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Focusing on images of Christ in high art and popular craft throughout the world—in galleries, churches, museums, private homes, catacombs, and market stalls—MacGregor traces the life of Christ and the development of Christian culture since his birth. He shows how some of the works reveal not only society's view of Christ and of itself but also the inner spiritual turmoil of their creators. MacGregor points to Michelangelo's successive sculptures of the Pietà, for example, in which the artist left a record of the evolution of his faith and of the anguish and doubt that colored his last days. In the same way, Rembrandt's reworking of his etching of the Crucifixion reveals not just his changing understanding of the event but also his darkening view of life. Throughout, MacGregor argues that images of Christ can still speak powerfully to believers and nonbelievers and that they are as important to us now as a way of understanding our lives as they were when they were made.
About the Author:
Neil MacGregor has been director of the National Gallery, London, since 1987. Erika Langmuir was head of education at the National Gallery from 1988 to 1995. She is the author of The National Gallery Companion Guide and several thematic National Gallery Pocket Guides and coauthor of The Yale Dictionary of Art and Artists, all published by Yale University Press.
The Adoration of the Kings
Towards the end of December in Palestine, a Jewish carpenter and his pregnant wife travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be taxed by the bureaucrats of imperial Rome. There was no room for them at the inn, so they lodged in a stable, where the young woman, weary after the long journey, gave birth to a son. Ox and ass stood beside the manger in which the new-born baby lay, warming him with their breath. Alerted by angels, shepherds hurried down from the hills to see the baby. Three kings, guided by a star, came from the East to offer him gifts.
This, in broad outline, is the Christmas story as every schoolchild has been told it. And in this sense we are all schoolchildren. Christians and non-Christians alike brought up in the European tradition are familiar with these events, more or less heavily embroidered with picturesque detail, from Christmas cards and paintings, Christmas carols and Nativity plays, even shop window displays. In many European countries, they are re-enacted in cribs and collections of carved figures assembled at home, in churches and, especially in Italy and Germany, city streets.
We have been here so often that when we first look at Jan Gossaert's Adoration of the Kings [PLATES 1 and 2], which now hangs in the National Gallery in London, we instantly feel at ease. We know what we are going to find, and we know this is how it was.
Yet a second look is enough to convince us that Gossaert, who lived in the Low Countries fifteenhundred years after the birth of Christ, is not recording the story as every schoolchild knows it and even less the event as it might really have happened, even if interpreted in `modern dress'. Wherever we turn within the painting, we find improbabilities and impossibilities, none of which, on closer examination, appears to be accidental.
The imposing ruins are a very strange stable and offer no shelter. The ox and ass peering out from among them are unlikely ever to have been installed there. No carpenter's wife was ever so lavishly turned out, in a blue dress and mantle painted with ground lapis lazuli, a pigment costlier than gold and brought to Europe with great difficulty and at great expense from Afghanistan. No mother is likely to hold her twelve-day-old baby naked on her lap outdoors in the dead of winter. Baby and mother appear singularly poised in the centre of the composition, graciously receiving the homage of a fantastical crowd who have obviously changed — somewhere in the wings, as it were — out of their travelling clothes into elaborate court and pageantry costumes.
The mother's elderly husband — his age and decrepitude emphasized by the cane on which he leans — looks on from behind a pillar.
The Three Kings have names cleverly inscribed about their clothing like the most elegant designer labels, or marked on the gifts they bring. Kneeling, hands folded in prayer before the child, is Gaspar. Balthazar, the black king, stands to the left, and Melchior to the right. Their gifts, or rather the gifts' golden containers, could not possibly have been made at the time of Christ's birth either in Palestine or in the East from which the wise men came. Instead, they resemble objects used in the church worship of the artist's day. Gaspar's goblet, which he has handed to the baby's mother and whose lid is on the floor beside his hat and sceptre, is more properly a ciborium, in which the Host, the consecrated wafer used in the Eucharist, is kept. Here it holds gold coins, one of which the precocious infant seems to be handing back to the king with a smile. It is not clear which of the other two kings brings frankincense, and which myrrh.
The angels come as no surprise, for they are part of the story, but descending on golden rays from the miraculous guiding star is a dove, planing on outstretched wings above the mother and child.
And as we look further into the picture, we see that it shows events that happened at different times. The shepherds, who came the night the child was born, are still here, on Twelfth Night, when the wise men came, watching them from behind the picket fence. And, if you look really closely, you can spot the angel announcing the happy event in the fields in the far background, before they even set off for Bethlehem and the stable.
We could go on pointing out details invisible in reproduction. The capital of a column to the right of the mother and child is sculpted with the Old Testament scene of Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac to God, until stopped by an angel. On the top of Gaspar's highly worked sceptre the goldsmith has sculpted a figure of Moses with the stone tablets of the Law, given him, as Exodus tells us, by God on Mount Sinai.
What is going on? How did a painting as seemingly obvious in subject as Gossaert's turn out to be so packed with obscure complexities?
Christianity is, like Judaism and Islam, a religion of the book. Along with them it proposes a set of teachings and practices deriving ultimately from texts (in some cases, the same texts), which have been meticulously expounded by the learned, and enlarged and enriched by centuries of tradition. In all three faiths mankind strives for God through the Word. But unlike Muslims and Jews, Christians (or at least the early Christians) have seen their God; for Christianity is the religion of the Word made flesh, and, largely as a consequence, it is also a religion of the image.
Making an image of God who has become man is, as we shall see, a tricky business. Artists attempting it have to negotiate a series of specifically visual problems, unknown to authors. Paradox is easy to write, but hard to paint. The Gospel tells us quite straightforwardly that the helpless, swaddled infant is in reality God incarnate, but how do you show that it is God in nappies, that the purpose of this child is to redeem the world by his death? How can a painter make clear that the man brutally being put to death on a cross, to every human eye a man completely ordinary and like any other, is also totally divine; that limitless power has chosen absolute submission?
Like all great religious images, Gossaert's Adoration neither simply illustrates a religious story nor interprets it according to the painter's own caprice. It translates into a visual language a pictorial theology, a distillation of the Western Church's teachings on the dual nature of Christ, as at once God and man, taking into account centuries of pious poring over sacred texts to find hidden meanings and correspondences, and to wring from them every drop of possible meaning. Gossaert's picture does not show us the birth of Christ: it paints a meditation on the meaning of the birth of Christ and why it matters to us now.
Like all works of art, it reflects the interests of those who paid for it, and those who viewed and used it, as much as the concerns of the artist who made it. We can perhaps quickly resume the latter. Gossaert clearly wished to demonstrate his dazzling mastery of the exacting techniques of oil painting developed in the Low Countries through the fifteenth century, his familiarity with the last word in the crafts of others: fashionable goldsmiths, weavers, embroiderers, cobblers and all, and to be recognized as a learned artist who consorted with scholars, princes and prelates. As a token of his own Christian belief, his personal witness to the birth of his Saviour, he may have introduced his self-portrait in a small, barely visible figure standing in the doorway behind the ox.
Gossaert's Adoration, made around 1510, was an altarpiece, probably painted for the lady Chapel in the church of a Benedictine abbey in Geraardsbergen in East Flanders. Its main function was to serve as the focus of worship at the altar, the celebration of the eucharistic service, in this case the Roman Catholic Mass, which re-enacts the Lord's Supper — when Christ gave bread to his disciples, saying, `Take ye, and eat. This is my body' — and his sacrifice on the Cross, through which his body becomes the bread of life.
This function, as part of the eucharistic worship, may well explain why one of the gold pieces brought by Gaspar in the ciborium is given back to him by the Christ Child. The gesture is that of a priest administering Holy Communion as he takes from the ciborium a wafer to give to the communicant. Gold was, par excellence, the tribute paid by kings to a king, after the example of Solomon. The carpenter's wife's son is, in fact, a King among Kings — but this royal tribute will be redeemed with his own body, here shining in its nakedness. Christ the King, in his infinite charity, is also Christ the Saviour, the Child born to die in atonement for our sins.
According to St Paul and biblical commentators through the centuries, the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, the son of God, recorded in the Gospels, was foreshadowed by Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac in the Old Testament — the scene sculpted on the capital of one of the columns. The birth of Christ was recorded as the culmination of the Old Testament, the moment at which the old Jewish law was fulfilled and replaced by the new dispensation. And so we see in the ruins the fading away of Judaism, the replacing of the Synagogue and the Temple with the Church. The Law of the Hebrew Bible has been superseded by Christ's Grace of the New Testament, whose Church, for Roman Catholics embodied in his mother Mary, rises out of these ancient bricks and stones. For those who can come close enough to the picture to see it, and who know the Gospels by heart, Gaspar's sceptre laid before the Child reinforces the message. On it the tiny figure of Moses holds the Ten Commandments, God's instructions to the Jews which are now to be completed: `For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ' (John 1:17).
Jesus Christ is the son of the carpenter's wife, but he is not her humble husband's child. He is, for Christians, one of the persons of the Holy Trinity of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The dove here, and in innumerable other Christian images, is the visible embodiment of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist, having baptized Jesus Christ, says (in the words of St John's Gospel): `I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him' (John 1:32). In this picture then, while Isaac and Moses point backwards, the dove looks forwards to the Baptism of Christ and the public declaration that he is God's son.
The dove seldom appears in images of the Adoration, but 6 January, the day on which the Western Church now celebrates the Epiphany, the coming of the Kings on the twelfth night after the birth of Christ, has since the early centuries of the Church been the feast day of his Baptism. The word Epiphany, or `apparition of God', now used to mean Christ's revelation to the Gentiles in the persons of the Kings, who are held to represent all non-Jewish peoples, was a word first applied to the Baptism. Also celebrated on 6 January, if a little less fervently, was Christ's first miracle, when his divine nature became apparent to many of his followers, as he turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Gossaert is showing us different ways and moments in which Jesus was revealed as God.
The precise day of Christ's birth, which remained in doubt for centuries, was also for long dated by many to 6 January (which might account logically for the presence here of the shepherds). It was the Christians in Rome who first, some time in the fourth century, assigned it to 25 December, the winter solstice and the birthday of a pagan sun god, Mithras — on the grounds that Christ was the true unconquered Sun. But even when the date was generally agreed in the West, Christmas, Christ's `birth in the flesh', seemed, as we shall see, of no great importance until very much later. For as St John Chrysostom, a fourth-century Christian cleric, wrote: `It was not when he was born that he became manifest to all, but when he was baptized.' Significantly, and we will also return to this, the same author believed that 6 January would also be the date of Christ's Second Coming at the end of the world.
Precisely how much of this obscure early church history Gossaert knew may be debatable, but that he knew a considerable amount about the later theology is clear from his inclusion of the dove. And since the dove is the visible sign of the Holy Spirit making manifest the divine nature of this Child, we may reasonably conclude that the excessively bright and haloed star from which it descends, and which parts the clouds so that it seems to reside in a heaven beyond the physical sky, represents something more than the star which the kings followed. It has been convincingly argued that it symbolizes God the Father. Gossaert's Christ Child is not only visibly divine, we are to view him as one of the persons of the Trinity.
Even now we are far from having exhausted the doctrinal subtleties of this picture — and although in this book I shall focus almost exclusively on the image of Christ, it is instructive to see how other, related themes are depicted. We can pass over rapidly the fact that there are here nine angels, representing the nine heavenly hierarchies derived from St Paul, which organized angels into categories long established and lovingly elaborated in the Middle Ages — seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and angels. Gossaert, perhaps luckily for his viewers, does not distinguish them by colour or number of wings. One of them simply holds a suitable scroll, inscribed Gloria: in: excelsis: deo:, Glory to God in the Highest.
More significant is Gossaert's treatment of the Virgin Mary. If the altarpiece's original location was, as the earliest documents suggest, a chapel dedicated to her, part of its function would have been to honour her in her own right. And that is precisely what the painting does. Mary's precious blue clothing is traditional; the great medieval Italian poet Dante calls her `the beautiful sapphire by which the brightest sky is ensapphired'. But she is not always as much the centre of attention as she is here. Near the hem of the white cloth held by Balthazar are embroidered the opening words of a hymn composed in her honour, the Salve Regina: `Hail Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope ... most gracious advocate.' We, the spectators, are invited to pray to her to intercede with her son on our behalf when the hour of judgment comes.
The cult of Mary was assisted by a Christian reading of the Old Testament, above all by an allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, now believed to be a collection of love poems to be recited and sung at weddings. Christians identified Christ with the Lover and Bridegroom mentioned in these texts; and they understood the Beloved and Bride as a metaphor of the Virgin Mary, and of the Christian Church itself. It is mainly as an embodiment of the Church of Christ that Mary reigns over this picture. It is she who holds the ciborium offered by Gaspar. Christ sits in her lap as upon a throne — a throne which is simultaneously the altar on which his redeeming sacrifice is perpetually re-enacted in the celebration of the Mass. Mary, the Queen of Heaven, Christ's Virgin Mother and Bride, indeed the Church itself, has also become God's Throne of Mercy.
We have probably looked closely enough at Gossaert's altarpiece to see how a major European artist of the fifteenth century resolved the problems of painting both the event and the theology of the Adoration of the Christ Child as it was understood in his day. We can, I think, admire his success in depicting the ungraspably complex nature of the Christ Child: King of Kings and humbly born, fully divine and fully human, priest and sacrifice. But if we turn from tradition to textual sources, and read again the two Gospels which give an account of these events, there are surprises in store. For the angels, shepherds and stable appear only in the Gospel of Luke, who seems to be describing a quite different event from Matthew, with his wise men from the East. And the New Testament nowhere mentions an ox and an ass, nor does it describe the visitors as Kings. Only by returning to the earliest art of Christianity can we really begin to trace the long and tortuous route by which Gossaert and his contemporaries came to produce the kind of image with which we are now so familiar, and thus discover how that image was constructed from those words, and how it changed as religious ideas and beliefs changed over time and in different places.