Tag Archives: Matthias Grunewald

15 Famous Paintings Show the Wonder of the Christmas Story

Artists through the years have been filled with wonder and joy at the events of the first Christmas and I pray their efforts here to illustrate their wonder will bring joy to your Christmas this year!

Here are 15 famous paintings of the Christmas Story and the Bible verses they illustrate.

 The Annunciation to Mary  

. . . the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with chlld and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” Luke,1:30-33 NIV

Fra Angelico was a monk who painted frescoes of Jesus’ life throughout his monastery in Florence. This annunciation greets you as you climb the stairs to the monks’ chambers. I wrote a Christmas post about this painting in December of 2015.

The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico, 1395-1455, Italian, Convent of San Marco, Florence, author photo

This triptych or 3-panel altarpiece is one of the first Annunciations to show Mary in a regular home, in this case,  a typical home in the Netherlands in the 1300 and 1400s. Almost everything in this painting symbolizes something about Jesus and His birth. For example, Mary is sitting on the floor to symbolize her humility.

The Annunciation triptych of the Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin, 1375-1444, Netherlandish, Cloisters, NY, public domain

This Annunciation is part of a huge altarpiece painted by Matthias Grunewald. It is now a treasured part of a monastery-turned museum in Colmar, France. But it narrowly escaped destruction during the French Revolution.

The annunciation, part of the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald, 1470-1528, German, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France, author photo

Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African-American artist of the 19th and early 20th centuries depicts the angel Gabriel as a column of radiating light.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, American, 1850-1937,Philadelphia Museum of Art, public domain

The Incarnation

The angel answered [Mary], “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Luke 1:35 NIV

In this illuminated manuscript by the Celtic monks of Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland, the Incarnation is depicted as the miraculous mystery it is–a mystery beyond our imagining–that God could be born of a woman to live among us as Immanuel and die for our sins! In December of 2014, I wrote a post about the Chi Rho page that most illuminated manuscripts of the early Middle Ages have.  It is the illumination of Matt. 1:18, where the gospel switches from Jesus’ ancestry to His birth with the Latin words Christi autem generatio, which means, “this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about….” For this reason it is called the Incarnation page, and on it the monks used a traditional symbol for the word Christ–the first two letters of Christ in Greek–Chi-Rho or XP.

The Incarnation or Chi Rho page of the Book of Kells, Irish, ca. A.D. 800, Trinity Library, Dublin, Ireland, public domain

The Visitation 

.  . . . [Mary] entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored; that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke 1:40-43 NIV

In this beautiful painting of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, we see the emotion in each of their faces and gestures as they experience together the wonder of what God has done!

The Visitation by Jacopo Pontormo, Italian, 1494-1557, Church of San Francesco e Michele, Carmignano, Italy, public domain

The Nativity 

While they were there [Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:6-7 NIV

In the lower, plainer church of St. Francis of Assisi is this beautiful painting of the Nativity by Giotto. St. Francis is said to be the one who began the practice of having a creche scene at Christmas.

The Nativity in the Lower Church at Assisi, Italy, by Giotto di Bondone, Italian, 1267-1337, public domain

The Annunciation to the Shepherds

   And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be assigned to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”  Luke 2:8-14 NIV

Another beautiful painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, this time a nocturnal scene of the angel’s annunciation to the shepherds. It captures the wonder of the angel’s appearance and their amazement!

Annunciation to the Shepherds by Henry Ossawa Tanner, American. 1859-1937, public domain

The only print in this group, it’s by Rembrandt and also captures the wonder of that night.

Annunciation to the Shepherds by Rembrandt, public domain

Honthorst has captured the continuing wonder of the shepherds as they follow the angel’s instructions to find the babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. This year’s Christmas post was about this painting.

Adoration of the Christ Child by Gerrit van Honthorst, Dutch, 1592-1656, Uffizi,Art Gallery, Florence, Italy, author photo

Mary’s joy in her son is so evident in another panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece. The Altarpiece was painted for a monastery where the monks treated people with skin diseases, and it was believed that gazing on these paintings would help the patients be reminded of Christ and His love and salvation for even the most humble. In December of 2018, I wrote a Christmas post about this painting.

Mary and the Christ Child, a panel of The Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald, German, 1470-1528, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France, author photo

The Visit of the Magi

after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, “where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the East and have come to worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they [Magi] went on their way in the store they had seen in the East went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and myrrh. Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11 NIV

Durer shows the coming of the wisemen, here depicted as elegant and wealthy men, to worship the Christ Child. Medieval tradition held that one of the wisemen was an old man, another was a young man, and one was African.

Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Durer, German, 1471-1528, Uffizi Art Gallery, Florence, Italy, public domain

The Massacre of the Innocents

when Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Matthew 2:16 NIV

This fresco is from a series Giotto painted on the life of Christ in the small but beautiful Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. A forerunner of the Renaissance, Giotto amazed his contemporaries with his life-like people. Here he shows the intense emotions of the Massacre of the Innocents.

The Massacre of the Innocents by Giotto di Bondone, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy, public domain

The Flight or Escape into Egypt

When they [Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt . . . Matthew 2:13-14 NIV

After the intensity of the last painting, this one of the Fight into Egypt seems so calm and even restful.  but as Mary holding the Baby Jesus looks back at Joseph, you can sense her sense of urgency.

The flight into Egypt by Annibale Carracci, Italian, 1560-1609, Galleria Dorla Pamphilj, Rome, public domain

Another calm painting as Mary offers grapes to her son. In the background Joseph is shown beating  nuts or perhaps fruit from a tree to care for them. The donkey waits patiently beside them.

Rest on the flight into Egypt by Gerard David, Netherlandish, 1460-1523, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. public domain

I hope these paintings will bless your celebration of the wonder of the birth of our Savior–Immanuel, God with us! And that the wonder and joy will continue to fill you in the New Year!

 

The Christmas Pictures from the Isenheim Altarpiece

It was still dark when we got to Gare de L’Est in Paris to take a super fast train to Colmar, a small city near the Rhine River in eastern France. We had been in France for several weeks and now we were headed to see the Isenheim Altarpiece, one of the great works of northern European art.

 

 

 

The altarpiece was created around 1514 for the church of the monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, a town a few miles south of Colmar.

The monastic brothers there cared for people who were sick, especially those with skin diseases such as the terrible St. Anthony’s fire. A common disease in the Middle Ages caused by eating bread made with rye grain infected with a fungus, it often led to a painful death. The brothers treated the disease with good quality bread and herbal ointments and brought patients to view the altarpiece for spiritual comfort.

We don’t know much about the artist, Matthias Grunewald. His real name is believed to be Mathis Gothart, and he lived and worked in western Germany from around 1475 to 1528. He received important commissions from several archbishops, but only a few paintings and drawings still exist. The Isenheim Altarpiece is his greatest work.

The altarpiece is now displayed in the chapel of a former Dominican convent in Colmar, a picturesque Alsatian city owing much to its German heritage.

At the convent, now a museum, we walked through a quiet cloister, and paused to look through its pointed Gothic arches to an enclosed garden, shining bright green in the morning sun.

From the cloister we stepped into the chapel and stopped. The impact of the high, Gothic chapel, the quiet, and the size of the altarpiece are overwhelming. Light streams down on panels 11 feet tall and 19 feet wide, taking our breath away.

The

 

 

altarpiece was a polyptych with many wooden panels that once opened like cabinet doors to create additional painted scenes. Today it’s been taken apart so all its scenes from the life of Christ can be viewed. The panels stretch the length of the chapel, and people wander among them or sit quietly on benches set in front of each large grouping.

Other northern artists, such as Albrecht Durer, had traveled south to study Renaissance ideas, but Grunewald continued to paint in the Medieval tradition, with off-center compositions and strong emotional appeal. The Isenheim crucifixion and resurrection are among the most creative and powerful in all western art. I hope to write a post about them around Easter.

But for this post I will concentrate on the Annunciation and what is called the Christmas Picture.

The Annunciation, Matthias Grunewald, author photo

The Annunciation is set, as many were at that time, in a Gothic chapel, not unlike the present one and perhaps like the chapel of the Antonite monastery. A red curtain has been pulled back to reveal a stunning scene. Mary, dressed in somber colors, is kneeling and reading her Bible, traditionally open to Isaiah 7:14 telling that a virgin will give birth to the Messiah.

Annunciation detail, author photo

On the right Gabriel comes in a whirlwind of gold and magenta to greet Mary and announce that she will bear God’s son.

A white dove hovers over Mary to represent the coming of the Holy Spirit upon her.

Grunewald has captured the intense drama and wonder of Jesus’ miraculous conception.

Now separated, but once on the right of the Annunciation panel, is the Christmas Picture. In it angels sing and play music to welcome the Christ child. Behind Mary light streams down from heaven, while on a distant hill, angels announce the baby’s birth to the shepherds.

 

Christmas Picture, detail, author photo

In this panel what captures your attention is the warm and appealing scene of Mary and the baby Jesus. They aren’t centered, but Mary’s red gown and blue mantle make sure you don’t miss them. Mary has just bathed Jesus in the wooden tub and now holds him and cradles his head as must be done for all young babies. Jesus gazes back at his mother while his hands hold a coral necklace, thought at this time to ward off diseases.

Grunewald has captured Jesus’ humanity in this scene of tender love between mother and child.

In the Isenheim Annunciation and Christmas Picture Grunewald weaves the miraculous into and around the everyday, balancing Jesus’ humanity with His divinity. Let us do the same—running to Jesus with all our concerns, knowing He shares our humanity and sympathizes with our weaknesses, and worshiping Him as our God and Savior.

I pray that you and your family will have a blessed Christmas, celebrating the miracle of Jesus coming to earth to live with us—Immanuel—God with us!

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And please pray for the French people right now. We recently spent many days in Paris and around the country, meeting lots of hospitable, helpful people, and are now concerned as they experience a time of great turmoil. Pray that people on all sides will be able to work out satisfactory ways to end the violence and provide help to those in need.

Here at the end of 2018, I want to thank all of you who follow my blog. Please join me in the New Year for a series of posts about Monet’s cathedral and haystack paintings, (also from my recent trip to France). Each post will have lots of pictures, related activities, and pictures of Molly showing off her new French interests!

 

All photos in this post were taken by the author.