Myth and Mysticism: Christian depictions of the Nativity

The starting point for this blog is my current work tutoring students in A Level Philosophy. What has been particularly striking in many of the mark-schemes I’ve witnessed, is the deeply Christocentric, fact-based approach – which seems to me so far removed from the joys and logical focus that drew me to philosophy in the first place. For me, Philosophy is a subject all about how to think – what makes a good argument, and what the pitfalls of rational thought are – as opposed to specific “things” and facts you should know about.

Nonetheless, one topic that really caught my attention was the role of art in Christian worship. Students are asked to focus on two areas in particular: representations of the nativity and the crucifixion. The starting point of discussion is the role of early Christian visuals such as the cross and the fish. These were (and are) very much symbolic images – providing a supposedly universal language which seeks to reinforce and proclaim the experiences of believers. One philosophical perspective immediately jumped to my mind in relation to this: the work of Roland Barthes on Mythologies.

To assess the issues raised by Barthes’ Mythologies (highlighting the tendency of socially constructed narratives, and assumptions to become “naturalised” i.e. taken unquestioningly as given within cultures), first consider his discussion of wine. Barthes notes its adoption as a French national drink. For the French, he claimed, wine has come to be seen as a social equaliser and the drink of the proletariat, partly because it is seen as blood-like (as in the Eucharist) and points out that very little attention is paid to red wine’s harmful effects to health. It is instead perceived as life-giving and refreshing — “in cold weather, it is associated with all the myths of becoming warm, and at the height of summer, with all the images of shade, with all things cool and sparkling.”

Withstanding theological discussions of the role of wine in sacraments such as the Eucharist, this multiplicity of socially-constructed meanings (often directly contradictory!) is of particular interest. Take for instance the Italian renaissance painter Antonio da Correggio’s Adoration of the Shepherds, a work created around 1529-30:

Antonio da Correggio, The Holy Night, Adoration of the shepherds (1522 - 1530)

Following the example of artists such as Titian, Correggio’s painting depicts the scene à la chandell (‘of the candle’) – resulting in a masterful chiaroscuro treatment of light. Two universalised notions are immediately introduced; that of light vs. dark, good vs. evil. The scene pivots around the child, surrounded by Mary’s arms, with a group of shepherds and angels on the left. On the right are the traditional animals (most notably the ox and the ass) and St. Joseph.

In relation to Barthes’ multiplicity of simultaneous meanings – it is worthwhile considering the historical development of nativity depictions. The earliest Christian representations were incredibly simple, with the ox and the ass always present – representing the entirely of the natural order that Christ had come to save. Moving forwards to the Byzantine era, the setting became a cave with angels starting to appear. The focus on the child’s draped blankets paralleled the burial shroud of the crucifixion story – reminding viewers of the dialectical purpose of Christ’s birth and death. As we get to the western renaissance, the setting had shifted towards a stable, with much more modern and intricate detailing added in. This is particularly evident in the work of painters such as Boticelli, and emphasised the importance of the nativity story to all ages – taking it out of its historical context and firmly into the modern day.

What is particularly fascinating about Correggio’s depiction is the combination and adaptation of all three of these main tropes. The simplistic early narratives surrounding the ox and the ass are incorporated, the angelic eschatological meanings related to the crucifixion and burial are present in Correggio’s treatment of fabrics, as well as the stunningly intricate treatment of chiaroscuro light and dark. As noted by Barthes’ Mythologies – such depictions now seem perfectly natural to the modern eye. On the face of it, there is nothing to question about a nativity scene that has become so familiar as to become the face of countless greetings cards and inspiration of thousands of school plays. Despite this, it belies a deep and often contradictory mysticism (allowing many different meanings to be taken from the painting), that has progressed and built-up over centuries of artistic representations and theological discussion. If nothing else, Correggio’s work serves as a reminder to always go beneath the surface; whether of an argument, renaissance painting or philosophical belief – to logically and rationally analyse how our notions, assumptions and mythologies have been formed. Perhaps in this endeavour, the “things” and “facts” may have their place after all!

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