Art and Advent

Adoration of the Magi sarcophagus

Art and advent: learning how to LOVE during the season.

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO—Art and advent seem to go together like love and marriage. For millennia artist have captured the events surrounding the birth of Christ with astute detail.  From early paintings (such as a sarcophagus circa 2nd-3rd century, showing the adoration of the magi), to Byzantine icons, to modern masterpieces, artistic representation surrounding the birth of Jesus is manifold.

Various artistic renderings of Mary and Jesus

As one of the great events within history, Christmas is one of the two major Holy Days celebrated within the Christian year (the other, Easter, is the pinnacle).  The reason?  God incarnate, Jesus, takes the form of a man and dwells among people.  This mind-blowing Biblical truth is something worth celebrating, and artists have joined the festivities with a plethora of artistic depiction: matching the mystery of the event to the mastery of various artistic medium.

The question as to the importance of art and advent, I turn to history professor Dr. Bruce Redford. Dr. Redford served as chair of the Department of History of Art & Architecture at Boston University.

 Painting the Word

Dr. Bruce Redford

 In a three-part advent lecture series entitled PAINTING THE WORD: The Annunciation and Nativity in Western Art, co-sponsored by The Cathedral of Saint John and The Bosque Retreat Center, Dr. Redford discusses the following aspects of art and advent:

  • “Fear not, Mary: The Annunciation” focuses on interpretations of Luke’s narrative and its complex blend of acceptance and apprehension.
  • “Wrapped in Swaddling Clothes: Nativity I” concentrates on works that emphasize the sublime humanity of the wondrous birth.
  • Finally, “A Savior, which is Christ the Lord: Nativity II” looks at those painters who chose to emphasize the manger as the starting point of the road to the Cross.

In lecture two, “Wrapped in Swaddling Clothes: Nativity 1,” Dr. Redford uses sixteen works of art to illustrate how artists represent the birth of Christ.  At the end of the lecture Redford concludes, “mystery is made manifest” in the artwork.   For Redford, artists are grappling with the ineffable, honing on something indescribable: God in man made visible. And the artistic representation invites immediacy for the viewer to the historical and traditional accounts, providing a means for contemplation, showing human fragility and frailty.  Redford reminds us that there is mystery and majesty in the incarnation: a child weeps, feels, and is born, but this child is something more than human.  Put another way, God in Christ came to the muck of the earth to show us the majesty of the Lord, allowing humanity to encounter the Word made flesh.

Encountering the Word Made Flesh

Throughout the advent season there are many artistic ways to encounter the Word made flesh, I suggest two.

BIola University’s CCCA

One is the Advent Project by Biola University.  The marvelous Advent Project is an online devotion sponsored by the CCCA.  Each day a scriptural reading, poem, devotion, artwork, and music is provided  to enhance the devotional experience.

As an example: on December 3rd,  I John 4: 9-11 is given, followed by a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Tracy K. Smith—Wade in the Waster, finishing with a devotion by Carrie Stockton.  Off to the side of the reading is a painting by Emmanauel Garibay, The Oblation, 2008.  And in the background, a composition by Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) entitled Funeral Canticle.

In addition to the devotion, there is a “About” link that affords the opportunity to learn more about the artists, writers, musicians, and composers referenced in the devotion.  Overall, the project is both a devotional and educational experience. I highly recommend it to all interested in the integration of art and faith.

God With Us

God with Us by Pennoyer and Wolfe

A second means of integrating advent and art is more traditional in nature: a book.  In God With Us, edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe, the contributing authors do something similar to Biola University (minus the music): they provide artwork, devotions, and prayers by leading Christian thinkers, poets, artists, and writers. Contributors include Eugene Peterson, Kathleen Norris, Luci Shaw, and Richard John Neuhaus.  The artwork ranges from classical to contemporary.

I’ve found the book to be both educational and enlightening in my enjoyment of advent.

Celebrate and Remember to LOVE

Whatever means you choose to celebrate the advent season—the coming of Christ to earth, remember to do it with LOVE.

Caravaggio, The Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on canvas, 1609.

L—Listen to His voice through prayer and scripture reading.

O—Observe the time intentionally, creating moments for family, friends, and faithful living.

V—Value the reason for the season over the rush of the season.  Slow down.  Take time.  Remember to celebrate in spirit and truth.

E—Envelope yourself in the love of God.  Take a walk outdoors.  Spend time is silence in a prayer chapel.  Take communion and serve the needy.  In short, seek God’s kingdom; be a light in the darkness, a candle in chaos.