It’s December again, which means that mental tesserae will once again transform itself into a Christmas Art Advent Blog. To me, there is no better way to keep the spiritual side of Christmas alive than to look at the many beautiful images of Christ found in art.
Today, I’ll start with a new favorite: The Holy Family by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1910). The more I look at this scene, the more it captivates and confuses me.
All the members of the Holy Family are here in the painting, but they are strangely disconnected. Joseph stands in the shadows. This is his home, as evidenced by the wood shavings in the foreground, but this is not his moment. It is Mary who sits, pale and thoughtful, in the center of the room. Her arms are empty. Her hands, clasped together and resting on her knees, hold nothing. Instead, they point in a kind of plaintive gesture in the same direction as her gaze: outside, towards a glowing light that enters the room from a partially curtained doorway on the right. The presence of the baby Jesus is simply hinted at by a pink and white bundle resting on the rug at Mary’s feet.
It’s an odd painting, quite unlike most nativity scenes where the figures cluster together as if posing for a family portrait. I think that’s why I like it so much. The painting leaves many things undefined. Faces are hazy, as if seen through a veil. Walls and ledges are rough hewn. Corners are rounded by shadows. The scene is mysterious and puzzling, but isn’t this exactly how it should be? Mystical things cannot be (should not be) reduced to visual clichés and readily absorbed messages. We miss the point of a miracle if we try to make sense of it with logic or scientific principles.
Mary, especially, seems mystified, a word that means both “confused” and “made mysterious.” Tanner painted her as the central feature, and with his treatment of light, he focuses our attention on her expression and body language. She is caught in a moment of rapt attention and contemplation. She is serenely transfixed by an unknown source of light and perhaps by the thoughts in her own mind.
If you follow the line of Mary’s veil as it flows from behind her back and over her head, she forms an arch, a shape repeated just to her left where a pointed archway leads to another room. Mary then is equated with a passage. A corridor. In fact, now that I look at it this way, the painting is just a series of three thresholds—two of them literal on either side and one metaphorical in the center. Does Mary understand any of this? Does she know her place in time and eternity? Is she sitting there, completely at peace with what she must do, must raise, must eventually lose and regain? Or is she just in shock? Is her expression the familiar one of a mother overwhelmed by the weight of a responsibility she feels ill equipped to bear?
We are left to wonder all of these things and this is why I’m haunted by this image of Mary. Today, right this moment, I am craving clarity and definition. I wish I knew the exact contours of my future so I would know what is worthy of my time and what is not. I wish I knew why people I love are falling ill and have an uncertain path ahead of them. I struggle with the fact that I have to muddle through shadows and find my way without clear knowledge, relying instead on impressions and feelings and my own limited understanding. I could do without the mystification—both sides of it: the confusion and the mystery.
I think Mary is doing a bit of pleading herself. She prays with her hands and her eyes. Her face is leaning forward expectantly into the light. And the light responds. The curtain does not open up, but it billows softly in her direction and lets the light seep through the cracks and pour in from below. The source, whatever it is outside her doorway, spotlights Mary and the child at her feet. And even if it does not bring answers with it, at the very least it brings warmth.