The Nativity by Gari Melchers
You know how it goes, a piece of music or art takes hold of you and just will not let you go. Maybe it is the time, the place, or perhaps just the accumulation of knowledge and imagination in life which impacts on you. Personally, I am very receptive to music and pictures (painted or photographed), they are the vast treasury of inspirations in my writings, outlooks or simply witness. So here is an unashamed eulogy to a painting I feel is one of the hidden masterpieces.
Melchers was born August 1860 in Chicago and described as native of Detroit. One of Naturalism School of American painters he spent many years in Europe and earned a degree of fame receiving such awards as the French Legion of Honour and in 1932 (the year of his death) a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The Nativity was produced in the 1890s when it is said Melcher was at the height of his ability.
The painting records the traditional period after the birth of The Christ Child, although in keeping with the Naturalism (also Realism) approach this is devoid of the mystical and romantic images we are familiar with. The colours are muted, while the outlines of both Mary and Joseph reflect two quite normal and believable individuals.
Consider first the setting. There is no rural manger, with benign animals and reverent shepherds or celestial hosts. Joseph and Mary have found refuge in some stark, spare storeroom and thence left to their own devices. The only acknowledgment to outside assistance being a jug, bowl of water and one piece of cloth.
Mary has just given birth; maybe suckled her babe who is at rest. Her exhaustion highlighted by her tired youthful face and stray hair; she is lying flat out and yet tenderly leaning against Joseph. There is no composed and classically attired woman of indeterminate years. We are witness to a young girl starting out upon a great journey, understandably too tired to now hold her child, much less sit up and dangle him on her lap but still gazing upon him. Witness those feet splayed. Wouldn’t you just wish you could give the poor girl a bed? Is this not an image many women who have given birth can relate to?
Also sharing central place is Joseph. Not the elderly fellow of the early traditions, nor the equivalent age of Mary. He is an older man, full beard, strong features, thoughtfully gazing upon the babe. His expression leaves us to muse on the thoughts going through his head at the sudden physical evidence that here now lies his responsibility both wife and child, chosen by God. And was he Mary’s only companion to the birth? Was he there to carry out acts that no man of his time would even think about doing? Here is the guy with the ‘right stuff’ to get his family out of one danger and trek out across the Sinai (always a difficult journey).
And the Babe. We can barely see the features so wreathed in celestial light, reminding us none can truly see the features of God. The body we only know by evidence of blankets and crib; the latter being so perfectly constructed we have to concluded Joseph had been working his craft in readiness for the birth. Jesus is almost incidental as we are drawn to focus upon the arresting images of his parents.
Thus, shorn apparently of all the traditional colour and imagery we are left to observe the true majesty of the Nativity. One weary, small young woman, one man lost in thought and a small child wreathed in light. The miracle of two humble and poor adults entrusted with birth and safekeeping of the Son of God, sent in that most vulnerable of state and new born babe.
Melchers’ work is not commonly known these days although you can find a wealth of images on the Internet and galleries selling reproductions. I have one postcard size image which comes out every Christmas and sometimes stays long after all the decorations have been put away. For here is a timeless portrayal. You may not believe in The Nativity. But you can witness two people and a child starting out on a whole episode of Life.
Seasons greetings folk.