A Child was Born

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December 24, 2012 by Gail Armstrong

Merry Christmas to all!

And now a few images depicting the day that started it all…


If you read my post, Annunciate This!, you will recognize that this lovely little image is by the same artist, and from the same source, as my favourite annunciation miniature. I love this one just as much, again for a variety of reasons. The grisaille against the star-spangled sky just works for me, for a start. But I also love that Mary looks as though she’s reading her remarkably alert newborn his first ever story…how lovely. And look at the thoughtful, proud look on Joseph’s face as he casts his eyes sky-ward. Then there’s the way the infant is extending his little hand towards the donkey, who gently licks the child’s little fingers, paying tribute in his way. Even the ox manages to have a vaguely awe-struck look. Lovely, simple, subtle.



I rather like this one too, but for very different reasons. What tickles my fancy here is actually the love-struck look on the ox’s face as he gazes at what I take to be a femme fatale donkey. His horns are delightfully turned in, while his ears are quite sticky-out. By contrast, the donkey’s ears are really quite elegant and her look a touch blasé.
Meanwhile I like the way Joseph sits looking equally adoringly at Mary with his feet oddly turned out, while the lady herself reclines at ease, looking a bit tired but not too tired to admonish the ox and donkey not to slobber on her cylindrical child. Finally, even though he is swaddled as tight as any slim-line burrito, the infant manages to look alert and interested in the bovine/equine love story above.



Speaking of cylindrical children…I know newborn heads are often misshapen, but has there ever been an infant quite so long and tubular?? And then there’s his nimbus – I’m sorry, but at first glance (especially when looking at a small version of the image), it looks like he has huge sticky-outy ears.
What I like about this image, however, is the sense that the animals are having a good old chin-wag about these extraordinary events here in their very own manger. Joseph too looks like he’s talking a mile a minute, waving about his long, skinny arm (I’d say maybe the child got his cylindricity from dad, but we all know that’s not the case…) Meanwhile Mary goes calmly about the business of figuring out how to feed the baby, who clearly needs to bulk up his birth-weight fast.



Here’s a lovely little image. First, the delicate gold decoration in the background is spectacular, and the whole looks quite graceful in its little red, white and blue frame, complete with oak leaves. The grisaille drapery too is nicely done. But what makes the image for me is the wonderful embrace in which Mary holds her child. She’s clutching him with love, with amazement and perhaps with a foreshadowing of the suffering he will know, as if she wants to protect him from it.
If you link through to the original on the British Museum website and enlarge it, you can really see just how youthful Mary looks, which contrasts quite poignantly with the evident age of Joseph. The latter meanwhile looks a bit startled at the events he has become part of this late in life, but he reaches out as if awkwardly hoping to help.

Royal 19 D.III, f.460


Contrast this image in which Mary looks as though she’s suffering post-partum depression. Joseph is both aged and little, only concerned with warming his hands at the fire. The baby looks like he’s already quite independent , and the donkey and ox look frankly aggrieved that the child is sleeping in their straw. Some odd choices by the artist.
Thinking charitably, perhaps he thought to convey something of how Mary may have felt, as a human woman, as opposed to idealizing her as someone unequivocally blessed and blissful – she has given birth to a child, but his character and fate are already set, including his eventual (human) death. Perhaps it’s not so easy to bond with a child who is so much more than just your little one? Maybe she feels that her life is no longer her own (she wouldn’t be the first mother to have that thought pass through her mind, now, would she?)
Who knows…?



Here is another image I really like. What I love here is the way it seems the mother is clapping her hands to entertain her baby and the baby is wriggling and squealing in delight…exactly the way mothers and babies do (albeit not usually in the first hours of life). Joseph looks a little bored by it all, exactly the way dads often do with little infants, and the animals just look bemused. A nice domestic scene…

Harley. 1892, f. 8v


This one I like mainly because of the exquisite floral border, I have to admit. But I also like Mary’s rich blue robe and her flowing red hair, and the naturalistic animals who are the first to bow down to the child, ahead of both wise men and shepherds, both of which groups are visible in the background. I recommend clicking through to the British Museum website and enlarging this one, both to admire the detail of the border and the whimsical expression on the baby’s face.



I would really love this one if only the expression on Mary’s face conveyed more emotion. Everything about the image is perfect – the rustic stable scene, the first wise man stepping through the door with his precious gift, the shepherds peering in, excited — even the simple blue border and gold frame, echoing Mary’s robe and hair. I love the expressions on the animals’ faces (the most privileged observers of the miracle and they know it – “we were there when it happened!”) and the brilliant rays of the spectacular star above and just out of view.
The baby is one of the most realistic I’ve seen in an illuminated miniature, and the faces of all the ‘bit players’, are beautifully done (again, I recommend clicking through to the enlarged original to see the detail, especially of the shepherds’ faces )…but Mary just looks cold, formal and distant. Her hands in praying posture are stiff, she is totally unengaged with the scene behind her, and there seems to me to be no emotion at all in her features. A shame.

Harley 2900 f.71


I find this one quite entertaining. First, there’s that great double bed plonked in the middle of the stable. Then there are the little tiny angels bickering in the foreground — the one with the blue wings looks quite peeved about something, and green wings seems to be trying to settle him down. The two on the roof look like brothers, and I love the way the one on the right is resting on his forearms, just looking bemused.
At first glance I thought Joseph had his arms folded in a gesture of impatience, but in fact he’s just got his arms crossed across his body, and what I see in his aged face is apprehension of sleepless nights to come (“what was I thinking? A baby, at my age??”) Mary just looks simple and sweet. And the baby’s attention seems focussed on the animals chomping disinterestedly on their hay (“thank goodness they brought that bed in, and got him out of our hay manger…I was starving!”) There’s a nice symmetry to the animals’ positions and expressions, as if they’re united in their determination to take no notice of all these bizarre human and angelic goings-on.

(One last note: isn’t that decorated letter “D” below absolutely gorgeous??)



This is a pretty one that, again, benefits from clicking through to see it in greater detail. What I like about this is simply the beautiful humanity captured in Mary and Joseph as they gaze lovingly and reverently at the child, as well as the active reaching out of the infant for the woman who is, after all, his mama. Even the son of God loves his mama.

Harley 2918  f 56v


This isn’t a particularly high quality miniature, but it amuses me. First, Mary is so much bigger than Joseph, even though he’s slightly in the foreground relative to her. And second, it seems apparent to me that he is admonishing her, with his mutant hands, for setting the baby down so close to the fire. Even the baby looks a little alarmed by his mother’s negligence, and the animals in the background look like they’re about to come to blows as they debate her fitness to care for the son of God and saviour of all mankind. Mary herself looks blissfully unconcerned…not even distracted by the grotesque lizard-man sneaking up on her from the flower garden just outside the frame!



Ok, I just included this one for the border – isn’t it magnificient?? The miniature itself is pleasant, but unremarkable.

Two more, which I like for similar reasons:

British Library -Royal 14 C iii  f 119v


I like this because it feels very domestic. There’s a look of vulnerability in Mary’s tired face, even as her body posture conveys real reverence. And look at Joseph – so tired after the long journey and the night in a stable…but he still sits upright, intending to be a strong support for his new young wife and child. There are no angels, no stars, no wise men – just an older man and his young new wife and the baby they’ve been given, sitting in a stable with the animals who have accepted them without a blink. The only sign that there’s something more to the scene are the subtle golden haloes just suggested around all three human figures.

Sloane 2418  f 45


And this one too feels very intimate and human: again, just the man and woman, this time side by side, looking in amazement at the child they’ve been given. Don’t we all feel that way when we first gaze on our children??

May you and your family, of whomever it consists, know peace, contentment and gratitude this Christmas.


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