Saturday 19 August 2017

What Lies Beneath: The Nativity

The Nativity by John Singleton Copley, Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

The Nativity by John Singleton Copley
The Nativity by John Singleton Copley

Niall MacMonagle

It was never called Moneymas or Blingmas or Boozemas. Central to Christmas, supposedly, is Christ. Not the shopping, eating drinking; not sleeping in until all hours; not that turkey carcass on the counter staring at you for days.

And in this Christmas painting from 1777, John Singleton Copley places Jesus where He ought to be, at the centre of things. Copley drew pictures on his nursery wall, drew faces and animals in the margins of his schoolbooks and was painting portraits at 16.

In 1755 when he was 17, George Washington sat for him. He also painted other household names from American history: Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and, later, three Royal princesses in Buckingham Palace.

When he was born in Boston, in 1738, to a Limerick father and mother with County Clare connections, Boston then had no art school, no art museums, no galleries and Copley was largely self-taught. He left for Europe in 1774 when he was 36, by which time he had painted 300 pictures, and when he died in London, aged 77, he left behind a magnificent body of work.

The move to Europe inspired him to paint mythological, literary and religious subjects, as in this Nativity scene, which he worked on for two years.

In this painting it's evident that light is crucial in depicting the momentous event of Christ's birth. It contains both night and day, sunlight streams in and in the distance, moonlight. Copley also loved bright, rich colours and he dresses the figures in blue, green, gold, chocolate brown and orange-tinted pink. That unto us a child is born is what it's all about and mother and child are all in dazzling white. Beneath Mary, a bed of wheat and a beautifully woven, fringed carpet. A shepherd points an index finger at Jesus, a little baby now, and though he would grow up, change the world, and die a gruesome death, Joseph looks relaxed. Mammy is more anxious. Aren't they always? Hand to forehead, she seems to be saying, "Mother of God, what have I let myself in for?"

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