Advent … An Old Fresh Look

December 10, 2018

Limbourg Brothers, Nativity (folio 44v), Tres Riches Heures, 1414-16 (Musee Conde)

This charming little image is a single page from a manuscript called the Tres Riches Heures(or, in English, the “Very Rich Hours”). As the title suggests, the manuscript is a Book of Hours, which was a type of devotional book that was very popular in the Medieval period. Books of Hours typically contained a smattering of prayers, hymns, and biblical passages along with images that could enhance one’s understanding of the text or encourage spiritual reflection.

This particular Book of Hours was created for the Duke of Berry in the early 15th century by the Limbourg Brothers, and it was—as the name suggests—“very richly” decorated with ornate letters and images. Each page is 8 ½ by 10 inches. All the text was hand lettered. All the pictures and decorations were painted with very expensive pigments using very fine brushes.

The illumination of the Nativity appears with a group of prayers associated with the Virgin. Here we find lots of familiar imagery. Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, of course. A stable with the standard ox and ass. An angel visiting shepherds with their rather large flock by night. Even an angel choir.

But there are some unusual elements as well—the most obvious of which are the curious blue angels swirling around baby Jesus.

Limbourg Nativity-det2-JesusWhile somewhat strange to us, this imagery would have been familiar to original viewers. In the previous century, a mystic named Bridget of Sweden had a vision that became famous around Europe after her death in the 1370s. Consequently, it inspired a shift in the way the Nativity was represented. In her vision, she saw Mary deep in prayer when suddenly the infant Jesus appeared before her on the ground, naked and glowing. When Mary realized she had just given birth, she bowed her head and crossed her arms in adoration, saying, “Welcome, my God, my Lord, and my Son.” Then Joseph, too, saw the infant and adored him on bended knee.

Following Bridget’s vision, the Limbourg brothers show the moment immediately after Jesus’s birth. He has just appeared outsidethe womb as miraculously as he appeared insidethe womb nine months before. Mary and Joseph’s first reaction, as it should be when gazing at the glowing Son of God, is adoration. We are left to imagine that Mary’s next move is to pick up that poor baby and swaddle him tight.

The Brothers add other bits to emphasize that this is not a typical birth nor a typical baby. The blue angels, for instance, cradle the baby in a nest of golden beams of light, acting as heavenly midwives for this miracle. Unlikein Bridget’s vision, they seem to be suspending him above the bare ground. This special babe is also bathed in light streaming down from a heavenly sphere above, where God the Father stands surrounded by blue and red angels, or more specifically cherubim and sheraphim. The orb in his left hand signifies his authority, as does the crown, but with his right hand, he makes the gesture of blessing, presumably directed toward the people below on whom the most precious blessing is being bestowed presently.

Limbourg Nativity-det1-GodWhat is more unusual for a nativity is the stream of light that flows out of God’s mouth. It descends all the way to the baby below, clearly conveying that this baby is the Word of God, spoken and now made flesh. And, just in case you’ve missed theseindications of the baby’s divinity, the artist throws in one more detail for good measure—a bright white dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit. Its presence makes clear that this very human baby is also the third member of the Triune God.

While the Limbourg Brothers clearly stress Christ’s divinity, there are other theological assertions to be found here—some of which relate to the significance of the birth of Christ for human history. Take the dilapidated stable. It is easy to surmise that the shabby condition of the stable symbolizes the poor and humble conditions into which Christ was born, but historically it carried a different meaning. The old stable represents the Old Testament—or the old order of things—which at the birth of Christ is now passing away. Here the light emanating from heaven at this momentous occasion seems to actually break through the roof—the advent of the new actually causing the ruination of the old.

Limbourg Nativity-det3-statue

The Jewish law is not the only tradition being supplanted; pagan gods are also made obsolete. If you look closely at the hillside in the background, you can make out what appears to be a large golden statue of a pagan god elevated on a column. Once prominent in the landscape, it is now obscured by the dense beams of light that signal the coming of the true God. The old has gone the new has come.

All this gives me pause.

I have only anecdotal evidence by way of the Christmas cards that find their way to my house, but it seems that we tend to gravitate toward more cozy images of the Nativity—ones in which Mary is the doting mother and the baby is snug in her arms or nestled in a manger.

But the Limbourgs’ image doesn’t let me get absorbed in the preciousness of the moment. Instead, it prompts me to contemplate the theological meaningof this event and my own response. If I consider deeply the divine identity of this baby, my response would be more like Bridget’s Mary: to bow and adore him, but not the kind of adoration of tender and affectionate parents so in love with their newborn baby, but the adoration of a humble subject toward a righteous king.

Limbourg Nativity-det40guysOn either side of Mary and Jesus, we are given suggestions for other appropriate responses to this event. On the left, three shepherds push up against the fence. I especially appreciate the two guys in the back who seem to jostle to get a better view, similar perhaps to adults at our own Christmas pageants who shift to see what’s going on up front. As sweet at those pageants are, I wonder if I work as hard to see and understand the historic event. Can I imagine myself in these shepherds’ position, trying to wrap my mind around the wonders of what’s happening here?

Which brings us to Joseph. Admittedly, I’ve always had a soft-spot for Joseph. Here, the Limbourg Brothers give him a particularly old and somewhat regal appearance. He looks down at this baby that has suddenly appeared surrounded by bright blue angels, and he also bows in adoration. But he also registers his surprise, if in a most understated manner. While certainly extra-biblical, I appreciate the artists’ effort to remind us just how surprisingall of this is. This story has become so familiar that we can easily take it for granted: God comes into the world as a baby? Sure, why not. But the incarnation is surprising. The God in baby-form is surprising. Joseph ought to have been surprised when that baby showed up. So should we.

Like most Medieval artists, the Limbourg brothers don’t let us simply dwell on Advent. This image also foreshadows things to come. First, at the very bottom, the ground seems to drop off rather close to where the Holy Family are situated. Artists incorporated such holes or pits to subtly point to Christ’s eventual suffering and death. Likewise, the bare and twisted tree on the hill calls to mind the cross on Golgotha. These references are not surprising. Even in Bridget’s vision, Mary has a premonition of Jesus’s eventual suffering and bursts into tears. She hasn’t yet come to that in this image, but the Limbourg Brothers set the stage.

This Advent season, I hope I will be prompted to look with fresh eyes, to seek new and deeper understanding, and to bow down with deep adoration.



Chi Rho page, 34r, Book of Kells, c. 800 (Trinity College, Dublin)

Chi Rho page, 34r, Book of Kells, c. 800
(Trinity College, Dublin)
Click the image to go to a digital facsimile of the book and scroll down to folio/page 34 to see a much better image.

This is the Chi Rho page of the Book of Kells, a early 9th-century book that was lavishly decorated by monks somewhere in modern-day Ireland. It’s probably one of the most famous pages of any book ever, and it’s no surprise why.

It gets its name from the Greek letters that appear rather prominently: X-P-I (pronounced Chi-Rho-Iota), which are the first letters of the sacred name, “Christ.” The page appears in the book at the moment when Jesus is first called “the Christ” in the gospels, which significant because he’s being identified as more than just a prophet or rabbi. He’s the Messiah. Other manuscripts from this time and place have Chi-Rho pictures, but this page is far-and-away more spectacular than any other.

Visually, the page is stunning because everything seems animated (it’s no wonder that it inspired the 2009 animated film, “The Secret of Kells”). The letters seem to draw themselves, with the arching lines of the Chi, the Rho which curls in on itself, and the Iota that sprouts at its top. Small circles spin inside bigger circles and they appear to move like yo-yos along the bold outlines of the letters. The rest of the interlacing (or weaved patterning) seems to weave itself into knots. The only shape that seems still is the cross form toward the bottom—the bold yellow and black lines are strong and definitive, as if the design of the whole page started and stopped right there. Ah, yes, indeed.

This is where I could get all heady and pick apart some of the iconography. Suzanne Lewis wrote an article years ago that explained it in a way that still gives me chills.* I’ll simply say that there are three bits of imagery—cats and mice, an otter and a fish, and two butterflies and a chrysalis—which all point to Christ as the Eucharistic host. They emphasize that, with the Incarnation, God was made flesh and it is that flesh that we consume—metaphorically, at the very least—when we celebrate the Eucharist. In the theological narrative, what connects the Incarnation with Salvation is, of course, the crucifixion. The cross. The Chi. Perfect, no? Chills?

All that appeals to my mind, but it is still the visual power of the page that makes my soul hum. Monks decorated the books they copied not because they had extra time on their hands, but because they were passionate about the uniqueness of the words these books contain and they conveyed that belief by painting the pages with extravagant designs. This was the Word of God, and the Word of God is dynamic, powerful, extraordinary. These intricate illuminations never let readers forget that this was no ordinary text.

That seems so right to me. At some point along the line—perhaps around the time of the first publication of the Good News Bible—we shifted from treating Bibles as intensely special books to emphasizing the Bible is common and accessible to all. Not a bad shift, to be sure! But I do think we lost something. We lost the mystery, the holiness, the wonder.

No doubt I’ve lost it too … except when I look at a book like this. Then, the page, the letters, and the text itself seem so shockingly alive, it feels like I’m looking at something powerful and mysterious. It’s the Word of God, and don’t you forget it.

*Suzanne Lewis, “Sacred Calligraphy: The Chi Rho Page in the Book of Kells,” Traditio 36 (1980), pp. 139-59