Four sleeps to go ’til Christmas, so only four more Advent offerings left. Today’s artwork follows on with our Nativity story, focusing on the annunciation of the shepherds, as narrated in the gospel of Luke 2.8-14. I’ve chosen two very different images for you that relate this tradition. First, a beautiful painting by German artist Heinrich Vogeler, which captures the moment when the angel first appears to the shepherds.
The colour of the angel’s garment and wings is divine (a lovely change from the usual white) and goes rather nicely with her copper hair. The shepherds (a taciturn looking bunch) don’t seem to know what to make of her, while the cow in the centre of the image appears rather unimpressed. Perhaps once they all turn round and see that shooting star heading towards the byre in Bethlehem, they’ll get a little more excited about the events unfolding.
The second image I have for you is very different, capturing that moment in Luke 2.13-14 when the angelic messenger is joined by a ‘host’ of fellow divine bodies, who then proceed to burst into song. In this beautiful painting by Abraham Hondius, a riot of cherubim tumble from the heavens like confetti, while the central angelic figure lifts her arm as though to conduct them in their singing. The shepherds in this image do look suitably amazed, although note that, once again, the cow looks decidedly blasé.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
Back tomorrow with some magi and mangers. See you then.
For today’s Advent offering, I’ve chosen a painting by American artist Edward Knippers, who is best known for his vivid and drama-filled paintings of biblical tales and themes. Eschewing the ‘spiritual’ focus of other Christian artists, Knippers prefers to portray biblical characters as embodied characters, who are very much part of the world and who stand, often naked, stripped of everything but the drama in which they appear.
The painting by Knippers I have chosen for our Advent calendar is one titled Jacob and the Angel, which is based on the Genesis 32.22-32 tradition, where Jacob spends the night at the river Jabbok, wrestling with a mysterious (divine?) figure. Like most artists before him, Knippers has interpreted this figure as an angel, and typical of his style, he presents this heavenly figure as a massive and solidly muscled figure, whose impressive frame stands out dramatically against the twilight sky. This is no ethereal divine presence engaged in a wrestling match with Jacob, but a corporeal force to be reckoned with, who grapples with Jacob, skin on skin. You can almost feel the heat of exertion radiating from their bodies in the cool of the night. There is something rather majestic – or perhaps homoerotic – going on here.
Through this painting, Knippers expresses his belief in an embodied divinity – a God active and present in the physical world. His angel looks fully human – if it weren’t for the title of the painting, we might assume this image was simply of two wrestling men. The figures’ nakedness too strips away any sense of time or place, allowing them to transcend the specific location of the biblical tradition to take on a more universal significance. As Knippers himself insists, “The human body is at the center of my artistic imagination because the body is an essential element in the Christian doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection. Disembodiment is not an option for the Christian.”
For an excellent discussion of Knippers’ work, including this painting, see Ronald Reynoso, “The Cross, the Wilderness, and the Virgin: The Contemporary Christian Iconography of Edward Knipper” – available on academia.edu.
As December has reached us again, it’s time once more to begin Auckland TheoRel’s annual advent calender. For those who haven’t come across this tradition of ours before, let me explain. Each day of December, we will post an image (usually of a painting, sculpture, or other artwork) that has a biblical or religious theme. You can see our previous calenders here (2013) and here (2014) – they’ve been quite popular in past years and we enjoy doing them too!
So, for our first Advent offering of 2015, and to get us in the party mood, what better way to begin than with a musical angel?
This iconic painting is by Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, a Florentine artist in the 16th Century (1494-1540), and is believed to be but a small part of a (long-since lost) altarpiece, which may have depicted the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus, surrounded by musical putti (cherubs). This particular putto, with his fiery wings and even fierier red hair, looks intent on his playing, his chubby fingers picking out an angelic melody on his lute. Interestingly enough, the artist of this beautiful image was better known to his contemporaries as Rosso Fiorentino (literally ‘red Florentine’) owing to his own mop of red hair. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that this angelic figure should affirm for the viewer the heavenly origins of such fine flame-coloured curls.