Even non-Christians can warm to the Nativity story at the heart of the Christmas season because we've all been there. If not as a mother cradling a newborn, each of us was once a drowsy little lump wrapped in whatever swaddling clothes came to hand -- strips of linen, soft rabbit fur or a bottom-snapped onesie.
For centuries, that universal experience has inspired artists, especially such Old Masters as Rembrandt van Rijn, Albrecht Dürer, G.B. Tiepolo and other European art stars. These are the talents featured in "The Nativity," an elegant and absorbing show of 38 etchings, drawings and other exceedingly rare works-on-paper from the Thrivent Financial Collection of Religious Art on view in downtown Minneapolis through Feb. 17.
Enhanced with excellent background information and biblical quotations, the show is wonderfully informative and a pleasure to view.
Dozens of contemporary crèches from around the world are also on display through Dec. 31 in the corporate headquarters of Thrivent, the financial organization formerly known as Lutheran Brotherhood. Multicultural in origin and style, the crèches range from Russian nesting dolls to Ecuadorean figures made of bread dough, a Swedish log cabin, naturalistic carvings from Ghana, and a wood-veneered pop-up book from Bangladesh. Most are intended for tabletops, but one is about two-thirds human scale. The sculptures are on loan from the Westminster Presbyterian Church, also in downtown Minneapolis.
Nativity scenes must have had an even more primal appeal in past centuries, when infant mortality clouded every horizon, crippling childhood diseases were rife and vaccines unknown. Here was a family-centered religion that celebrated life from the moment of conception, sent shepherds and kings to marvel at a newborn, and beamed in angels to brighten the heavens. From the Renaissance on, artists amplified the "wow" factor in all this, turning out grand paintings to decorate churches and inexpensive prints to be cherished at home.
From Holy Land to Europe
Thrivent's display retells the familiar story in a series of loosely sequential images that often incorporate clothing and domestic details of their time. Though the biblical events occurred in ancient Judea and Egypt, where camel caravans plodded past pyramids, European artists recast the past closer to home.
In his postcard-sized "Annunciation" of 1510, Dürer depicts Mary as a devout middle-class German woman reading in her cozy bedroom when the angel Gabriel pops in and a dove drops down from heaven. Rembrandt's "Holy Family" of 1632 shows the contented threesome in a bedroom nook where Mary, having tossed off a slipper, nurses the babe and Joseph, wearing a stocking cap, reads in the background. Centuries later, French artist Maurice Denis sets his "Visitation at the Villa Mountrouge" in a typical French village circa 1896 where Mary arrives by pony cart to tell her nun-like cousin Elizabeth the big news about her pregnancy in a walled garden lined with espaliered fruit trees. So French!
Italian artists often place the holy family in rustic ruins, as G.B. Castiglione does in his "Nativity With God the Father and Angels," a placemat-sized 1637-41 etching. Theologians of the day could point to the broken columns and a crashed urn as evidence that the old Roman culture was being supplanted by the new church embodied in the baby and his heavenly entourage.
By contrast, the Dutch artist Nicolaes de Bruyn set his theatrical 1621 engraving "The Announcement to the Shepherds" in a wooded meadow crowded with goats, sheep and 14 herdsmen, who dash off astonished when an angel descends from a cloud while heavenly musicians play harps and guitars.
Biblical events domesticated
Thrivent's collection is known not only for the stellar quality of its prints, but also for its unusual range of subjects. That extends even to such exotica as Christ's circumcision. In a remarkable 1594 engraving that's more than 2 feet tall, Dutch artist Hendrik Goltzius shows a huge crowd of balding elders milling about in a Gothic chapel as the babe is circumcised by an official who reassuringly peers through a prominent magnifying glass. Most amusingly, the artist depicts himself in the background, a svelte young dandy amid the caricatured geezers.
Rembrandt keeps it simpler, setting the event in a stable with Mary observing prayerfully and Joseph peering intently. As a text panel helpfully explains, Rembrandt's homey setting conforms better to Jewish custom, which dictates that circumcision occur eight days after birth, when, according to the law of Moses, a mother could not yet enter the temple.
The family's Egyptian road trip has always been a favorite for artists. In his 1502 woodcut, Dürer envisions Egypt as a happy Germanic village where Mary spins, Joseph gets on with his carpentry, and a flock of tiny angels tidies up.
Nobody does the trip with more elegant tenderness than Tiepolo. In a series of etchings executed around 1750, he shows angels leading the family into an exotic landscape as Joseph carries the babe (a first) and Mary strolls beside the donkey. With their mix of humility and grace, Tiepolo's scenes are those rare Nativity images that truly transcend distance and time.