Happy Christmas

Marsden cross memorial reserve

The Marsden Memorial Cross marks the approximate site from which Samuel Marsden preached a sermon on 25 December 1814 inaugurating the Church Missionary Society mission here. The land and protection for the missionary settlement were provided by Ruatara, a rangatira of the adjacent Rangihoua pa. Without this assurance of physical safety and support, the missionaries would never have left the UK and New South Wales. The photo above belies New Zealand’s terrifying reputation among Europeans of this period.

For this reason, today marks the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in Aotearoa (give or take – we’re not counting services celebrated by chaplains on visiting European or American ships).

I took this picture at the beginning of December when I visited Oihi for the first time. The cross and beach are now the centre-piece of the new Rangihoua Heritage Park. There are some good interpretative plaques on the way down to the beach, but even if they weren’t there, it’s a spot of outstanding beauty – especially if you have it to yourself at the end of a cloudless summer’s day, as I did.

Advent offering 24 December

For our final advent offering, I thought I’d follow on from yesterday’s blog, where we looked at nativity images from around the world, with another contextual nativity scene that is flavoured with the artist’s own cultural location. This one has a special place in my heart, as it is a nativity with a bit of a Scottish flavour. It’s by Scots artist William Bell Scott and, when I was home in Edinburgh recently, I was fortunate enough to see it ‘in the flesh’ in the National Gallery of Scotland. Scott locates the nativity scene, not in Bethlehem, but in Penkill, Ayrshire, where he was staying at the time of this composition. Some of the traditional nativity iconography is present – they byre, the animals, the holy family, and the angels (who are sitting rather nonchalantly with the birds in the rafters of the byre). A procession of shepherds make their way towards a rather nervous looking Mary (Joseph meanwhile appears rather disinterested in events, his nose stuck in a book). You’ll see they are followed up at the rear by a piper playing the bagpipes, another wee dash of Scottishness added by Bell to this traditional nativity scene. In the distance, the magi make their decorous way towards the byre,  It looks as though a a rather jolly celebration will soon be in full swing.

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William Bell Scott, The Nativity (1872)

And so we reach the end of our advent calendar for 2014. I do hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we’ve enjoy doing it. From all of us in Theology at Auckland, we wish you and yours a happy festive time and hope to see you for more bloggings in 2015.

Caroline x

Advent offering 23 December

It’s our penultimate advent offering today, so I thought I’d share a few more images than usual with you. On my search for nativity scenes in art, I’ve been struck by how different and yet how familiar all the different artistic renderings of this iconic image are. The artists’ personal styles, their geographical and historical context, and, sometimes, their personal spirituality all play a part in how they depict this Christian narrative. So, here’s a few images that have caught my eye – you can see which one you like best.

First off, we have Dutch artist Jan Joest’s Adoration of the Christ Child (1515). I find this nativity scene very atmospheric (the sky outside the window is beautiful), but also a little bit eerie. The figures (both human and angelic) stand around the tiny infant, their faces either in shadow or illuminated by a strange light that seems to emanate from the cradle. The two male figures at the rear of the painting just look plain sinister, while the angelic bodies hanging mid air like a tangled chandelier near the ceiling look a bit too unruly and at odds with the calm of the scene below.

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Jan Joest, Adoration of the Christ Child (1515)

Next up, a beautiful Baroque image from French artist Charles Le Brun, titled Adoration of the Shepherds. This nativity scene positively bustles with movement and life – angels hover, swoop, and make music while the crowd below (a mixture of adults and infants) simply can’t sit still, but move excitedly around the mother and child who sit illuminated at the centre of the action. Only the infant Jesus seems to be motionless – a tiny oasis of calm amidst the restless delight that is carrying on around him.

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Charles Le Brun, Adoration of the Shepherds (1689)

In total contrast, a lovely nativity by Moravian artist Adolf Hölzel, simply titled Adoration. Compared to Le Brun’s nativity, there is an intense stillness about this scene, the cool colours and quiet patience of the figures allowing the viewer to exhale and relax after our Baroque excitement. I particularly like the posture of Mary in this painting – the way she curls in towards her child, exuding a sense of maternal care and love.

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Adolf Hölzel, Anbetung (Adoration), 1912

Moving beyond Europe, we can also enjoy other nativities that likewise take on the geographical and cultural locations of their artists. For example, in Korean artist Woonbo Kim Ki-chang’s work, The Birth of Jesus Christ, Mary is wearing a hanbok (a traditional Korean dress) while Joseph dons a Korean gat, or hat. This painting is very similar to nativity scenes we often see in Western art (the byre, the farm animals, the onlookers), yet interestingly the characters that participate in the adoration are all female – some may be midwives perhaps, or women working on the farm where this byre is located.

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Woonbo Kim Ki-chang, The Birth of Jesus Christ (1952-53)

Here is a positively lovely artwork, by Chinese artist He-Qi – the multiple hues of blue are glorious and again, bring a sense of real peace to the nativity scene. Again, the traditional iconography of the nativity is here – the star, the angelic presence (I love this swooping angel who seems to be spreading a blessing over all present), the shepherds and the animals. Mary stands out in her pretty pink, while the infant Jesus is very fetching too, with his rosy cheeks and white and lilac striped swaddling. Gorgeous!

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He-Qi, Nativity (1998)

Another beautifully peaceful nativity is by Ugandan artist Francis Musango, and is titled Christ in the Manger. I love the wee baby’s head peeking out of the covers, resting on his mother’s lap. Various figures gather round Mary, but she has eyes only for her sleeping son. Her beautiful face is both serene and serious and those who look upon her seem a little in awe.

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Francis Musango, Christ in the Manger, n.d.

I also love this modern take on the nativity by US artist James B. Janknegt. It has a jazzy, party feel to it. The magi approach the door and are welcomed by a friendly cat – they all look intent on having a gay old time. They’re carrying some exciting looking gifts, including a teddy, a high chair, and flowers for mum. More practical, I guess, than gold, frankincense and myrrh? Meanwhile, poor Joseph’s consigned to the garden, doing a bit of hard labour himself, while Mary rests up in a comfy looking bed – I wonder if she’ll join the celebrations when these excited party-goers burst through the door?

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James B. Janknegt, Nativity, 1995

There’s also a fabulous air of anticipation and celebration in Louisiana-born African-American artist, Clementine Hunter. Joseph is nowhere in sight, but one of the angels is leading a very pregnant Mary towards the place where she will give birth, while the magi (in their stetsons) make their gift-laden way there too. The hovering angels look very excited about the coming events as they swoop through a candy pink sky, waiting to welcome their very special guests.

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Clementine Hunter, Nativity with Virgin Mary, Three Wise Men and Angels (c. 1950)

Australian artist Greg Weatherby uses indigenous iconography in his fabulous nativity scene, titled Dreamtime Birth. No angels this time, but a pair of what perhaps are divine hands, hovering protectively over the holy family, casting a golden light over them. The magi approach reverentially, while in the background, kangaroos, emus, and lizards make their way to pay homage too.

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Greg Weatherby, Dreamtime Birth, 1990s

Finally, a very striking nativity image from Indonesian artist Erland Sibuea, who wraps (quite literally) the birth of Jesus in a glorious mantle of flora and fauna. Often, the natural world gets neglected in nativity scenes (with the exception of human and domestic animal life) – here, it becomes an intrinsic part of the event. All creation is celebrating this extraordinary cosmic event.

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Erland Sibuea, Nativity, 2008

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s global tour of nativities in art. I’m aware I’ve only scratched the surface, but if you are interested in finding more nativity scenes and images from around the world, check out these websites here and here. And I’ll see you tomorrow for our final advent offering.

Advent offering 22 December

Today’s nativity scene is from a contemporary Utah artist Brian Kershisnik. The piece, titled simply Nativity, focuses on the heavenly response to Jesus’ birth, rather than the earthly. Jesus lies sleeping in his mother’s arms, his father sitting in the background seemingly overwhelmed by events (asking himself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ according to the artist). There are only a few other earthly onlookers in the painting – two midwives, a dog and her pups – rather than the usual plethora of shepherds, magi, oxen, cattle, and sheep we often see in traditional nativity scenes. Instead, Kershisnik pushes the earthly into a small corner of his canvas, cramming the rest of his space with a mob of angels, who crowd round and jostle to catch a glimpse of this extraordinary infant. Even child-angels are included in the multitude – it is as though this heavenly outing to see the first nativity scene really is a family event.

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Brian Kershisnik, Nativity (2007)

To hear Brian Kershisnik talk about this piece, follow the link here.

Advent offering 21 December

Christmas day is drawing nearer, so for the last few days of this advent calendar, I’ll do what I did last year and focus on images of the nativity. Today’s offering is from Flemish artist Cornelis Massijs, titled Arrival of the Holy Family in Bethlehem. Here, Massijs depicts Bethlehem as a Flemish village – Mary and Joseph are very much in the background, standing next to their ass, as Joseph carries out negotiations with an innkeeper. Meanwhile, life carries on as normal – other figures tending to their everyday business (including a bit of canoodling), giving the newcomers scarcely a glance. Only the brooding clouds and the somewhat eerie light in the sky remind us that the night ahead promises to be quite extraordinary.

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Cornelis Massijs, Arrival of the Holy Family in Bethlehem (1543)

Advent offering 20 December

These past few days, we’ve had a flurry of beautiful biblical women in our advent offerings, so I thought I’d keep up with this theme for one more day, giving me the chance to share a gorgeous image from the most talented Symbolist artist Gustave Moreau. I’ve spoken about Moreau’s work before on this blog (see here and here). His use of colour is breathtaking and there’s always something ethereal about his images – an otherworldliness that can conjure up in the viewer’s mind a myriad of dreams, fantasies, and desires.

The image I’ve chosen today is the Shulammite from Song of Songs. Moreau paints her as a languid, exotic beauty, raven-haired and heavily bejewelled, standing within an opulent setting (look at the colour and detail on the pillar behind her) with the glorious turquoise and gold evening sky as her backdrop. She looks straight at us, inviting us to join her for a little while, so that we too may enjoy the  warm summer’s eve breeze, feel the coolness of the marble beneath our feet, and breathe in the heady scent of the flowers she holds in both her hands. Enjoy her company while you can though, for soon she’ll be off, disappearing into the night, searching for her beloved.

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Gustave Moreau, Cantique de Cantique (1898)

BTW, a couple of books have been published this year about Song of Songs by Theology at Auckland favourite Dr Yael Klangwisan (who is based at Laidlaw Theological College). Details of both Yael’s books can be found here and here – definitely worth checking out.

Advent offering 19 December

One of the reasons I love studying artists’ renderings of biblical traditions is the way that, sometimes, their portrayals can invite the viewer to look at the biblical story in new ways. A fascinating example of this is the painting by Philip Hermogenes Calderon, titled ‘Ruth and Naomi’. This image is the subject of much discussion, given its hugely ambiguous depiction of the relational dynamic going on between Ruth and Naomi (the two embracing figures). In many other artistic depictions of this biblical duo, Naomi is usually portrayed as a haggard and exhausted elderly woman, consoled by a much younger, more nubile Ruth. Here, however, the figure of Naomi appears fairly young – not to mention distinctly masculine, or at least androgynous in appearance. Moreover, there is something distinctly passionate about the nature of their embrace here – like a scene from a 1930s Hollywood romance, Ruth clings onto her mother-in-law, as a frisson of unspoken desire runs through their mutual gaze. Nothing else matters, no one else exists – we have to feel a bit sorry for poor Orpah here, standing on our right, so distanced from the other pair, so utterly excluded within this tableau.

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Philip Hermogenes Calderon, Ruth and Naomi (1920)

While some scholars have attempted to ‘dampen down’ any potential ardour between the two women in this image, by suggesting that the grey-clad figure is Boaz rather than Naomi, this makes little sense given the painting clearly represents the scene from Ruth 1, when Naomi attempts to part ways with her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah. No, I’d rather leave these two women standing here unambiguously enjoying an embrace that – in some sense – celebrates and witnesses to the intense love that they share with each other, a love that Ruth gives voice to with such eloquence during this very scene:

“Do not press me to leave you
    or to turn back from following you!
Wherever you go, I will go;
    wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
    and your God my God.
Wherever you die, I will die—
    there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
    and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-17)