Christmas Narratives: Five Paintings that Embody the Festive Spirit

Detail from The Portinari Altarpiece.

For me, Christmas is a time to reflect on the events of the year as it begins to draw to a close. I’ve spent the lead-up to the big day by flicking through various artworks looking for some festive spirit hidden within the pages. Paintings with a Christocentric religious subject often highlight this season, dominating the images on Christmas cards and advent calendars alike. Images also appear showing blankets of snow covering a frost-tinted landscape, immediately resonating with winter memories of my own. To help bring some Christmas spirit to others, I’ve selected five artworks that embody this festive season for me.

The Wilton Diptych, c.1395-99, 53 x 37cm (per panel), The National Gallery, London. Source: Wikiart.

The Wilton Diptych is a traditional favourite in my family. The vivid blue fabric and gradient white and black wings are immediately recognisable, and are reproduced in Christmas cards and gifts year after year. Painted on two small oak panels, the left image shows John the Baptist holding the sacrificial lamb and the two English saints Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr. Kneeling in front is King Richard II of England, who was the commissioning donor for this piece. The right-hand panel is a touching scene showing the holy mother and child who interact with the figures on the left through their soft gazes and the Christ-child’s stretched out grasp. Angels surround the pair, protecting them from harm and showing absolute awe of this miracle. Flowers can be seen on the ground by the Virgin’s feet, delicately coloured in soft pastels. All is calm in this scene of pure love and devotion.

Sandro Botticelli, The Mystic Nativity, c.1500-01, oil on canvas, 108.5 x 74.9cm. The National Gallery, London. Source: The National Gallery.

In his Mystic Nativity, Botticelli manages to simultaneously capture the magic and mysticism of the birth of Christ, Angels, the three kings and shepherds surround the central scene to adore the child, and above them the golden sphere of Heaven has opened to rejoice. The line between heaven and earth has all but vanished, symbolising both the divine and human nature of the Christ-child. In the foreground three angels embrace three men, suggesting again the new bond between the earthly and heavenly realms. Among their feet are demons crawling their way back into the underworld via cracks in the rocks.

Claude Monet, Snow Scene at Argenteuil, 1875, oil on canvas, 91 x 71cm, National Gallery, London. Source: The National Gallery.

For six years of his life, Monet lived in a suburban small town near Paris, Argenteuil. The town served as a source of inspiration for numerous artworks he created during this time. Contrast to the two previous works, Monet’s scene focuses on the atmospheric component of the winter season. The colour palette is simple and almost completely monochromatic, consisting of mostly white and greys with highlights of black, blue and pink.Snow covers the canvas and blurs the figures and buildings in the background. Only strips of the trees remain visible, the rest is blanketed by snow. Even though we cannot see it clearly, the scene in the distance feels friendly and welcoming – perhaps the two figures nearest the foreground are slowly making their way there, trudging through the snowy path. The two tracks beginning near the edge of the painting draw our eyes towards the distance and we are invited to follow the pair on their way.

Frederick J. Porter, Winter Landscape, c.1929, oil on canvas, support: 571 x 737mm. Source: Tate.

A different kind of winter scene scene is Frederick Porter’s twentieth century Winter Landscape. We are placed in an intimate spot in the artist’s own home in Chiswick with a view of the outside garden, covered by snow. The scene is quiet and peaceful. Just like Christmas day, everyone is inside and we can imagine the celebrations going on inside the houses. The colour palette is soft and resembles the dim winter light sky. This is complimented by Porter’s textural use of the paintbrush, bringing texture to the trees, bushes and snow-covered grass.

Hugo van der Goes, The Portinari Altarpiece, c.1475-76, oil on wood, Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Source: Wikiart.

One of the most studied fifteenth century Flemish artwork, The Portinari Altarpiece is an incredibly detailed and symbolic triptych. The central panel depicts the classic nativity scene. Mary, Joseph and the new-born infant Jesus are all present, as well as angels, shepherds and, of course, the donkey and cow. The background of the left panel shows Mary and Joseph on the way to Bethlehem, the central shows the shepherds visited by the angel Gabriel and on the right the three Magi on their way to Bethlehem. Even though these three scenes are in the background, they are vital to the story and remind the viewer of the build up to the present moment that lies before us. Like many elements of the painting, the selection of flowers in the foreground hold a hidden symbolism. In one vase, three red carnations are present, symbolising the three nails on the cross of the crucified Christ. The lilies and irises represent the Passion, the violets for humility, and columbines symbolise the Holy Spirit. Each flower also holds medicinal properties, hinting to their physical power as well as spiritual presence.

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