Advent Reflection 10: Yes, Jesus WAS a refugee

Advent Reflection 10: Yes, Jesus WAS a refugee

The final entry in my series of reflections based on ten of the greatest Christmas artworks of all time. Merry Christmas to you all! 10 THE FLIGHT TO EGYPT   Artwork: Rest on the Flight to Egypt – Orazio Gentileschi, Birmingham Art Gallery Reading: Matthew 2:13-23 Reflection: This isn’t a very well known Christmas painting, but I really like it. During their escape from the murderous King Herod, the holy family rests in what looks like a derelict building. Their donkey waits on the other side of a broken wall as Joseph takes a nap and Mary feeds her child. There are dark, foreboding clouds on the horizon. The setting reinforces the appalling situation they find themselves in. Destitute, alone, and taking brief shelter in a ruin. Orazio Gentileschi’s picture is a strange composition. But it beautifully portrays the utter exhaustion of the holy family’s hurried escape from Bethlehem. They look like a modern day refugee family fleeing Aleppo. Joseph has collapsed in sheer exhaustion. Mary’s feet are dirty and she appears too tired to even cradle her hungry child, who looks furtively in our direction. Gentileschi obviously related to the refugee status of the holy family. He painted five versions of this picture. As a young painter he had become caught up in the licentious and violent world of fellow

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Advent Reflection 9: How deep is your love?

Advent Reflection 9: How deep is your love?

Ten of the greatest pieces of Christian art ever created. Ten Advent reflections. A bit like the ten stations of the Christmas story. Here’s No.9. 9.  THE ADORATION OF THE MAGI   Artwork:  Adoration of the Magi – Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Reading:  Matthew 2:7-12 Reflection: Botticelli was commissioned to paint this astonishing work in 1475 by Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a wealthy Italian banker connected to the Medici family. The holy family are positioned aloft in a derelict outhouse of yawning rafters on the brink of collapse. Below them, the Magi and their attendants have come bearing gifts for the Christ child. It’s a lush, dramatic, altogether beautiful nativity. That much is obvious to the uninformed viewer. What you might not know is the sly and artful way Botticelli has portrayed the images in the foreground. The three Magi are portrayed by patriarchs of the powerful Medici family. The magus kneeling before Christ and pompously touching his feet is Cosimo de’ Medici, the first of the Medici political dynasty. The second magus in the center with the red mantle is Cosimo’s son, Piero, who succeeded him as lord of Florence. And the third magus beside him is Piero’s brother Giovanni. They seem to be in conversation, perhaps disagreement. It was well known that Cosimo had intended for Giovanni to

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Advent Reflection 8: Where is Jesus?

Advent Reflection 8: Where is Jesus?

My Advent devotion series, based on the 10 greatest paintings of the Christmas story ever produced. Look carefully at the painting. Read the Bible text. Read the reflection. Recite the prayer. 8. THE MAGI SEARCH FOR THE CHRIST   Artwork: The Procession of the Magi – Benozzo Gozzoli, Medici Riccardi palace, Florence Reading: Matthew 2:1-10  Reflection: The Medicis were an Italian banking family that came to exercise such supreme control over the affairs of Tuscany and Florence that they became first a political dynasty and later a royal house. Wealthy and powerful beyond all reckoning, they transformed Florence into a stunningly beautiful and excessively luxurious city of the finest architecture and art. Medici money seemed to be inexhaustible. One Medici or another was patron to Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Rubens, and even Galileo. Four Medicis became Pope, a host of others cardinal, and two went on to rule France. So, when in 1459 Piero de’ Medici commissioned Benozzo Gozzoli to paint a series of frescoes of the procession of the Magi, Gozzoli knew exactly which side his bread was buttered on. His painting is a monumental exercise in sucking up! Instead of depicting just three wise men riding camels in the desert, he painted 33 kings parading in a cavalcade of excess and grandeur, every one of them a

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Advent Reflection 7: Outliers no longer

Advent Reflection 7: Outliers no longer

This is the seventh in a series of ten reflections looking at the Christmas story through the eyes of some of the greatest artists in history. 7.  THE ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS   Artwork: The Adoration of the Shepherds – Giorgione, National Gallery of Art, Washington Reading: Luke 2:15-20  Reflection: This is such a daring way to compose a nativity scene. Nearly every other Renaissance painter places the Holy Family smack-dab in the center of their composition. Lesser characters like shepherds, wise men, angels, sheep and other figures get arranged around them. Not Giorgione. He places the shepherds right in the middle of his frame. Dressed in worn and ragged clothes, the shepherds kneel like contrite pilgrims, bare-headed before the Christ child. To their left our eye is drawn off down a winding road through the town and out to the mountains in the distance. These men don’t belong here among the civilized folk. They are fringe-dwellers, outliers, wild men from the hills beyond normal society.  In 1st Century Israel, shepherds were despised. They were considered second-class citizens and untrustworthy. They were not permitted to fulfill judicial offices nor be admitted in court as witnesses. Joachim Jeremias says of shepherds at the time, “Most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people’s land and

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Advent Reflection 6: Don’t be afraid of the light

Advent Reflection 6: Don’t be afraid of the light

From Bruegel and Botticelli to Fra Angelico and Giorgione, I’m writing a series of devotions based on the greatest Christmas art of all time. Each devotion includes a picture, a Bible reading, a reflection and a prayer. Take your time. Look deeply. Breathe. Relax. Be with God. 6 ANNUNCIATION TO THE SHEPHERDS   Artwork:  Annunciation to the Shepherds – Taddeo Gaddi, Church of Santa Croce, Florence Reading:  Luke 2:8-15 Reflection: It’s the light that gets me. Look again at this picture, at the way the figures are lit. It’s quite remarkable really. It’s still evening. We can see that from the sliver of night sky beyond the brow of the hill. But the hill itself and the figures on it are bleached by a piercing light that bathes the sleepy shepherds and their flock. It’s as if the whole scene is being washed clean in light. Pure light. How extraordinary that this effect is created by paint and a brush. The artist Taddeo Gaddi is hardly known at all these days. In fact, most bios only discuss him with reference to his much more famous teacher, the grand master, Giotto. He’s usually referred to as “the pupil of…” or “a follower of…” One entry describes him as, “A capable artist, although lacking his teacher’s comprehensive aesthetic vision.” Ouch. But he

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Advent Reflection 5: That radiant place between worship and intimacy

Advent Reflection 5: That radiant place between worship and intimacy

This Advent, I’m writing a series of devotions, based on ten of the most beautiful paintings of the Christmas story ever created. Take some time to look carefully at the painting above. Read the Bible text. Read the reflection. Recite the prayer. 5.  THE BIRTH OF CHRIST   Artwork:  The Nativity – Federico Barocci, Prado museum, Madrid Reading: Luke 2:6-7 Reflection: You’ve looked at a thousand nativity scenes in your life, right? They range from the sickly, sentimental kind seen on greeting cards through to the melodramatic iconography of Catholic religious art. But not many are as intimate or as tender as Federico Barocci’s depiction of Mary and her newborn infant. She kneels, her hands outstretched and open, as if in the posture of worship. But at the same time her face shines like a young mother full to overflowing with love for her child. She adores her boy. And the child gazes back. In the otherwise darkened room, light plays across both their faces. The radiant child illuminates the exquisitely loving face of Mary, the whole composition emphasizing their mutual bond. Barocci was a sensitive soul. Deeply religious, often unwell, emotional but quite playful. As an expression of his eccentricity, in many of his religious paintings he included cats. Yep, cats. Here are two of his paintings of the

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