The Art of Christmas
Author Jane Williams
Publisher SPCK £9.99
The distinguished theologian and writer, Jane Williams, has produced another helpful volume in SPCK’s series of booklets on classical and modern artworks to accompany the liturgical seasons. The Art of Christmas follows the author’s earlier offering The Art of Advent (2018), and similar works from the late and much-loved Wendy Beckett: The Art of Lent (2017); and The Art of Holy Week and Easter (2021, published posthumously). Both these authors have provided exceptional insights into great artworks and have related the art to biblical matters. Beckett is, perhaps, the greater expert on art history; Williams the more profound theologian. It matters little – all these delightful booklets provide great scope for personal meditation and deeper understanding of scripture through the inspiration of artistic masterworks. It is a joyful and highly collectable series.
The Art of Christmas is subtitled ‘Meditations on the Birth of Jesus’, and certainly there is strong emphasis on the nativity scenes as documented in Matthew and Luke. The holy family, the shepherds and the magi all feature in a variety of works. But Jane Williams is also at pains to take us beyond the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, and reminds us through wider scripture readings of the eternal meaning of the incarnation and its significance for our salvation. Thus, she provides allusions to Romans chapter 8 as well as John chapter 1. And, with a nod to prophecy, she relates Mary’s pregnancy thanksgiving in the Magnificat to Hannah’s prayer and subsequent psalm of joy (1 Sam. chapters 1 & 2), augmented by a moving and little known portrait of Hannah by the Dutch artist Jan Victors (1619-1679).
One of the strengths of the book is the way familiar artworks such as Botticelli’s Annunciation and The Mystical Nativity are balanced against the inspiration of lesser known works. For example, I was unfamiliar with the wonderful portrait of St Joseph with the Infant Christ by the Italian Baroque painter, Guido Reni (1575-1642). There is also a beautiful and intriguing and work by Gerhard von Hornthorst (1592-1656) on The Adoration of the Shepherds with exceptional use of light and shadow to show the infant Jesus as the light of the world. In summary, this is a book to treasure – and an ideal, thoughtful Christmas gift.
Reviewed by KATE BURTON