The Art of talking about Art – 15: X for Xmas

Introduce yourself to 7 paintings that tell different aspects of one of the most famous stories in the world. And on that short note, it’s time to wish you a very Merry X’mas and a happy new year full of interesting art and conversations about art.

Well, it’s that time of the year again and we couldn’t think of too many better ways to greet you than this. Introduce yourself to 7 paintings that tell different aspects of one of the most famous stories in the world. And on that short note, it’s time to wish you a very Merry X’mas and a happy new year full of interesting art and conversations about art. Here’s a little something to keep the conversation topical and going. Let’s go!

The Annunciation

Fra Angelico, Convent of San Marco, Florence

Annunciation is the archaic word for announcement. The announcement in this case is a most divine one. And the news, delivered by an angel, is that The Virgin Mary is pregnant. And the son of God is on his way. This exquisite painting, by a Florentine monk, celebrates the split-second of the telling and the moment of conception.

The Dream of St Joseph

Philippe de Champaigne

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary is pledged in marriage to Joseph, which is also when he discovers she is pregnant. Shocked, he decides to go ahead with the marriage, but with divorce in mind. Then God sends an angel to Joseph in a dream to explain the divine conception and ask him to name the baby Jesus. The French painter Champaigne is one of very few artists to depict Joseph’s story, imagining his dilemma and this divine intervention. And just like a figure in a dream, the angel speaks without words, explaining the mystery entirely in sign language.

The Census at Bethlehem

Pieter Bruegel

The Gospel of Luke describes the event thus: “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered… Joseph went to Bethlehem to be registered with Mary, who was with child.” For Bruegel, the event is contemporary, taking place in his native Belgium in the harshest of winters. Mary and Joseph are just two more poor people trudging through the freezing air to queue for this ruthlessly imposed bureaucracy. The only thing that is different is the in this general aura of misery is the proverbial donkey.

The Nativity

Federico Barocci

Of the thousands of nativity scenes in western art, this is the one that’s considered to be one of the most tender and maternal. Mary kneels humbly before her God, but she is equally full of love for her newborn baby. Mother and child gaze into each other’s eyes and the composition of the painting lovingly emphasises their mutual bond. The art of Barrocci, until recently one of the most overlooked of Italian masters, was especially popular with women in his lifetime and it is not hard to see when you look his painting of the nativity.

The Procession of the Magi

Benozo Gozzoli

Not three kings, so much as 33: a whole cavalcade of the great and good (or the rich and powerful) makes its way down a steep valley that leads to Bethlehem. The image commemorates real events – the annual Epiphany procession in 15th-century Florence – as it tries to make biblical events real for contemporary viewers. It’s the high point of the Magi chapel in Florence.

The Adoration of the Shepherds


The mysterious Giorgione left very few works at his premature death, but this one is a masterpiece of contemplation. The elderly Joseph is deep in prayer, Mary holds a pose of silent worship before the Christ child. The shepherds, in their ragged clothes, are speechless and spellbound, but full of love for the baby. They are the first to arrive, the first to understand what they are seeing, before the rest of the crowd arrives. The scene is very close and intimate, against the distant Venetian landscape.

Rest on the Flight to Egypt

Orazio Gentileschi

Bisected by a rough brick wall, dominated by the donkey’s head popping above it, Gentileschi’s Rest is a most intriguing composition. Joseph is exhausted. The Virgin’s feet are dirty. She is too tired to cradle the hungry baby, who looks askance in our direction. And the holy family are fugitives from murderous Herod and his massacre of the innocents.

Previous Editions:

Update: We have compiled the entire series of blog posts on The Art of Talking About Art in one place. To read other editions of the series, click here.

Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.


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