The Nativity and Contemporary Art

17/12/09 | Posted by MattPage

The birth of Jesus has always been a popular subject for art going right back to wall paintings in the Roman catacombs. Since then there have been thousands of paintings and sculptures made about the first Christmas, by many of the greatest names in art history.

So it’s no surprise that many contemporary artists have also attempted to depict the nativity. Interestingly as modern art has developed on the one hand, and Christianity’s privileged position in western society has slipped, Christmas-related works of art have become less straightforward and more complex and challenging

image
 Even in 1500 Bellini set his “Madonna of the Meadow” in medieval fields

Five years ago Mark Wallinger tried to win a commission for a piece that celebrated the nativity by placing an empty crib in Trafalgar Square and paying 3 security personnel to guard it. The security guards were to evoke not only the wise men, but also the threat of attack from King Herod. It draws a comparison between the vulnerability of baby Jesus and many children today.

Unlike Wallinger’s hugely successful Ecce Homo, the piece never actually got made, but the artist photographed a version of the scene as part of The Guardian’s collection of modern takes on The Nativity. Other works in the collection include Martin Parr’s photos of new-born babies and their mothers in Bristol and Mike Figgis’s photoshopped image of a Moroccan crib scene.

At times contemporary interpretations of the birth of Jesus have proved hugely controversial. Two years ago Ed Mironiuk’s “Hooters Christmas Story” caused a stir for showing the Virgin Mary in a Hooters T-shirt. Many were offended, but others considered it a wry attempt to emphasise that Mary was a single mother. As exhibition curator explained “if the Virgin Mary found herself knocked up today…she would have to go work at Hooters to support the baby Jesus”. Whilst the ideas behind the piece are a somewhat questionnable, it’s interesting that the piece again highlights just how vulnerable Jesus’ was when he was born. It’s a theme that also appears in John Keane’s 2003 painting “hopeless in Gaza 2“ which shows Jesus being born to modern day Palestinians.“http://www.johnkeaneart.com/inconvenience.html”

Likewise Andrew Gadd’s painting “Bus Shelter Nativity” which substitutes the traditional stable for a bus shelter. Gadd notes how the stable is like a bus shelter - “a place people go to but never want to be”. The work took on a whole new dimension earlier in the year when the Churches Advertising Network decided to use it as part of this year’s Christmas poster campaign, with some of the posters appearing in, yes, bus shelters, a move that therefore includes the viewer in the image.

Whilst it’s somewhat unlikely that any of the works will be remembered in 100 years time, it seems doubtful that artists will ever stop exploring Jesus’ birth and it’s significance for today helping us to notice things about the first Christmas that otherwise we might so easily have missed.

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Your comments

Some people’s interpretations of what the nativity scene was like are just bizarre. Mironiuk’s piece is a perfect example.

#1. By Steve Hill on November 01, 2010

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