Christmas Art Gallery 1 : Light, Shadow & Inspiration

There are insights and truths beyond the ability of words to tell.

When it comes to telling the Christmas Story it seems to me that the great Painters down the ages have provided in paint, in light and shadow, searching insights and truths that still resound.

Take some time and let the Story unfold.

Piero della Francesca (1415 – 1492 ) ‘Madonna del Parto’

I know of no work of art which captures the sense of awed anticipation surrounding the nativity story with such tenderness as Piero della Francesca’s, ‘Madonna del Parto’.

Piero somehow manages to make present through drawing and paint both the vulnerability of Mary in all her humanity and the immanent divine.

pdf-pregnant-mad-br

Fra Angelico (1395 – 1455 ) – The Annunciation

This painting by Fra Angelico has long haunted my imagination since I first saw it in The Convent of San Marco in Florence.

It is a representation of an epochal event, The Annunciation, which holds human time and eternity in perfect balance.

fra-angelico-annuncition

Federico Barocci (1535 – 1612 ) – Nativity

There is nothing more intimate than the bond between a mother and child after a birth.

This intimacy is captured exquisitely by the Master of Urbino, Federico Barocci, in this Nativity which positively glows with the light of love.

federico-nativity

Giorgione ( 1477 – 1510 ) – The Adoration of the Shepherds’

Giorgione, a Venetian artist from the period of the High Renaissance, remains a figure of intense mystery.

giorgione_-_adoration_of_the_shepherds_-_national_gallery_of_art

What we can say from his, ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ (NGA Washington) is that he could suspend time and evoke awe and silent wonder.

This painting offers us a profound sense of reverence. The Nativity tableau shows Mary communing with her child as both motherly protector and prayerful worshiper.

Joseph, so often the forgotten man of the narrative, seems overwhelmed by the enormity and mystery of the events he has been caught up in.

Shepherds were ill-regarded outsiders in biblical times.

Yet, it was they who were granted the blessing of an audience with the new born King.

This must be some new type of King who welcomes first the poor and the ragged before the rich and high born.

The sight greeting the Shepherds was beyond words.

Their attitude of humble surrender to an experience beyond their understanding is intensely moving.

Taddeo Gaddi ( 1290 – 1366 ) –  ‘The Angelic Announcement to the Shepherds’

The Florentine Taddeo Gaddi was the star pupil of the great Master, Giotto.

His, ‘The Angelic Announcement to the Shepherds’ can be seen in the Baroncelli Chapel within Santa Croce in his native Florence.

It is a wonderfully dramatic painting.

gaddi_taddeo_announcement

An Angel acts as God’s messenger alerting humankind to an event upon which all history will pivot.

The Sheep are stirring and the Dog’s keen senses alert him to the messenger from afar.

As the Angel speaks eternity merges with linear time.

How could the waking Shepherd find the words to tell his sleeping companion what he has learned?

Surely all he could say was:

‘Let us go – someone we must see is waiting for us just down the hill. Come now!’

It is an invitation which remains open.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans ( 1465 – 1495 )  – Nativity
night-nativity

St Bridget of Sweden had a mystic vision of The Nativity.

The painting by the Flemish artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans makes that ineffable vision a reality before our eyes and in our hearts through virtuoso deployment of light and shadow.

Looking at this tender scene we remember Christ’s statement:

‘ I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.’

More Paintings tomorrow! 

Christmas Alphabet : S for Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town, Sussex Carol & Robert Louis Stevenson

Watch out.

Better not cry

Make sure not to pout.

You don’t need me to tell you why.

Listen to those tinkling sleigh bells.

Can’t you hear the rattle of those Reindeer hooves?

Oh, we all know it’s true.

Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town

You’re on the list.

But, which list?

Check twice Santa.

C’mom, I been good twenty times for every time I been naughty.

Come on to our Town Santa.

Come on down.

You’ve watched us sleeping and you’ve watched us awake.

Oh, for goodness sake … you know we’ve been good.

Extra special good.

Out of Darkness we have Light.

Out of Darkness we have light.

Lift up your voices and your hearts.

Apparently there are some ‘Scholars’ of English Literature who regard Robert Louis Stevenson as a mere ‘Storyteller’ not fit to be considered as a major writer.

Such opinions get short shrift from The Jukebox!

RLS with considerable art in a series of gripping and psychologically acute publications created a host of characters who have entered the general consciousness of the mass public as well as devotees of Literature.

His works will be read and remembered as long as people harken to stories.

Below is a Christmas Poem which combines technical assurance with tremendous narrative drive.

 

Christmas at Sea

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor’wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But ’twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So’s we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every ‘long-shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it’s just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessèd Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessèd Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
‘All hands to loose top gallant sails,’ I heard the captain call.
‘By the Lord, she’ll never stand it,’ our first mate, Jackson, cried.
… ‘It’s the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson,’ he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter’s day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

This Post completes the Christmas Alphabet Series  

Make sure you’ve read them all! 

Christmas Alphabet : A for Aaron Neville, 5 Blind Boys of Alabama & W H Auden

Home.

Home.

Home.

A drumbeat from the heart urging you back Home for Christmas.

For Aaron Neville Home is in Louisiana and he hymns it royally.

Wherever the Home that calls to your heart is I hope you make it there for Christmas.

Now for some mighty, mighty testifying from The Five Blind Boys of Alabama.

Tom Waits, a notable Jukebox favourite, adds his unmistakeable golden tones to add even more piquancy.

Go Tell It!

W. H. Auden was unquestionably a great Poet who combined enormous technical accomplishment with searching intelligence and wit.

When Auden speaks we do well to listen and reflect.

 

Next Post on the 21st .. S for …

 

Christmas Alphabet : M for Mark Knopfler, Keb Mo & Thomas Merton

It wasn’t the Kings, with their glittering gifts, who were the first witnesses.
*
No.
*
It was the Shepherds.
*
Outcasts of the time.
*
Who yet had eyes to see and revere a Miracle before them.
*
Looking for the Spirit of Christmas?
*
I wouldn’t go looking in the shopping cathedrals.
*
You might be better off if you realise there might be no truer Christmas gift than a toothpick, a Luckie and a coffee refill.
*
Ragpickers have Dreams.
*

Hop a freight with them and sing out if you see the flashlight.

*

Music in the Winter sure carries at Night.

Sure carries at Night.

Especially when Mark Knopfler plays guitar.

Or when Keb Mo lays down a you just can’t deny it or resist it groove.

His tale here will be only too familiar to many.

 

Christmas can be a time for reflection and contemplation of our individual and collective moral landscapes.

The writer and Monk Thomas Merton had a gift for illuminating those landscapes.

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes uninvited.

But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room.

His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated.

With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.

He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.”

From Raids on the Unspeakable.

 

Next Post on the 19th .. A  for …

Christmas Alphabet 2019 : T for T Bone Burnett, Tommy Dorsey & Dylan Thomas

Sooner or later we all go astray.

Everyone of us needs to be saved.

And, no one alive can survive without tidings of comfort and joy.

Comfort and Joy.

Too easy to default to dismay.

Hark! Hark! Hark!

Trust in the tidings.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

I have been an admirer of T Bone Burnett since his days in The Alpha band and his sojourn with Bob Dylan.

The thread connecting all his output as an Artist and Producer is an acute sense of how to establish mood spotlighting the virtues of a song through the adept balance of instrumentation and vocals.

Now for some more vintage Yuletide Jazz.

Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra cutting quite a rug on Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town.

Whether you’re on the naughty or the nice list this one will get your Foxtrottin’ feet gliding for the next three minutes or so.

Tommy, of course, on the Trombone.

Vocals by Cliff Weston and Edyth Wright.

Paul Weston provided the fluid arrangement.

Mac Cheikes on Guitar and Sid Stoneburn on Clarinet add the filigree.

Dylan Thomas was never going to make old bones.

When the following recording of ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ was made in 1952 he had less than two years to live.

He never saw his 40th birthday yet he had already, though he spent his gifts profligately, laid down a legacy of immortal incantatory poetry which will always call out to be spoken and sung.

Whatever his excesses he was a true Poet well acquainted with close and holy darkness.

Pull up your most comfortable chair and follow Dylan’s sonorous voice as he leads you spiralling through the years to the heart of a child’s Christmas.

Always on Christmas night there was music.

An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.”

It was very warm in the little house.

Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed.

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed.

I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.           

Next Alphabet Post on the 17th. M for …. Stay tuned!

Christmas Alphabet : S for Bob Seger & Jimmy Smith

Every one of us, poor as we may be, can bring a gift.

The gift of ourselves and the gifts we been given.

Our Hearts

Our Voices.

Our Drums.

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum 
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum 
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum 
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum, 
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

So to honor Him, pa rum pum pum pum, 
When we come. 

Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum 
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum 
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum 
That’s fit to give the King, pa rum pum pum pum, 
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, 

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum, 
On my drum? 

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum 
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum 
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum 
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum, 
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, 

Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum 
Me and my drum

Bob Seger is a tough hombre who understands that tough hombres sometimes need to admit that they are not so tough (even if they are from Detroit!).

You can rely on road warrior Bob to always play his best.

A gift indeed.

Pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum.

Now let’s hit a righteous Christmas groove with Jazz Maestros Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery.

When it comes to Organ and Guitar workouts you just can’t beat these two!

Even if it is up to your knees out there Jimmy and Wes will keep you mighty warm.

For our Poem today I turn to Jukebox Favourite Sigerson Clifford (1913 – 1985) whose ‘The Boys of Barr na Sráide’ previously featured here in the Posts for St Patrick series.

His ‘Kerry Carol’ has the stillness of the sleeping world and the hushed anticipation that precedes a great event.

And, sometimes, great events take place in the most humble of circumstances and are witnessed and understood best by the humble of heart.

Brush the floor and clean the hearth,
And set the fire to keep,
For they might visit us tonight
When all the world’s asleep.

Don’t blow the tall white candle out
But leave it burning bright,
So that they’ll know they’re welcome here
This holy Christmas night.

Leave out the bread and meat for them,
And sweet milk for the Child,
And they will bless the fire, that baked
And, too, the hands that toiled.

For Joseph will be travel-tired,
And Mary pale and wan,
And they can sleep a little while
Before they journey on.

They will be weary of the roads,
And rest will comfort them,
For it must be many a lonely mile
From here to Bethlehem.

O long the road they have to go,
The bad mile with the good,
Till the journey ends on Calvary
Beneath a cross of wood.

Leave the door upon the latch,
And set the fire to keep,
And pray they’ll rest with us tonight
When all the world’s asleep.

This Christmas Eve leave your candle burning bright.

Burning bright.

Next Alphabet Post on the 15th. T for …. Don’t you dare miss it!

Christmas Alphabet : I for In The Bleak Midwinter (James Taylor)

Christmas opens the door to Hope.

Even in the bleakest of bleak Midwinters.

Though the earth be hard as Iron and Water stands like Stone there is yet, as Snow falls on Snow, Hope in a humble birth.

There is Hope in a Mother’s simple kiss.

Hope brings riches even to the poorest.

Give your Heart.

Give your Heart.

James Taylor recognises the genius of Christina Rossetti’s Poem and presents it faithfully with grace and winning simplicity.

One of the most moving meditations on the mystery of the Incarnation was written in the 15th Century, ‘I syng of a mayden’.

I syng of a mayden
That is makeles,
king of alle kinges
to here sone che chees.

He cam also stille
Ther his moder was
As dew in Aprylle,
That fallyt on the gras.

He cam also stille
To his modres bowr
As dew in Aprylle,
That falleth on the flowr.

He cam also stille
Ther his moder lay
As dew in Aprylle,
That falleth on the spray.

Moder & mayden
Was nevere noon but she:
Well may swich a lady
Godes moder be.

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

Still, still, still as Mary’s and her babe’s Hearts.

Still, still, still.

The choristers of Ely Cathedral still time with this matchless performance.

The author of the Poem remains unknown.

The setting is by Patrick Hadley (1899-1973).

Now for a Poem from a major figure in Irish Literature, Seán Ó Ríordáin (1916 – 1977).

First in English translation and then in the original Irish.

Women’s Christmas takes place on January 6th – the feast of The Epiphany.

By tradition in Ireland it was the day when the heroic efforts of Mother’s, Wives and Daughters were rewarded by a day of rest from household chores.

Women’s Christmas

There was power in the storm that escaped last night,

last night on Women’s Christmas,

from the desolate madhouse behind the moon

and screamed through the sky at us, lunatic,

making neighbours’ gates screech like geese

and the hoarse river roar like a bull,

quenching my candle like a blow to the mouth

that sparks a quick flash of rage.

I’d like if that storm would come again,

a night I’d be feeling weak

coming home from the dance of life

and the light of sin dwindling,

that every moment be full of the screaming sky,

that the world be a storm of screams,

and I wouldn’t hear the silence coming over me,

the car’s engine come to a stop.

Oíche Nollaig na mBan

Bhí fuinneamh sa stoirm a éalaigh aréir,

Aréir oíche Nollaig na mBan,

As gealt-teach iargúlta tá laistiar den ré

Is do scréach tríd an spéir chughainn ’na gealt,

Gur ghíosc geataí comharsan mar ghogallach gé,

Gur bhúir abhainn shlaghdánach mar tharbh,

Gur múchadh mo choinneal mar bhuille ar mo bhéal

A las ’na splanc obann an fhearg.

Ba mhaith liom go dtiocfadh an stoirm sin féin

An oíche go mbeadsa go lag

Ag filleadh abhaile ó rince an tsaoil

Is solas an pheaca ag dul as,

Go líonfaí gach neomat le liúrigh ón spéir,

Go ndéanfaí den domhan scuaine scread,

Is ná cloisfinn an ciúnas ag gluaiseacht fám dhéin,

Ná inneall an ghluaisteáin ag stad.

Next Red Letter Day on your Calendar – 13 December when the next Post in The Alphabet Series will be published, S for ….