NEW HAVEN, Conn.—One way to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas is to meditate on the Nativity's wondrous supernatural events, as depicted in historic works of art. A new exhibit will allow many a fine opportunity to do just that, this Advent season.
And the works are not just historic—they're from the Vatican's own collections.
The show, “Splendors of Christmas,” on display at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn., brings together 1,600 years’ worth of artistic reflection on the birth of Christ.
“This is the one and only time this show will be seen in the United States,” notes museum director Larry Sowinski. “It was basically created for us by the Vatican.”
Sowinski describes the exhibit as a “dramatic presentation,” pointing out the special lighting illuminating the works. “We want you to see these works in the light they're intended to be seen,” he says. “We want the content to inspire the reverence it calls for.”
The show includes a number of rarely seen pieces. Perhaps most notable among these is a set of elaborate marble carvings from sarcophagi (elaborately decorated limestone coffins) used by the early Church.
Museum curator Mary Lou Cummings points out how these carvings, which date to the 300s, bring together stories from both Old and New Testaments, so as to present a meditation on salvation history. Thus you find ancient Hebrew patriarchs and prophets such as Abraham and Daniel interacting with Mary, the Christ Child and the Magi.
“All of the essential elements of the Nativity,” such as the manger, sloping-roof hut, mule, ox and star of Bethlehem, “appear in the majority of these early scenes,” notes Cummings. In other words, this display will come as an eye-opener to those who thought the Nativity was the innovation of artists who came much later in Christian history.
Born This Day
Part of the aim of the exhibit is to show the constancy of the basic elements of the Nativity and the Epiphany over the 16 centuries covered. The styles have changed over the centuries, but not the message or the sense of awe that each artist tried to capture.
The 15th-century tempura on wood attributed to Ghirlandaio seems well more than two centuries removed from the 17th-century oil on canvas from the school of Murillo. But, in their own way, both inspire the same sense of awe over the Savior's birth.
The Ghirlandaio, stylized in bold shades of blues, reds and golds, focuses on the Holy Family. Not a stable is in sight. Above them, a quintet of angels unfurls a banner proclaiming "Gloria in Excelsis Deo.”
On the other hand, the 17th-century Murillo depicts the Holy Family, stable and adoring shepherds in the soft tones of a pastoral scene. What's more, St. Joseph is pictured younger and stronger, unlike earlier medieval works that portray him as older and momentarily at rest.
The lighting plays a major role, too. Its source is clearly the Baby Jesus—the Light of the World. It radiates first to his mother Mary, then to a lamb whose feet are bound. Symbolism abounds in these works too.
“It looks so authentic,” commented one visitor, Ellie Kavanaugh of Fairfield, County, Conn., standing before the Murillo. For her it reflects the “actual birth of Jesus,” as contrasted with the stylized interpretations. She also appreciates the show's strong historical aspects. “You get some of the thoughts others have had [on the Nativity],” she said.
The bold 14th-century tempura attributed to Ghissi strongly links the Nativity with the Passion and Resurrection. Half the painting deals with Jesus' birth, the other half with his death. Artists made the point that our salvation depends on both.
“The theological side is that, right from the birth of Christ, the shadow of the cross is on the birth,” says Dominican Father John Farren, director of Catholic information for the Knights of Columbus,
Father Farren also explains that the exhibit is part of the Knights' desire to share with the people of America “the full meaning of Christmas.” More and more in our country, he adds, there is “the shell, the vestige of Christmas” as cities and communities celebrate secular winter festivals in place of Christmas. “The Splendors of Christmas,” he hopes, will help point people to the birth of Christ.
“The Knights want to make explicit the wonder of Christmas—a wonder not just for children as it's (recently) portrayed,” says Father Farren, “but the wonder that God loves us so much that he would send his son who would be born as one of us in utter vulnerability and defenselessness.”
This is precisely what makes the exhibit appealing to Kavanaugh. “The true meaning of Christmas is almost lost,” she observes. “It's become too materialistic.” But these artistic Nativities and Epiphanies become a strong beacon of what Christmas really is.
“The philosophy of the Knights is that there are traditions worth keeping,” says Solwinski. “We have an important function: to keep Christ in Christmas. It's the only reason we have that holiday.”
Here Nativity and Epiphany scenes abound—in ivory, as a Byzantine triptych, and as icons, bookbindings, altarpieces, bronze and silver plaques, and even an exceptionally rare 13th-century glass medallion. Some are directly connected to popes. One piece was created in the early 16th century for Clement VII's devotional use. Pius IX donated another, a small table cross, to the Vatican Museums.
Curator Cummings point to the show's 34-piece crèche, an excellent example of Luba Christian art handcarved between 1935 and '39 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa. Finely detailed and proportioned, 33 figures are of rosewood, while the Christ Child is of ivory. “That's the show's signature piece,” he says.
This crèche greets people in the sweeping lobby, where, beginning Dec. 8, it will be framed by 25 Christmas trees decorated with ornaments handmade by Catholic schoolchildren.
“Christmas is a time of renewal,” says Sowinski. “If ever we needed renewal, it's this year.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from