Unpacking The Nativity
By Tom Wachunas
“We consider Christmas as the encounter, the great encounter, the historical encounter, the decisive encounter, between God and mankind. He who has faith knows this truly; let him rejoice.” - Pope Paul VI
EXHIBIT: Nativity, at Translations Art Gallery, THROUGH NOVEMBER 30, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Wednesday- Saturday Noon to 5 PM (closed Thanksgiving).
I am deeply grateful to Translations curator Craig Joseph for his invitation to be one of the 15 participating artists in this remarkably eclectic interpretation of the birth of Jesus. Those of you who know me can appreciate how it’s a subject solidly within my creative wheelhouse. So in this case I will depart from a self-imposed rule to not speak of my work when commenting on group shows that include it, and tell you something about my piece. But first, I offer some words about those works here that resonate most with my Christmas sensibilities.
Fredlee Votaw’s ambitious installation, Nativity, is a lovingly constructed assemblage of sculptures and artifacts that clearly allude to Scriptural nativity accounts. Some of the wooden forms are literal, others symbolic. Together, their woody yet refined rawness exudes an ancient, reverential quietude.
A similar aura emanates from a much smaller and more abstracted wall piece by Kevin Anderson, also titled Nativity. Here, though, the precisely-cut walnut pieces, representing the Holy Family and other attendees on the scene, have a distinctly contemporary feel, right down (or up, actually) to the lighted arrow sign that hovers above the “stable.” Something like a theater marquee, the sign bears the word “KING,” lest we forget whom we behold. Anderson further emphasizes the fact by rendering the baby Jesus as a white cylinder in contrast to all the other rectangular forms.
Twelve earthy, organic ceramic forms set on a table comprise Laura Donnelly’s Wise Men Still Seek… These forms, with ornate patterns pressed into the clay, are anthropomorphized vessels, each named for a spiritual gift. The work is a poignant reminder that to celebrate the Nativity is to celebrate the author of all life. As He bestowed on us gifts such as Joy, Nurturing and Generosity, among others, we would be wise in seeking to do the same for each other.
The tiny, arresting oil painting by Erin Mulligan, Blood and Water, is a fetal portrait, and beautiful in a visceral way. For all of its pragmatic detailing, the piece is nonetheless a precious icon of sorts, bringing to mind a passage from 1 John, verses 5 - 6: “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the one who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ.”
There’s also a visceral pragmatism about the piece by Li Hertzi, titled Did Mary know that her… But along with its somewhat jarring blend of wispy illuminated glass “flames” that glow amid pieces of what appear to be real bone, the work is invested with a haunting, lyrical mystique. The assemblage protrudes from a wooden stool seat, inscribed with the words, “Beautiful flesh and blood cradled his magnificent light.”
For sheer conceptual scope – the whole Truth - the fused glass assemblage by David McDowell is particularly compelling. He rightly reminds us in his extensive written statement (well worth the time to read carefully) that the Nativity is but one chapter, albeit a vital one, in an unbroken and unbreakable continuum of necessary Biblical events. They culminate in the gripping visions laid out in the book of Revelation. To unbelievers, those visions are horrifying, mystifying, threatening. Isn’t Jesus, Lord of all creation, supposed to be the merciful Saviour, Peacemaker, loving Redeemer? But he’s also the perfect promise- keeper and Judge. Sobering stuff indeed.
So then, on to my mixed media wall piece, titled Who for the joy set before him. Like David McDowell, I wanted to widen the scope of my offering by embracing the larger Scriptural picture. I don’t believe we can fully realize the impact of the Nativity until and unless we see the whole purpose of God incarnate. I present him here as a lamb (in a stone manger), bound for sacrifice. “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” - John 1:29
As for the specific architectural look of the piece – its suggestion of a stone interior - here are some observations that might shed some light, so to speak, on your understanding of the Biblical account.
Was Jesus born in a simple wooden stable, a barn, or a cave, as traditional Western-world depictions would have us imagine? The Nativity account in Luke 2 mentions only that the baby was laid in a manger – a feeding trough for flock animals – because there were no available accommodations at the “inn.”
In Greek (the language of the Gospels), the word we have generally translated as “inn” is kataluma, and appears in only one other context in the New Testament (Luke 22:11 and parallel passage in Mark 14:14), in reference to preparations for the Passover meal that was Jesus’ “last supper.” Luke’s account of those preparations makes very clear that this kataluma was a furnished upstairs guest room in a house.
Hence it is reasonable to think that Joseph and Mary had traveled to Joseph’s family home in Bethlehem for the census, and that the upstairs guest chamber was already filled with other, likely elder members of Joseph’s extended family.
Additionally, it is interesting to note that in the ancient world, stone houses typically included accommodations for a few animals (including a built-in stone manger) that were kept indoors on the ground level at night.
The title of this work remembers the reason for Jesus’ coming, planned from the beginning of all creation, taken from Hebrews 12:2 – “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
PHOTOS (from top): Nativity by Fredlee Votaw; Nativity by Kevin Anderson; Blood and Water by Erin Mulligan; fused glass assemblage by David McDowell; Who for the joy set before him, by Tom Wachunas