Today I went to see a wonderful exhibition of the art of Albrecht Dürer, who lived in Germany at the cusp of the 16th century – a time of enormous economic and social change as well as a time of new spiritual thinking.
Dürer was influenced by all those forces and his religious drawings, etchings and paintings were liberatingly everyday, yet also mystical.
And that is the heart of the Christmas miracle – the divine coming into our messy world, not to a palace but to a humble inn in an obscure township.
During Advent (a religious term for the time waiting between the angel’s appearance to Mary and the birth of her baby) we get to concentrate on the women in the Christmas story – Mary and her older cousin, Elizabeth, (as well as the five women named in Jesus’s genealogy). And Dürer painted the mystery and touching faith of these women.
An early painting (probably completed in the last year of the 15th century) shows Mary robed in many folds of true blue (Pantone would call it Klein blue) with a bonny and chubby baby Jesus. The colours are rich – red and green as well as blue – and contrasting with the pale skin of the baby.
Outside the quiet of her room, we see a verdant hillside of the everyday with a stream, trees and clouds. may have been boasting that he could pant landscape as well as people, but there is also the tension between the amazing news of the birth of Jesus and the calm of the everyday scene – God is indeed with us.
Every age has cultural overlays in its interpretation of the Christmas story. In Dürer’s painting – indeed in all western art of the time – Jesus is white. I was told on a tour of Michelangelo’s Last Supper in Milan this was a rule issued by the Catholic Church although I have not been able to verify this. Perhaps we all want to think that Christ reflects us and our experience. Perhaps there was some anti-semetism at work.
The baby is also anatomically accurate (though he is certainly not a new-born!) Dürer studied the proportions of human form carefully – there was definitely a perfect body shape that he used for men and women. Somethings never change! though the perception of the perfect shape certainly changes.
Mary is also portrayed with white skin and she looks ‘real’: even though her robe is rather sumptuous, she is embedded in the everyday – there is no halo, there are no hovering angels or adoring shepherds.
Mary gazes at us in a domestic setting but the blue hints at royalty, and she looks regal with an upright stance, perhaps understanding our curiosity, perhaps pondering the meaning of all the attention.
There is another cultural overlay. This painting is called the Haller Madonna, after the family who commissioned the work for their private worship. It features coats of arms in the lower corners, representing prominent families from Dürer’s home town of Nuremberg. The husband’s arms in the left corner represent a noble family while his wife’s on the right are a mason’s mark showing she came from an artisan family. She was moving up in the world!
Dürer needed wealthy patrons so he could survive as a painter. God has no such limits. One of the wonders of Christmas is that the women and men at the heart of the story show God’s disregard for class or status. Jesus is a king born in a shed beside an inn. His earthly father, Joseph, has royal lineage but it is Mary who is at the centre of the story and working class shepherds who come to come to worship.
All her life, Mary carried an understanding of the importance of her son. But at the same time, she was a human mother. She was exasperated and worried when he went missing in Jerusalem – a boy on the cusp of his teens/adulthood. She wasn’t sure what to make of his divinity at the wedding when the wine ran out.
But she believed in him and followed him. She was there at the cross, and presumably in the upper room.
This Christmas, let us gaze at this painting wondering again at the amazing leap of faith of Mary, the lowly girl, the favoured one, who sang of God:
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am, I rejoice in God my saviour. He has looked with favour on the low status of his servant….
He shows mercy to everyone from one generation to the next
Who honours him as God.” Luke 1:46-50