Spawn of Mars
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Depicting Christ Anew
Encouragement From the Past
Sunday, May 27, 2007 1:54 am
How am I to say anything anew? For two thousand years, artists have been depicting Christ and what He was and is. Even if I am inclined — even if I am impelled — to express, in my fiction, an image of Christ, what fresh manner can I take? I am not clever enough; and my civilization is in its decadence: it offers no help; it has spent itself. At the end of our culture, all has been done and done.

Or perhaps I am just not trying hard enough. You might think all has been done — and then you discover something. I discovered something. To be sure, this thing exists, is known, and, indeed, is more than three hundred years old and therefore rather far from fresh; but it has struck me nonetheless and made me hope, at least a little.

First, not the thing itself, but something else. Here is a detail from Rembrandt's 1646 Adoration of the Shepherds:
Consider how conventional it is. I am not disparaging it. I like it. The lighting, and especially the kneeling man in the foreground, give a great sense of people
around the Christ Child. But again, it is conventional: Child on display, lit by His own holiness, all but formally presented by His Mother.

Now, here is the thing I discovered, also by Rembrandt, also an Adoration of the Shepherds, but an etching from ca. 1652:
This doesn't have a spatial depth like the other work. You don't quite feel anyone moving towards and around the Christ Child. But there are other sorts of depth, and in this work the narrative depth is greater.
Look closely at Mary and the baby. They are bundled and lying beside each other. Joseph, off to the right, is wearing a hat. It is cold. Of course, having just given birth, Mary is tired. The baby is tired. Mother and newborn are wrapped in the same thick blankets, trying to sleep, while Father, reading a book, keeps watch. And now they are being disturbed. Look: Mary has raised her hand against the shepherd's light! There is no formality; no presentation. Even the holy light of the Child is subtle: It's not His light but the light of a flame that Joseph is reading by.

What so struck me about this work is how well Rembrandt depicted the humility of the Incarnation. The shepherds may have come at the prodding of some angel, and they may be primed to adore the Savior of Mankind, but what they have found, at least initially, is only a cold and tired little family. The fact that Rembrandt swaddled Mary... That, I think, is the most wonderful touch.

So there it is. It's been a while since I saw a fresh depiction of the Nativity. Sure, maybe I don't get out enough, and sure, this depiction is 355 years old, and surely at least 355 other people have noticed the aspects I have noticed. Still, the wonder and pleasure are there. An artistic depiction of Christ has surprised me. Whenever I wonder, "How shall I depict Him anew," I will remind myself of Rembrandt's etching and try a little harder.
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