Christmas

everything you always wanted to know about it, November 9, 2022
Collage with Christmas Scenes
Collage with Christmas Scenes

 Luke painting a portrait of the Virgin, Faverolles Hours,  (on offer at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, cat. 14, no. 48)
In Luke's Gospel (2:1-20), the story of Christ's birth is told. Most of us have known it since childhood: 
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 

The evangelist Matthew goes further back in time and introduces the family tree of Jesus: 

Mat. 1:1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham […] 

 

Interestingly the lineage ends with this verse: 

Mat. 1:16 […] and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.

This passage is particularly puzzling because Jesus' pedigree is based on his stepfather's ancestry, a man who according all Christian belief had no active participation in Jesus' conception.

 Tree of Jesse and Annunciation, Book of Hours by the Master of Philippa de Gueldres, (on offer at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books)

The Tree of Jesse (with Mary and not Joseph in the tree top) often accompanies the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. In the Book of Hours by the Master of Philippa of Guelders the Annunciation is shown as a real party, with one angel playing the mandolin (or the lute), other angels watching through the window and three pert putti in the frame playing a spirited game. Mary, learning she is with child even though she has been living in chastity as a temple virgin, looks relatively relaxed and welcoming in this miniature.

Annunciation, Book of Hours by the Dunois Master, (Dr. J. Günther Rare Books, broch. 20, no. 13)

A slightly different story is told in this interpretation of the event: Mary defensively raises her hands as if refusing the angel's request. 

The Gospel of Luke (1:26-35) recounts: 

God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, 'Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.' Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High'. [..] 'How will this be,' Mary asked the angel, 'since I am a virgin?' The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come on 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.

In verse 38 Mary finally gives in with the words:

Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.'

 Carnesecchi-Velluti Hours, Attavante (sold by Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, cat. 14no. 42)

An exquisite and very subtle interpretation of Mary's humble consent is given in this beautiful Italian miniature from the Carnesecchi-Velluti Hours, illuminated by the great Attavante degli Attavanti. 

 

But there were more remarkable events, before Mary and her husband would travel to Bethlehem, Mary went to see her cousin Elizabeth, who was already well advanced in years but also pregnant. 

The visitation, G & H Hours by the Master of Spencer 6, (Dr. J. Günther Rare Books, broch. 19, no. 17)

 This is how Luke 5-7 tells the story: 

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

But then a miracle occurs. Zechariah and Elizabeth learn that they will soon have a son. And when Mary comes to see her cousin, Elizabeth's unborn child recognises the future saviour and leaps in his mother's womb for joy. This memorable event is shown in a striking miniature by a French artist in a Book of Hours of around 1500.

The visitation, Book of Hours by the circle of the Monypenny Master (on offer at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, cat. 14, no. 52)

Luke 41-44: 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 favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.

And who is this son of Elizabeth and Zechariah? It is of course Christ's precursor, the caller in the wilderness: St. John the Baptist.

 

Baptism of Christ, Book of Hours by the circle of the Monypenny Master (on offer at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, cat. 14, no. 52)

But back to our Christmas story. As we heard at the beginning, Joseph had to set out for Bethlehem with his pregnant wife. When they arrive there, so many other people have already answered the emperor's call for a census that all the inns are occupied.

 Mary and Joseph travelling to Joseph's home town Bethlehem, Hours of Charles de France, Paris Bibl. Mazarine, ms. 473

In this miniature, coming from the Book of Hours for Charles de France (ms. 473 in the Bibliothèque Mazarine in Paris), we witness an event that is very rarely shown in medieval prayer books: Mary is still pregnant and accompanies her husband to his native town Bethlehem.

Luke (2: 6-7) reports: While they were there, 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 guest room available for them. 

Nativity, The Fauquier Hours (on offer at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, broch. 19, no. 6)

It must have been a horrific experience for Mary to come down with her son in the most unhygienic conditions, but she gives birth to a healthy son and beds him in a cattle manger as best she can. Both mother and father look relatively content in the miniature above. They even brought a basket and a candleholder (completely unnecessary, for their divine son shines brighter than any candle), and a water jug to wash the child. It is also striking that Joseph wears a sizable purse on his belt, as if the artist wanted to emphasise that the holy family would have been wealthy enough to afford a decent inn.

Nativity, Gallimard Hours (on offer at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, broch. 20, no. 12)

In this interpretation of the Nativity the virgin has brought her prayer book, also a symbol of relative prosperity. How stunned the ox looks at the little boy on the orange ottoman. Probably it has never seen people, allegedly poor enough to sleep in a stable, who bring a lush bed with them. 

Nativity, Troyes Master (on offer at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, cat. 11, no. 28)

Apparently, medieval illuminators had some trouble with the idea of laying the divine child on the cold and stony ground. The bright red or orange mattress has a long tradition in French book illumination. Here, we are watching the very intimate moment, when Mary breastfeeds her baby. Another interesting detail is the sleeping Joseph. It seems a logical reaction to the long journey and the stress of finding an accomodation for his family. The old man must have been completey worn out from all the dramatic events, especially the excitement of witnessing a child`s delivery in such an inhospitable place. 

Nativity, O'Kelly Hours  (on offer at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, broch. 20, no. 11)

The same scene in another Book of Hours is also peppered with anecdotal details: again the nursing mother and the sleeping foster father. A pot on the fire in which porridge was probably cooked for the baby, although he is far too small for this kind of nutrition. But Joseph preparing oatmeal for the baby had been a very popular motif in 15th century book illumination. The wooden trough was used to bathe the child.

 

There is yet another interpretation for Joseph's deep unconsciousness in the nativity scene. Apocryphal accounts tell us that he clandestinely wanted to leave his young wife and their son because he felt not up to the the task of raising an illegitimate child. But God sent him into a deep sleep, in which an angel appeared to him and instructed him to stay with his family. 

Christ as a toddler and Joseph sleeping, G & H Hours, (on offer at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, broch. 19, no. 17)

In this charming miniature we find a literal depiction of Joseph being talked into staying with his stepfamily: the old man has fallen asleep while apparently manufacturing a little footstool. The angel hovers next to him, whispering in his ear. The child is already a toddler here and Mary offers him a pear. 

 

 Meanwhile, nearby a group of shepherds observed extremely unusual and disturbing phenomena.

Shepherds in the field, Arenberg Hours  (sold by Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, broch. 20 no. 24)

An angel appears in the sky and tells them, that the saviour has been born. 

Luke (2: 7-9) 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.

The shepherds' terror is made very plausible in this miniature. The night sky is ripped open and shows a glowing, fiery light in which the angel appears to the shepherds. Both men have fallen down in fright, one shields his eyes from the glaring light, the other prays for mercy.

 

But then the angel calms them down by saying:

Luke (2: 10-14)'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news. It will bring great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you. He is the Messiah, the Lord. Here is how you will know I am telling you the truth. You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.' Suddenly a large group of angels from heaven also appeared. They were praising God. They said, 'May glory be given to God in the highest heaven! And may peace be given to those he is pleased with on earth!'

 Shepherds dancing for joy, Crawford Hours (on offer at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, broch. 20 no. 25)

Here we see a very cheerful bucolic scene in which the shepherds dance a round dance for joy. Soon they will set out to look for the stable in Bethlehem. Three other persons had also gone on a voyage to find the new King of the world. Three wise men from the Orient, perhaps astrologers, each observing a peculiar star that seemed to point the way, met - through God's providence - in Jerusalem and then paid homage together to the new Messiah.

 

Arrival of the Three Magi and their entourage, G & H Hours (on offer at Dr. J. Günther Rare Books, broch. 19, no. 17)

This incident is described in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-2):

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. This happened while Herod was king of Judea. After Jesus’ birth, Wise Men from the east came to Jerusalem. They asked, ‘Where is the child who has been born to be king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose. Now we have come to worship him.

 Adoration of the Magi, The Fauquier Hours, (Dr. J. Günther Rare Books, broch. 19, no. 6)
Humbly the eldest Magus kisses the child's feet. 

 Adoration of the Magi, Book of Hours by François Le Barbier jr. (on offer at Dr. J. Günther Rare Books, broch. 20, no. 20)

Matthew (2:11-12): The Wise Men went to the house. There they saw the child with his mother Mary. They bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures. They gave him gold, frankincense and myrrh. 

In some miniatures, the child really does behave like a toddler, curiously reaching for the treasures presented to him, 
 Adoration of the Magi, Book of Hours by the Dunois Master (on offer at Dr J. Günther Rare Books, broch. 20, no. 13)

Adoration of the Magi, Book of Hours of Marguerite de Breda by the late Dunois Master (on offer at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, cat. 14, no. 33)

In some miniatures he already behaves like the benevolent, blessing Messiah he will one day become.

Adoration of the Magi, Hours for Francesco Borromeo, by Ambrogio de Predis (on offer at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, cat. 14, no. 34)

And sometimes he just seems to have had a bit too much Christmas roast to do anything

Adoration of the Magi, Pforzheimer Hours (on offer at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, broch. 20, no. 18)

We hope you have enjoyed our little guided tour through the Christmas miniatures of our Books of Hours! We wish you a merry Christmas and a very happy and hopefully peaceful New Year 2023.  

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About the author

Ina Nettekoven

Ina Nettekoven is an art historian specialising in illuminated manuscripts and early illustrated printed books.

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