One Christmas Eve morning, before sunrise, I left the townhome on Via del Seminario where I had been living with an Italian family in Rome to spend Christmas with my parents. I had planned a five hour layover in London to see Night Nativity by Geertgen tot Sint Jans from circa 1490 at the National Gallery.
This painting, pictured above, most accurately portrays the mystical momentimmediately after Christ’s birth– uncluttered with Shepherds, Magi or donors and set at night in a barn rather than a sunny, elaborate landscape–details not mentioned in the Gospels.
Luke 2:6 describes this part of the Christmas story with “and while they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to have her baby. She gave birth to her first son…and laid him in a manger–.”
The most striking element of this painting is the mystical mood achieved by painting Christ as the light source in the center of the painting. His glowing light illuminates Mary’s intent eyes, slightly parted lips, and praying hands. We witness her response when she faced God as an infant –the moment before the angel has announced the news– the moment before the shepherds have arrived.
Like any new mother, Mary cannot take her eyes off her child, yet she ponders a far greater wonderment than any other mother.
She knows God will live on earth among us and she will have a hand in raising Him.
She knows too that God will guide her.
Christ emanates light on the five female angels on the left (a detail of three of them shown above). The angels react in varied ways. Three hold their hands in prayer; one of whom looks out to the distance in focused prayer, one looks down at Christ frowning, and one celebrates with childlike exuberance as she throws her hands in the air and smiles with raised eyebrows.
Behind Christ, the viewer finds, an ox and donkey and above Christ, the rafters are painted in shadow and establish that the event is taking place in a barn. According to Luke, “there was no room for them to stay in the inn.” An atypically young Joseph stands behind Mary mostly in shadow; he is bearded with his hands crossed over his chest in reverence.
A place–at the front right–is left open for us to stand beside the manger and partake in this event. It is a small artwork–just 2 x 3 feet, so unlike large altarpieces, its main purpose is private devotion rather than decoration.
To achieve this mystical mood, a dramatic contrast of light and dark oil paint was used. The technique, called chiaroscuro, also established convincing three dimensional setting and figures on a two dimensional wood panel.
After outlining the entire scene in paint, Geertgen tot Sint Jans blocked the foreground, middle and background with black glaze and painted the first glaze of Christ’s body a stark white. Additional glazes were layered to accentuate this contrast between the most important elements of each figure and the less important details.
The artist laid paints with both narrow and wide brushes, smoothed and blended colors with a cloth and even rubbed away color as needed to highlight the light source and areas directly hit by this light source so our eyes are immediately drawn to Christ, followed by Mary’s face, hands and then the angels. Oil paint, unlike fresco or tempera paints, enables light to penetrate layers of paint and reflect back through the surface allowing for infinite gradations of tonality.
The background scene narrates the Biblical story as it continues in Luke 2:8-12:
“There were some shepherds in that part of the country who were spending the night in the fields, taking care of their flocks. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone over them…This very day in David’s town your Savior was born–!”
In the background the artist painted a distinction between holy light and light from the fire. The angel’s holy light, like a spotlight, illuminates the background space so that the viewer can identify shepherds, their flock, and a grassy hill whereas the small manmade fire appears dim like a single candle flame in the distance.
Once home, I attended a candlelight Christmas Eve service, an established tradition that included the moment before midnight when the congregation sang Holy Night.
The sanctuary was dark other than a single lit candle.
This flame represented the light of God as He entered the world through the birth of Jesus. Each congregant passed this flame increasing its intensity through our shared belief.
This bright glow became more like the Holy light that emanated from Christ as seen in the image of Night Nativity.
Like Mary encountering God’s gift of Christ, if our faith allows us, any lingering disbelief will be snuffed out as we accept the flame passed to our unlit candle.