Heures a lusaige de Romme tout au long sans riens requerir. : Auec les figures de lapocalipse & plusieurs aultres figures, (1516?)
Canterbury Cathedral Library, H/L-3-1(Strongroom)
What could be a more fitting picture for December than a representation of the Nativity? This is such a familiar scene; it is the quintessence of Christmas and rightfully graces many a Christmas card. Indeed, by its subject matter, this image for many of us is tied specifically to December and Christmas and, apart from in an art gallery, might look out of place in any other month of the year. Yet, when this particular image was created (France, 1516) Nativity scenes would still have been viewed daily as an aid to the office of Prime. Despite the misleading nature of its name, Prime was actually the third devotional office of the day and traditionally accompanied by a Nativity scene in Books of Hours. Typically owned by the rich, and very favoured by women, Books of Hours were devotional aids to the laity and based on the liturgical divisions of the monastic day.(See August’s ‘Picture this…’ for an explanation of Books of Hours and the eight devotional offices.)
The particular point of interest about this Canterbury Cathedral Library Book of Hours (H/L-3-1) which holds this image is that it is a hybrid of both print and manuscript. The text of the book has been printed onto vellum and has been deliberately made to resemble bona fide hand-written gothic script. The whole effect is a very credible impression of the more traditional, and more expensive, manuscript Book of Hours. As finishing touches, hand painted initial capital letters dot the pages of text in red, blue and gold. Whilst not a manuscript in the true sense of the word (i.e. written by hand) all of the books images are hand painted miniatures with elements of tonality, shading and ad hoc decoration which take the artistry involved beyond simply coloured-in printed woodcuts. Therefore, although printed, this book is a top bracket example of the hybrid genre and a fascinating example of the co-existence of print and manuscript. It is also proof of the continuing demand for individuality of product in the marketplace of ever increasing mass-produced printed matter.
The Nativity scene here shows Mary in a conventional position of kneeling in homage to her own son as he lies facing her on a white cloth. Although it is not easy to ascertain here, this cloth is usually a part of the Virgin’s robe stretched out so that the infant does not lie on the bare earth. Joseph is also present but not without various indications that relate to his comparative lower status in terms of holiness. He is set further back than Mary and is of smaller stature. As a point of interest, it is not unusual for Joseph to appear in such scenes without a halo, but that the Christ child should also not have one is notably strange. In fact, this omission would seem to be an oversight on the artist’s behalf as just a few pages further forward at the scene of the Adoration of the Kings (used for the office of Sext) both Jesus and Joseph are depicted with single band haloes, still markedly less ornate than Mary’s.
Immediately noticeable is the wooden post, a part of the stable’s structure, which divides the picture into two parts. I believe that this rather awkward feature, that detracts from the main focus of the picture and literally separates Mary from her son, is probably meant as a foreshadowing of what is to come in Jesus’ adult life; it is a reminder of the cross . It would have been more than possible and perfectly natural for the artist to show the interior of a barn without the intrusive component of a wooden post, which when inverted resembles a tau cross. Also, no other image in the book suffers from such clumsy composition, which all points to the post’s very obvious presence as being a considered choice. In this way, right at the moment of Christ’s birth the artist has included a portent of His death, which brings to mind the very reason why Jesus was sent to be born on Earth at all: to die for man’s sins. There seems to be another symbol of danger to Christ in the rather conspicuous placing of a saddle in the foreground. This could be read as a reference to the imminent journey when the Holy Family must take flight into Egypt to avoid the infanticidal persecution of King Herod.
More familiar inclusions in the scene are the ox and the ass, shown behind Mary at the rear of the barn. Of course there is a beautiful irony in the fact that these two creatures are so consistently present and such instantly recognisable pictorial elements Nativity scenes. At no point in the New Testament accounts of the Nativity are the ox and the ass mentioned, so why are they accepted iconography in scenes of the biblical event? Theories comprise ideas that such beasts would have been found in stables and are associated with mangers and thus would naturally be portrayed at Jesus’ birth. More convincing is that early Christian interpretations of the Old Testament book of Isaiah led to their inclusion. Isaiah 1:13 says, ‘The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’ (NIV, 1984).The intention is that rebellious and ungrateful man often misses the significance of God’s gifts whereas uncomplicated and reliable animals can be relied upon to realise the true worth.
Returning to the idea of Christmas cards, in light of the very festive nature of this month’s image I take the opportunity of wishing you a merry Christmas and a happy new year.
Jayne Wackett: Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent.