“Visio Divina” and the art of the Nativity – Testament

By Sarah Puryear

I I recently reviewed a beautiful book, Divine Love: The Art of Nativity by Sarah Drummond, which occupies a place at the intersection of art history and theology. Drummond traces the various themes, characters, and symbols found in the Western artistic tradition depicting the birth of Christ and the events leading up to it. Her careful study, which spans the earliest Christian art through the Renaissance, reveals the development of these traditions over time, such as the eventual inclusion of midwives in the birth scene even though they are not mentioned in the scriptural text, the shift from depictions of the Nativity of Jesus in the cave-to-stable setting and the choice of the ox and donkey as animal representatives to the manger and the theological themes that each of these traditions embodies.

Reading Divine love it made me more attentive to the art surrounding the Christmas story as I used art as a reflective tool in the parish Bible study I lead. As we studied the women of the Gospels on Wednesday mornings this fall, one of our spiritual disciplines looked at the art of these stories through the practice of divine vision.

A divine vision is a “riff” on the more traditional spiritual practice of Lectio Divina. Instead of focusing on the biblical text and its words, he uses visual art as a means through which God speaks to us through his Word. While we recognize that an artist’s interpretation of a biblical story represents his perspective, limitations, and biases, accepting the artist’s vision of the story, its characters, and its themes can deepen our understanding and appreciation of the text and lead us to prayer. We consider how through multiple artistic choices—the style of the painting, the placement of the figures, their poses and facial expressions, and the use of symbols—the artists bring these stories to life in unique ways. Reflecting on art in conversation with others can be a powerful experience as we learn unexpected lessons from other people’s observations and insights.


As I researched further, gathering images of these stories to share in our Bible study, I was drawn to Nativity art from a later period than those Drummond’s book covers – the early 20th century. In particular, I was struck by the work of three artists who sought to depict scriptural events in a new way – Henry Osawa Tanner, James Tissot, and Gary Melchers. Although different in origin, they had a common artistic goal: to paint with greater realism than much of the religious art that preceded them. Both Tanner and Tissot went to great lengths to do so, visiting the Holy Land to gain insight into the original setting, landscape, and culture of the New Testament so that they could imagine and depict these familiar biblical stories in a way that reflects their original context.

In the spirit of divine visionI offer the following three images as spiritual food for your reflection on the birth of Christ this Christmas, accompanied by a brief biographical information about the artist and my thoughts on how these works can lead us to deeper devotion and prayer.

AnnunciationHenry Osawa Tanner, 1898

Tanner (1859-1937) was an African American artist. The son of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, he made his home in Paris as an adult and undertook two extended trips to the Holy Land, which informed his many religious paintings.

In his depiction of the Annunciation, Gabriel is a thin column of light rather than an ornate winged angel; the placement of the shelf behind Gabriel shapes the shape of the cross and foreshadows how the course of events unfolding here will eventually lead to the cross. The wrinkling of the bedding, carpet and clothing is an exercise in artistic realism that adds to the sense of how Gabriel has burst onto a very ordinary stage that has not been carefully selected and prepared.

Mary is young, a little scared, thoughtful and yet calm. The tilt of her head suggests that she is listening intently and considering “what kind of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). I like to think that Tanner chose to depict the moment just before he says, “How shall this be?” rather than the moment that so many images show, the moment of Mary’s acceptance, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Reading Amy Peeler’s book Women and the Gender of God lately it’s made me pay more attention to the complexity of Luke’s portrayal of Mary that Tanner reports here – she doesn’t just immediately accept the role in humble submission, as she’s shown to do in so much Annunciation art. Rather, she takes Gabriel’s words, considers the possibilities and ramifications, and asks questions. Gabriel takes her seriously and honors the mental, emotional and spiritual process she goes through as she accepts his message and God’s invitation, and allows her the time and space to say her yes.

Do we think God expects us to become religious robots and offer instant obedience when asked to do something that will stretch us beyond what we think we can handle? Is there something God is asking of us, inviting us to do with Him, and we think the holiest response would be to bypass any spiritual struggle on the way to saying yes? Can we see how God honors us in our discernment with his tenderness and patience, and how our yes to cooperation with God, while accepting that it will involve suffering, will also become a path to great joy?

Saint Joseph is looking for lodging in BethlehemTissot, 1886-94

James Tissot (1836-1902) was a French artist who, after having a religious vision in a church in Paris mid-career, began work on an extensive series of 365 paintings depicting stories from the life of Christ. He traveled repeatedly to the Holy Land to see firsthand the places where these events took place.

In his depiction of Joseph looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem, Tiso captures the narrow and chaotic streets of an ancient city. Joseph is all in action, facing away from the viewer, calling out to the innkeeper, who is gesturing “no room” with his hands. Mary waits on the donkey’s back, not serene and calm, but anxious and shy, a hand raised to her face, perhaps shielding herself from prying eyes watching her from the window above. Three of the figures in the composition have their backs to the viewer, communicating a lack of connection or concern for this couple’s plight. Three other figures—the child on the stairs to the right and the women in the window to the left—look down at them with detached curiosity, but offer no help. Here, unlike Tissot’s visit, there are no family members to welcome them with open arms, only a faint hope that someone will take pity on them, a hope that grows darker with each rejection they receive. Tissot’s attention to the feelings of Mary and Joseph in this uncertain moment is reminiscent of his painting St. Joseph’s Anxietywhich shows Joseph in his carpentry shop before the angel’s message in a dream, pondering the news that Mary is pregnant and wondering what to do in response.

Jesus found himself in a situation that was precarious for parents who were marginalized, sent on this journey far from their home in Nazareth by the Roman imperial system and without the resources to pave the way before them. What a relief it is to know that God doesn’t stick his nose in messy situations, that God doesn’t turn away when we feel at the end of our rope, left with no good choices, far from comforting scenes. Let us be encouraged that God does not wait for us to have it all together before He deigns to come and live among us.

ChristmasGary Melchers (1891)

I was surprised when I first came across this image to realize it was over a hundred years old; I expected that the artist was still alive. As a member of the naturalist movement, Gary Melchers (1860-1932) strove to bring realism to his work, born of his aim to “paint only what is ‘true and clear’.”

Unlike so many manger scenes where everyone is at their best, calm, well-groomed and devoutly adoring the Christ child, Melcher depicts the exhausted exhaustion of Mary and Joseph, Mary slumping down next to Joseph as she leans against him for support. Joseph is alert, watching over his baby and his wife, but his shoulders seem weighed down by the clock on them, and perhaps by the responsibility that now rests upon him. Yet, given all this, they are mesmerized by the baby lying before them, which is the source of light in the scene, not the lantern that sits on the floor behind the small manger. Joseph’s hands are folded in a very natural way, and yet they are also folded in devotion, as in so many Nativity scenes that precede this one.

Immanuel, God with us—the one who took on our flesh and came to dwell among us—is more than a blot on the page. But he is here with Mary and Joseph in this plain and bare space, here in the midst of their struggle and weariness, and already shining, showing himself as the one who gives light to every man (John 1:9). Let us accept that God is ready to enter even the simplest and most tiring moments of our lives, ready to enlighten our lives with His presence.

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