I recently came across a painting by Gari Malchers entitled, The Nativity. This work created in 1891 combines elements from the American Naturalist school yet employs touches of Dutch realism with a splattering of impressionism. What I find interesting about the painting is how the scene draws the viewer into its subtext almost as if the painting was intended to be used as iconography.

Naturalism, from what I read, presents subjects as they are without symbolism. This differs from realism in that the artist includes obvious visual symbols intended to educate the viewer to the plight of others. The Nativity invites the viewer into a private moment not too long after the birth of Jesus. The trio is seen alone, long before visitors begin to arrive, unaware of the star making their location known.

The Nativity, Gari Melchers (1891)

The Nativity, Gari Melchers (1891)

We see Mary asleep, totally exhausted after giving birth, her head resting on an abandoned wheel. For this young woman, the day has been exhausting and hard, ending a long journey to Bethlehem only to find that there was no place to give birth, let alone rest her head.

Joseph, on the other hand, looks as if he’s been through a traumatic experience. His gaze is one of reflection and concern. Their journey was difficult, his wife just gave birth in a dirty stable, and he has to deal with the realities of a newborn infant. He seems to be thinking about their future. At first it may appear that he’s looking at the infant, but his gaze wonders off into his confused private horizon.

 

A lantern lights the scene. Here Melchers employs a naturalist tendency to discount the supernatural from religious painting. The artist suggests that the Gloriole surrounding the baby’s head could be explained by the lantern’s glow, but at the same time, the lantern light might also heighten theĀ Shekinah embodied in the baby’s nature.

How does is this painting like an icon? I could not help but think of a line from the Magnificat:

“…for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…..”

In a dirty stable, a baby sleeps in a manger, a trough created to feed animals. From these horrible beginnings a new dawn will rise from the dirt and the muck of an unknown stable. From the dim light of a solitary lantern, a new light will reach out over all the earth bringing hope to those in living in fear, joy to those who weep, and laughter to those in pain. From this intimate scene of three individuals held within abject squalor, a Holy Night emerges to engulf humanity.