The word Advent means “arrival.” For centuries, Christians have used the weeks before the celebration of Christmas to prepare and anticipate the arrival of the Messiah, the Anointed One. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the Anointed One arrived. Advent is also a season to remember Jesus’ promise that He is coming back again.
Christians most likely began celebrating Advent officially during the liturgical year sometime in the early Middle Ages, but its roots are much older than that. Throughout the centuries, the season of Advent has been celebrated with Scripture, music, liturgy, and all different forms of imagery. As we celebrated Advent at the end of 2016 at South Tulsa, I chose 6 different pieces of art history’s most renowned Advent works to help guide us through the season.
Each painting is pictured below, along with some (hopefully) helpful descriptions of their details and the Scriptures to which they point. You can also listen to any of the messages here – South Tulsa podcast – or view on our website – southtulsa.org.
(image credit to Wikimedia commons and painting information drawn from several sources listed at end of this post)
1. Elizabeth and Mary – The Visitation – Rogier van der Weyden – early 1400s (Luke 1:41)
This painting depicts the moment after Elizabeth, Mary’s relative, comes out of seclusion and makes her pregnancy known (Luke 1:24-25), at which time Mary has also become pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Mary soon visits Elizabeth’s home and they share an incredible moment as little baby John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice (Luke 1:39-45).
In the painting:
-Elizabeth is clearly older than Mary, and Elizabeth has her head covered as a sign of age and wisdom while Mary’s hair flows freely as a symbol of her virginity.
-While Joseph is not pictured since he is not mentioned in this part of the story, in the background you can see the temporarily mute Zechariah at the door of the house. He seems distant from this encounter.
-The most striking part of this piece is the encounter of the two women chosen by God, related by blood and also their burdens. Each woman has her hand on the other’s stomach, emphasizing their mutual, God-ordained pregnancies.
-Van Der Weyden does an amazing job here of bringing to life the biblical reality that these
two women–these two couples–are forever connected through miraculous pregnancies that would truly change the world, change world history, and change eternity.
2. The Annunciation – Lorenzo Lotto – 1527 – (Luke 1:26-38)
“He who the world cannot contain shall be contained within your womb.” –Anonymous (Stichera of the Annunciation)
There are very few scenes in Scripture that have been portrayed more in the great works of art than The Annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). This is the moment God announces that Mary will bear His child. Mary will bear His Son. I would argue that incarnation–God putting on flesh (John 1:14)–happened just after this moment. In other words, I believe the incarnation happened at conception. Thus, Mary’s pregnancy did not take away her virginity.
In the painting:
-Mary’s room appears to be in the temple, and everything is in perfect order. Mary is often depicted in the temple before her marriage in Roman Catholic art, because of their apocryphal belief that Mary was presented by her parents to the High Priest as a young girl, which would have made the temple her home.
-You can see an open book on the lectern behind her. Mary is often depicted reading God’s Word as an act of devotion, especially in Annunciation portrayals.
-The image in the top right is that of God the Father coming down on a cloud; his hands are joined and he appears to be diving towards Mary , as Gabriel said: “…and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35)
-The angel Gabriel is dressed in blue, holding a white lily as a sign of Mary’s purity and Gabriel’s humility before her. His appearance and gesture demands her attention.
-In between Mary and Gabriel on the floor there is a cat. Yes, a cat. The cat’s back is arched as it flees from Gabriel. In Renaissance Art – cats are often used as symbols of evil
and the devil…I’ll let you draw your own conclusions!
With the exception of several inaccuracies and a random cat, Lotto has captured the Annunciation in a very unique way…Her entire world is clearly turned upside down by this word from Gabriel.
3. The Shepherds – The Portinari Triptych – Hugo van der Goes – late 1400s (Luke 2:16)
Don’t you love these guys! Just some simple shepherds.
One of my favorite historical and cultural commentators is Kenneth E. Bailey, who just passed away in May. I love this quote of his:
“The child was born for the likes of shepherds – the poor, the lowly, the rejected. He also came for the rich and the wise who later appeared with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
The birth of Jesus was Good News for ALL people–all people who will confess that Jesus is Lord.
In the painting:
-This depiction of the shepherds is actually only a small part of the center panel of the Portinari Triptych. This beautiful three-paneled piece is 8 feet tall and 11 feet long and has served as an altarpiece in a chapel in Florence. The work was commissioned by a wealthy Italian banker named Portinari who worked for the Medici family. The left and right panels show the banker’s family surrounded by saints and angels with different Advent scenes behind them.
-The central panel depicts the fuller scene of the Holy Family in their makeshift birthplace stable. Newborn Jesus is laying on some hay in the bare empty space in the middle, surrounded by Mary, Joseph, important symbols referring to Jesus’ death and resurrection. There are also several animals and a host of angels.
-On the top right of the center panel is the shepherds’ arrival to see the newborn Savior, Messiah, and Lord. This part of the painting has been called “the arrival of the beggars,” because Van Der Goes brilliantly depicts very common men, rough around the edges, with shaved heads or tousled hair, rugged skin, and calloused hands from hard work.
-The youngest shepherd in the back stands wide-eyed with his mouth open, showing very noticeable teeth. He has taken off his rough straw hat in reverence,and he
looks overwhelmed by the scene.
-The second shepherd, to the left, is in the process of kneeling as he beholds the child, hands extended.
-The oldest of the 3 shepherds is the one already kneeling in front with his hands together in a worshipful and prayerful gesture towards the baby. He has his trowel tool for digging under his arm. His bag, knife and horn hang from his modest tunic. His face is wise.
-In the background you cannot see here there are fourth and fifth shepherds arriving. After all, the Bible never says how many shepherds there were or how many wise
men for that matter. Traditional nativity scenes have simply made these assumptions.
4. Adoration of the Magi – Andrea Mantegna – c. 1500 (Matthew 2:11)
The Magi are even more surprising guests to visit the Holy family than the shepherds. The magi were gentiles, astrologers, and most likely diviners. Divination was certainly not the way God desired for people to seek truth. The magi represent the nations, however (see below about the three known continents). God brought them to Jesus using their own language and symbols. This is a picture of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-21) here at the beginning of Matthew, before the Commission was given.
In the painting (from Left to Right):
-Joseph is the elderly man all the way to the left. This is without a doubt one of the oldest portrayals of Joseph you will see.
-Mary, by contrast, is quite young in this depiction. She wears a yellow prayer shawl that covers her head, which is a rare color choice for Mary during this period. It is meant to display her purity. Her attention is clearly directed towards little Jesus.
-Jesus is often portrayed as an astute little baby in this period ;). In this scene, he is offering a sign of blessing towards the magi. Even more significant, however, is that his hands and feet are uncovered. This is a picture and reminder of Christ’s death, and the nails that would be driven into His hands and feet. Here, after His birth, we are meant to remember His death.
-The three magi are dressed in direct contrast to the simplicity of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Their clothing and colors clearly display great wealth.
-The Three magi represent the three known continents of the world – not only in Jesus’ day but in Mantegna’s also.
-The bearded magus in the rear represents the East–Arabia to be more specific–and he holds a Turkish vessel containing incense. The next magus represents Europe. He has removed his turban and humbly presents a cup of gold coins to the child. This part of the painting is extremely unique, as it represents one of the, if not THE, first time in European art that a Chinese artifact is presented – the porcelain cup holding the coins. The third and final magus represents Africa, and he presents a covered cup containing myrrh.
5. The Holy Family with Angels – Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn – 1645 (Luke 2:39-40)
Rembrandt represented the Golden Age of Dutch Art. The majority of Rembrandt’s artwork was intended to bring biblical stories to life. Rembrandt was unique in his artwork because, thanks to his wife Saskia’s great fortune, he needed not always paint to please the Church any rich benefactors. As a result he always sought biblical realism…well almost always…
In the painting:
-This painting is an exception to Rembrandt’s commitment to biblical realism, because for Rembrandt this painting was more personal than theological.
-Rembrandt and his wife had four children together. After the birth of their fourth child, Saskia died. All four of his children eventually died at young ages. Rembrandt was left as broken of a man as one could imagine.
-That’s what makes this picture of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus unique. This is not a picture of 1st Century Israel/Palestine. This is a Dutch home, and Mary bears similarities to several of the important women in Rembrandt’s life. Even more significantly, Jesus is portrayed in by Rembrandt’s son Titus.
-Throughout his life, Rembrandt often found that the only way he could cope with all of his pain was to paint himself and his story into the stories about Jesus. You will often see Rembrandt himself in his paintings depicting Christ. Here, however, he brings his beloved family into the home of Jesus and His family. This is one of the most moving pieces in the Rembrandt canon.
When we truly find our rest in Christ – when He becomes the true source of our hope, love, joy, and peace – we realize that only Jesus can redeem that which seems completely unredeemable. Because the story of Jesus is intertwined with our story. He has entered our world. God put on flesh and made His dwelling among us so that He could bring our stories together. Which means Christ redeems not only things that are good in us and useful, but also the worst things too – our worst losses, our worst pain, our worst mistakes. And those things become useful too.
6. Simeon’s Song of Praise – Arent de Gelder – c. 1700 (Luke 2:25-35)
Simeon was a righteous and devout man who was probably somewhere around 100 years old. He had been faithful to the Jewish law his entire life. The Holy Spirit was on Simeon, as Luke repeats several times, and had revealed that Simeon would not die until he saw the Messiah with his own eyes. This was his long awaited promise.
In his prayer (Luke 2:29-35), Simeon mentions both the Jews and Gentiles. This is another reminder that the birth of Jesus is Good News for ALL people who confess Jesus as Lord.
In the painting:
-In a very Rembrandt-esque way, Arent de Gelder, a pupil of Rembrandt’s, shows divine light coming in from the upper left AND divine light also emanating from little Jesus. God is clearly in their midst, and this is a proclamation that Jesus is the Light of the World.
-There are four people in the painting: Mary, the 40-day old Jesus, Simeon who is holding Jesus with thankfulness, and Joseph who is in the background.
-Mary and Joseph both have their eyes closed, taking in this moment with worshipful reverence.
-Jesus and Simeon both have their eyes looking towards heaven. It’s as if Jesus both acknowledges God’s presence and also knows where Simeon’s focus truly is. Simeon, on the other hand, looks towards heaven as if he knows he is almost there. His long awaited promise has been fulfilled.
- Steffano Zuffi, Gospel Figures in Art (Getty, 2003)
- Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (Intervarsity, 2009)
- Stichera of the Annunciation
- Web Gallery of Art, “The Portinari Triptych” – http://www.wga.hu/tours/flemish/goes/index1.html
- Caroline Campbell, “East Meets West in Mantegnas Adoration of the Magi” – https://blog.britishmuseum.org/2014/12/01/east-meets-west-in-mantegnas-adoration-of-the-magi/
- Dawson W. Carr, Andrea Mantegna: Adoration of the Magi (Getty, 1997)
- Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, “Living in Expectation – Arent de Gelder – Simeon and Anna – http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=2006&lang=en&action=show