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Picturing the Nativity

At our most recent minimoot we each presented our favourite image of the nativity, sharing a little of why we liked it or why it particularly resonated with us. The nativity is a universal image, on all our Christmas cards and in school performances: Parents, manger, shepherds angels, some farmyard animals and a star. We all can picture something pretty standard when asked to imagine the scene.

So what interested me was that the four depictions were so different from each other. Maybe that says something about Moot - that we all like to think a bit outside the box when asked to interact with these ideas - but I think it says something, too, about the nature of that story. There are as many nativities as there are people. We each bring to it something of our own story, our own experience, our own longings and insecurities.

First of all we had an image of Mary and Joseph after the happy event, shattered, tired, enjoying the realities of childbirth. This image is an image for 2020, with many of us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the realities of this year. No perfect nativity scene with a porcelain-skinned Mary barely breaking a sweat, this image reminded us that birth is intense and hard work.

It reminds me of the line from the Enuma Okoro poem, Advent:

I want to be pregnant with God

but it takes such a toll on the body.

I have given birth to things before

And labor is hard and untimely.

And then we had the abstract image, popular on list articles and Facebook posts. The minimalist nativity scenes may be seen as rather a jokey image in recent years (does anyone remember the Coke can nativity?), with characters being represented by coloured bricks. But, looking at it with 2020 vision it is a startlingly familiar image, with each character occupying its own space, socially distanced and set on its marker. It makes me think of theatrical markings on a stage. Also, it brings to mind the many births of 2020 which have taken place, not in the familiar company of loved ones, but according to guidelines with much distress for new parents. It’s not the image we want. We want the embrace of mother and child, the warmth of straw and animals. But it is where we find ourselves. And, interestingly, we know exactly what the image is, we can make out the characters even without their familiar trappings, so universally known is the pattern formed around the crib. So there is hope that in the unfamiliarity of a lockdown Christmas, we will still be able to place ourselves within the scene.

The image I chose was a familiar image to me, but unknown to the rest of the group. A stone plinth, with a carving of a tiny newborn emerging from the top. This is to be found in the heart of one of London's most iconic Christmas scenes, but nobody knows it is there. Yards from the famous tree in Trafalgar Square, where carollers can often be found, not to mention the German market with its wonderful sights and tastes, this baby lies. Across the road from the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery where you can find all those Renaissance images of the mother and child, this baby lies under the portico of St Martin in the Fields. Simultaneously in the heart of everything but hidden in obscurity, emerging from the rock, this lifesize baby can be found. If you were short, you’d have to stand on tiptoes to see it - small children would certainly have to be lifted up in order to peer down. This is something you have to go looking for, something you would have to be told about. But then shepherds had to be given a clue to find the obscure manger…

The final image chosen was a Banksy installation at the “Walled off Hotel” in Bethlehem. This hotel has been given the honour of having the worst view of any hotel in the world as it faces the dividing wall of Bethlehem. The piece is stark: its title is “The Scar of Bethlehem” and the first thing you are made aware of is the bullet hole which forms the famous star. It’s at once an image of hope and of shame as we remember the division that still plagues the Little Town. Shame, because 2000 years on we still find Christ being born into occupied and divided territory. Hope because light can still break through the walls, albeit through the piercing of a bullet hole.

So. four very different images - different mediums, different settings and perspectives. A quick rabbit hole search on Google will bring even more results. There are representations of the mother and child in every ethnicity as artists find themselves and their story in The Story.

What nativity images have spoken to you?


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