Hererodoxy in Colour

Unknown-austrian-master-early-15th-century-I-the-nativity

What do you notice that’s unusual about this image? How about the midwives!

Prior to Christmas I made reference to Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion, noting that the narrative dimension typically trumps the material dimension in Christianity.

This may be contrasted with, say, Tarot based spirituality, where the symbols are considered more fundamental than any stories that become attached to them.

It is worth noting these differences between religions when it comes to critiquing religious art, art being a popular expression of the material dimension of religion.

This image hails from the Gallery of medieval art in Austria, Vienna, Austria. It includes some seemingly innocuous changes to the story. I say “seemingly” because the presence of the two extra women suggests a possible allusion to the Infancy Gospel of James, a pseudoepigraphical Gnostic text that introduces the idea that Jesus was born of light, not flesh, and that Salome and a midwife “checked” Mary after the birth to ensure she was ever virgin. Given the primacy of story in Christianity, changes to the stories illustrated by art have far greater significance for Christian art than the art of many alternative religions.

8 Comments

  1. Totally tangential question…..Is that a halo around Joseph’s head?
    To be honest, at first glance at the piece, I wasn’t even aware it was a portrayal of Christ’s birth.

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  2. I’m curious about why you say that the midwives are “unusual”.
    There are indeed some “unusual” features of the picture, but that certainly isn’t one of them. What struck me as unusual is the basket symbolism, and the suggestion that Jesus was born in a basket — perhaps an allusion to the birth of Moses.
    The picture also shows the transition stage from Orthodox ikonography to Renaissance humanist art, in which everything is “this-worldly” and the bipolarity of the incarnation is lost. Possibly it is contemporary with Fra Angelico.
    For a discussion of symbolism, see the Orthodox Wiki article on the ikon of the Nativity.
    http://orthodoxwiki.org/Nativity_icon

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  3. the diaphanous swatch of fabric “dripping” from the manger? is that symbolic of anything? i must say, i’m bemused by Joseph’s facial expresson…
    before the time of mass literacy as we know it, art was a major education/communcation method

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  4. It is unusual to have midwives in the picture because they are not mentioned in the biblical narrative.
    The basket/bucket in question would be a tub with water to wash the baby when it is born, a common practice and seen often in medieval birth imagery. For example, see prints from Jakob Rueff’s The Expert Midwife, Lying In Chamber, and The Conception and Growth of Man (1500-1558); “der schwangeren frauen und hebammen rosengarten” 1982 cover; Die Geburt Mariens (the birth of mary) c. 1460-65; or The Birth of Mary, from the altarpiece of the Church of St. Nicholas in Presov, Slovakia.
    Blessings, Alicia

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