinks was used to paint the celestial figures. Their wings almost burst out of the picture frame creating a sense of dynamism within the composition, but also giving a sense of the cramped, intimate space in which the miracle of Christ's birth took place. Although Mary, as the central figure, dominates the painting Hughes draws are attention to the Christ child, the most important figure, by crowning him in a nimbus, a style of halo favored in Renaissance paintings.

Arthur Hughes (27 January 1832 – 22 December 1915), was an English painter and illustrator associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Arthur Hughes met Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) in 1850 and soon became the best of the younger Pre-Raphaelite followers. His work is noted for the magical glowing coloring and delicate draftsmanship. Hughes died in Kew Green, London, leaving about 700 known paintings and drawings, along with over 750 book illustrations.

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