This is what our Christmas tree usually looks like. Note the shiny beaded garland, the crowded assortment of ornaments, the village below, and the train track that runs around the village. (Also, not visible in this shot but a HUGE part of Christmas for the boys is the working train engine and cars).
And this is what our Christmas tree looks like this year. A bit sparse, you say? We didn’t even bother with the train or village. We skipped the garland and went easy on the ornaments. Why? The only clue you need is a good look at the two-foot swath across the bottom of the tree where all the ornaments have been picked bare. The height of this section, not surprisingly, coincides with the reach of a certain 19-month old little girl. Yes, Nora the Explorer has been here.
Nora also climbed up on the piano where this week I finally put out just a few of my 20 different international nativity scenes. Once there, Nora re-enacted the little-known Bethlehem Earthquake of O BC. She also relieved my Spanish Mary and Baby Jesus of their gold paper haloes. I had no idea they offended her that much.
I actually really like haloes. I think they’re a great example of one of those things in art that tries to express the inexpressible. How do you say that a person is divine using a language and materials that are earthly? You do your best and resort to symbolism, something even Christ used extensively in his parables.
In this Duccio painting, I like the way the halos serve as the spiritual counterpart to the gold crowns worn by the secular kings. The royal crowns are painted realistically with a bit of shading and a rudimentary form of linear perspective to give them depth. The third king has even removed his crown and placed it on his arm as he kneels, bareheaded and humbled, before the King of Kings. The haloes, on the other hand, stand out from Mary and Jesus’ heads like flat disks. It doesn’t matter that the faces of the holy mother and child are turned in 3/4 profile; the gold circles hang parallel to the picture plane and perfectly wreath the heads from our angle, for our benefit. They are not crowns or physical objects of any kind. They aren’t even really in the scene itself. The haloes represent a higher reality.
Some people see medieval art as primitive or undeveloped because it lacks the realism of later styles. But I love it for its honesty. Duccio and other artist of his era expressed the belief that there are certain things (like camels and mountains and crowns of kings) that are okay to illustrate with tricky, illusionistic techniques. And then there are other things, like the holiness of the Son of God for example, that require a symbolic language.
Then there are the artists from the Renaissance who want to have it both ways. I’ll try not to sound too smug about it, but frankly, they amuse me. Here’s Andrea del Sarto’s Holy Family as an example. Judging from the maternal appearance of Mary and the cute, head-tucking gesture of the baby Jesus, del Sarto wanted to make the scene as believable and human as possible. Then he got to the haloes and, not willing to throw them out entirely, he put them on like party hats. Jesus’ halo reminds me of those wire ones won by the kids playing angels in Christmas pageants. Del Sarto’s adept use of perspective is a testament to his talent, but not to the holiness of the Holy Family. I think del Sarto’s painting is beautiful, but it falls for the mistaken notion that man is the measure of all things.