Saturday, 24 December 2011

24th December - The Last Door of Blogvent!

Hello, my dearest friends.  Well, here we are, last day of Blogvent and I have iced my cake...

Nom nom nom...

...collected my turkey...

Okay, so this one isn't ours. Ours is called Trevorley as we didn't know if it was a girl or a boy.

...and have wrapped everything that wasn't quick enough to escape.  I think we're ready for tomorrow, but I have a bit of a quandary as I can't decide between two pictures for my final Blogvent door.  It might be the brandy fumes from the cake (even the marzipan contains brandy) but sod it, I'll do both...

One of my favourite bits of Christmas is going to the Christingle or Carol Service at my Dad's church.  I will be shoving small children into badly fitting costumes this afternoon, including my own small child, while singing loudly.  For the Victorians, as for us, Christmas was a balancing act between the baby Jesus and rampant consumerism, their scales tipping slightly more towards the baby Jesus.  It's hardly surprising that they should produce such incredible, devotional works as this...

Star of Bethlehem (1885-90) Edward Burne-Jones
In 1886, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were approached to produce a tapestry for their old college in Oxford, and the Three Kings visiting Jesus was suggested as a subject.  Ned produced the design and Morris had it woven, presenting it to Exeter College in 1890.  It became their most successful work, and another ten were sold, displayed around the world.  Birmingham commissioned a watercolour of the same scene to hang in their new Art Gallery and Museum in 1887, and so Ned revisited the scene, changing the colours and altering details to produce this huge, beautiful tableau of the Adoration of the Magi.  At over two and a half metres high and almost four metres long, it is the largest watercolour of the nineteenth century and is astonishing to view, dominating the Burne-Jones room in the Museum. 

In many ways it is typical of Ned's work, being tonally peaceful, in sea blues and greens, but look at how the light catches the robes of the first king, shimmering orange.  As I have admitted before, I have a weakness for depictions of the three Kings as they give artists the chance to go mad and dress them up to their heart's content. Ned has done us proud and it is definitely worth looking at a good quality image of it, like the one on Wikipedia to see the detail up close.  Look at the circles sewn on the robe of the second King, echoed on the sleeves of the angel, and the figures dancing around the bottom of the the last King's robe. Each carries a crown, the first King's crown having being placed on the ground, and each crown is as individual as the men they belong to.  I have always thought it's a very picturesque, but ineffectual stable, not much protection there.  I love the detail of the tiny axe in the bottom left corner.  Get chopping, Joseph, a fire is definitely needed...

A final joy of the picture is that we have a picture of Ned painting it.  How small he seems in comparison to the enormous canvas, and so serious.  This is how I picture Ned, hard at work and a little haunted by the beauty he created.

This is a double-bill, so what is my final picture?  I must admit this is my favourite Christmas image because it is so unusual...

The Nativity (1857-58) Arthur Hughes
Good old Birmingham, they do own some amazing pictures.  This has the most mad perspective, all squashed and narrow, the figure of Mary at once both really young and really big.  Look how tiny the figure of Jesus is, he is like a little doll.  Mary binds up the swaddling bands, assisted and watched by five angels, their wings barely fitting into the tight fit of the frame.  The colours are amazing, gold and lilac, with the wings in a reddish pink.  I love how the gold chases up the canvas, from the straw, to the halo on Jesus and up to the angels.  I think Hughes may well have been influenced by Rossetti's depiction of Mary in Ecce Ancilla Domini! from 1849-50 (right), and the rather unusual use of a young girl as Mary rather than a grown woman.

In many ways, despite being both Pre-Raphaelite, Burne-Jones and Hughes see the birth of Jesus in entirely different ways, and these two demonstrate how diverse the movement was.  Burne-Jones brings us a huge tableau in gentle tones, his figures are individuals and richly detailed. The blades of straw on the floor of Hughes' stable are so realistic that I feel prickly just looking at them, but he brings the focus intensely tight to show Mary and the child, boxed in by angels.  Unlike Burne-Jones receding landscape from which the Wise Men have appeared, Hughes' Mary has no escape from her task and her child.  She doesn't look peaceful or accepting, she looks terrified but holding it together, and that is what makes this picture special.  While most teenagers want a DS game for Christmas, this one got the Son of God and her expression says 'Okay, I'll wrap him up because I have to have something to do to stop me freaking out.'  I remember being a new mother and feeling like that, and that is what connects me emotionally to this image.  The gift of painting should be to find a piece of you in a picture that speaks to you directly no matter how old the work or the subject. 

The edge that Arthur Hughes has over Burne-Jones with this subject is that he doesn't view the holy event from a respectful distance but brings you up to Mary's side, next to the angels that flank her.  That slightly claustrophobic feeling draws your attention not to the beauty of the birth of Christ, but on the pressure on Mary, and on all of us, to live up to God's expectation of us.  For the Victorians, that pressure weighed heavy in many complex ways and I think that Hughes was bold to show that tension through such a traditional subject.

Well, my darlings, may you all have a gorgeous Christmas, eat, drink and be merry, and I will catch up with you all in about a week, when I sober up and get the mistletoe out of my hair...


  1. You have definitely saved the best to last. Thank you for all your wonderful posts!

  2. What a wonderful progression of paintings and commentary you have prepared for us this month! Thank you, and have a simply splendid holiday season.

  3. Beautiful! Happy Christmas to you!

  4. Thank you for your enjoyable, witty and informative blogvents! Merry Christmas.

  5. I've really enjoyed your blogvent, thank you for sharing it with us.

    Happy Christmas.

    Rachel x

  6. I love your descriptions. Mary freaking out makes so much sense! I panic whenever I adopt a new cat. Thanks for all your posts. Having the week off from work has really given me a chance to enjoy them.

  7. I truly enjoy the pictures on your blog. And that cake looks scrumptuous.

  8. Just wonderful, it has been such an experience to sit in the afternoon and wrap myself up in your warmth of your words and the rich colours of the paintings you posted..... Have an amazing Christmas.......:))

  9. Thanks all for the comments and I hope your Christmas was as happy as mine. I shall be back when I just finish reading this marvellous book about Ruskin....


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