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
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 Annunciation (we looked Fra Angelico’s version in a previous devotion). A sleeping cat appears in the foreground of one, and curled up in Mary’s dress in the other.
It was mischievous elements like these that made Barocci particularly popular with women. And perhaps it was his heightened sensitivity and his affinity with his female patrons that afforded him the capacity to depict the nativity as tenderly maternal as this is.
Whatever the reason, Barocci’s nativity reminds us that in all the grand portrayals of the same scene, the ones that include baroque angels and ornate stables and resplendent Magi, very few reveal both the posture of worship and the touching fondness of a mother and her child.
Surely, this is how we approach the Christ ourselves. He is our God. And he is our brother, our joint heir, our friend, our redeemer.
May this season we all discover that radiant place in the intersection between worship and tenderness, between adoration and intimacy.
O sweet Child of Bethlehem, grant that we may share with all our hearts in this profound mystery of Christmas.
Put into the hearts of men and women this peace for which they sometimes seek so desperately and which you alone can give to them.
Help them to know one another better, and to live as brothers and sisters, children of the same Father.
Reveal to them also your beauty, holiness and purity.
Awaken in their hearts love and gratitude for your infinite goodness.
Join them all together in your love.
And give us your heavenly peace. Amen.
By Pope John XXIII