I love art galleries – wandering in the muted light and stillness, amazed by the liveliness or colour or beauty of an artist’s imagination.
My favourite places are the small gems – the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, the Frick in NY, or the glory of the Frank Lloyd Wright room at the Met. Or places like the Boston gallery, where the building sings of creativity as much as the artworks.
In the less popular rooms of many galleries are the medieval religious works, with static haloed figures or obscenely ornate crucifixes.
But sometimes I stand in wonder in front of the Christmas nativity scenes – Mary holding her baby, dressed in 14th century robes surrounded by saints or gazing with love at her child who will be the Saviour of the world.
The painting by Venetian artist Vivarini shows us such a Mary, gazing down with a background of sumptuous gold (real gold!)
And Lorenzetti shows us an enigmatic Mary locking us with her eyes. She is remotely beautiful, and yet seems protective of her baby boy.
Mary often looks passive and serious, but the Bible tells us she ‘pondered all these things in her heart’ (Luke 2:19) – the angel’s visit, the birth, the shepherds, the star.
Of course she did! A teenage girl whose life has been turned upside down by the visitation of an angel. And she is thoughtful because somehow she understands both the love and sorrow that Jesus will bring her.
Foreshadowed in the gifts of the wise men is Jesus’ kingship (gold) but also his suffering and death (the offering spice of frankincense and the burial perfume of myrhh)
I love the painting by Philippe de Champaigne (though it’s not medieval).
It shows the visit of Elizabeth to her younger cousin, Mary. They are both wrapped in the happiness of pregnancy as they are also wrapped in their capes. They embrace in a moment of feminine mutual support. The men (presumably their husbands) are in the background, out of the main action.
And I love that Mary is tall and proud, and her clothes are bold red and blue.
Mary is not a passive pushover. Her song in Luke Chapter 1 (still sung in many traditional churches as the Magnificat) is a bold declaration that God’s rule will bring justice for the poor and hungry, and salvation for his people.
So this Christmas, I ponder again like Mary, the mystery of a virgin birth, a humble teenage girl and a song of justice and freedom that rings true today just as it did in Palestine over 2,000 years ago.
Have a happy and holy and just Christmas.
And here is Mary’s song:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favour on his humble servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed,
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear Him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.