The light shines in the darkness


Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Nativity at Night (c. 1490)

During Advent and Christmas season I meditated daily upon Geertgen’s Nativity painting because I was going through my own dark night of the soul and needed the radiance of the Christ Child to give me hope against all hope (Rom. 4:18). Nothing has helped me to better understand John’s metaphor of Christ as the Light of the world more than this visualization (Jn. 1:1-17; 3:16-21). I put the image on every technological device that I own (phone, laptop computer, tablet), which baptized my life on the screen. As darkness threatened to hide God, I made sacramental use of a painting that masterfully depicts the dual nature of Jesus: the humanity in his helpless condition as an infant and the divinity in his emanation of light. Geertgen shows all of creation adoring the Christ Child. As a human, I do not identify with the angels nor the animals. As a man, I do not identify with Mary. So, I formed a sympathetic bond with the off-center Joseph, who, if it were not for his faintly illumined countenance, is obscured in the shadows of the stable. While the father of Jesus does not have the honorific role of the mother, he still earns my deepest respect because, despite his fear, he obeys the angel who visits him in a dream by marrying a woman whose child is not his own. Joseph’s merit lies in lovingly adopting a son who, as it turns out, adopts him—and anyone else who recognizes that he is Immanuel, God with us (Mt. 1:18-25). Geertgen represents Joseph with a face of paternal affection and a hand over his heart, signs of trust despite any residual doubt or anxiety at the time of his son’s birth. As long as I have opportunity to adore God in the manger, it does not matter how close I am to manger because, for the Christ Child, “even the darkness is not dark to [him]; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with [him]” (Ps. 139:11-12).

Combine Geertgen’s picture with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s moving words:

The infinite mercy of the almighty God comes to us, descends to us in the form of a child, his Son. That this child is born for us, this son is given to us, that this human child and Son of God belongs to me, that I know him, have him, love him, that I am his and he is mine—on this alone my life now depends. A child has our life in his hands. 

Until I read the following passage in Chris R. Armstrong’s book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, I did not realize that I undertook a practice with a history going back to the Middle Ages when mostly illiterate Christians found instruction and inspiration in images of Christ.

How can we understand how our daily work is informed by our identity in Christ? I believe we can make significant progress if we meditate on the incarnation as the medievals did. We should get up every morning and look at a painting, a sculpture, or an image representing Jesus Christ in his fleshly existence.

We should meditate not only on how Christ’s precipitous descent into the flesh and blood of humanity made possible his sacrifice for our sins but also on how it raises up the value and wonder and splendor of our own humanity. We humans are not explained in a Darwinian sense by biology nor in a Kantian sense by morality. Nor even, as if we were one with the angels, by spirituality. No, we must hear again the truth Athanasius so staunchly defended, the medievals so lavishly celebrated, and modern imaginative writers such as C. S. Lewis captures in the only way it really can be captured, apart from worship – that is, in stories that speak to our imaginations. We were created in God’s image, and when that image was stained and saddened by sin, God became man so that we could become (again) gods—and reflect (again) that image. 

a2e3920d1654e1a251606ab3e5a7cc9e.jpgIn a book that I recommend for every Christian, The Image of Christ, Susanna Avery-Quash, Research Curator in the History of Collecting at the National Gallery, London, writes an exposition on Geertgen’s painting:

In this painting of the Nativity, the Netherlandish artist, Geertgen, draws on the imagery of Christ as light or the Light. Saint John says of Christ that he is “the true Light, which lighteth every man” (John 1:9) and the artist has centered the composition on the tiny figure of the Christ Child from whom radiance emanates. The light dispels the immediate darkness to illuminate the sides of the stony crib, the hands and faces of the awestruck angels, and the sweet-sad countenance of his mother. Christ’s divine light outshines all other sources of illumination in the picture, even the glowing angel in the background announcing the Savior’s birth to some shepherds. The angel, in turn, has made the light of the campfire seem insignificant. To distinguish the light which Christ emits from all the other sources, Geertgen makes the rays beaming from Christ more emphatic and, although they are now somewhat faded, they would once have been much more visible. 

The notion of the Christ Child emanating divine illumination was well established in Geertgen’s time and is clearly articulated in the Revelations of the fourteenth-century mystic, Saint Bridget of Sweden (1303-73), who had a vision of the baby radiating, “such an ineffable light and splendor that the sun was not comparable with it, nor did the candle that Saint Joseph held there shine any light at all, the Divine light totally annihilating the natural light of the candle.” Many artists were inspired to paint the Nativity in accordance with Saint Bridget’s vision and the increasing competence of painters in rendering light effects in oil meant the the metaphor of Christ as light could be treated very powerfully, as in this painting. By comparison the use of an inscription is visually less effective (fig. 8).

Geertgen’s picture is one of several versions of a similar scene, based on a lost original by the Netherlandish painter Hugo van Goes. Geertgen’s version differs from its model both in some details (for instance, Joseph is shown here placing his hand over his heart and not shielding a candle), as well as in its emphasis: the darkness is more profound, the child smaller and more fragile, the animals larger. These elements allow Geertgen to suggest the deep mystery of the Incarnation, while his inclusion of stems of corn from a sheaf, barely visible in the darkness, in front of the crib are surely an allusion to the Eucharist, reminding the spectator that the Christ Child has been sent into the world not only to be the light but also to become the “bread of life.” 

The small size of the painting would have made it appropriate for use in private devotion and the open space in the foreground seems to invite the viewer to participate in the crib-side meditation. This advocacy of private devotion could reflect the interest of artists like Hugo van der Goes and Geertgen in the “Devotional Moderna,” a movement founded in the late fourteenth century by Geert Groote in the northern Netherlands and popularized throughout Europe by such texts as Thomas á Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, which encouraged private prayer and meditation on the life of Christ as ways of approaching ever more closely to God.


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