Faith through Art: The Nativity of Christ according to St. Birgitta
By Norman Farmer
In Jerusalem on Christmas Night while (then) Lady Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373) was at prayer in the Church of the Nativity, the Holy Mother of God came to her in a vision to reveal “the whole manner of her childbearing and how she gave birth to her glorious Son.” Her purpose, Mary added, was to affirm the truth, “that however much human beings, following their human perception, try to assert that my Son was born in the common manner, it is nevertheless more true and beyond any doubt, that he was born ... just as you now have seen.”
In 1503, Trolio Baglioni, the Prior of the Church of St. Mary Major in Spello, Italy, commissioned Bernardino Betto (1454-1513), better known as Pintoricchio, to paint the Nativity of Our Lord according to St. Birgitta’s revelation in a new chapel dedicated to his family. And today, when the very thought of Christmas evokes widespread secularist hostility and indifference alike, St. Birgitta’s vision and Pintoriccio’s representation of it inspire a renewed understanding of the Lord’s Nativity as the single most consequential prayer-event that the world has ever known.
“When I was at the manger of the Lord in Bethlehem,” St. Birgitta writes, “I saw a Virgin, pregnant and most very beautiful, clothed in a white mantle and a finely woven tunic through which from without I could clearly discern her virginal flesh. Her womb was full and much swollen, for she was now ready to give birth. With her there was a very dignified old man; and with them they had both an ox and an ass ...
“And so the Virgin then took the shoes from her feet, put off her white mantle that covered her, removed the veil from her head, and laid these things beside her, remaining in only her tunic, with her most beautiful hair –– as if of gold –– spread out upon her shoulder blades ...
“When all these things had thus been prepared, then the Virgin knelt with great reverence, putting herself at prayer; and she kept her back toward the manger and her face lifted to heaven toward the east. And so with raised hands and with her eyes intent on heaven, she was as if suspended in an ecstasy of contemplation, inebriated with divine sweetness. And while she was thus in prayer, I saw the one lying in her womb then move; and then and there, in a moment and the twinkling of an eye, she gave birth to a Son ....
“And so sudden and momentary was that manner of giving birth that I was unable to notice or discern in what member she was giving birth. But yet, at once, I saw that glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing in the greatest of neatness. His flesh was most clean of all filth and uncleanness. I saw also the afterbirth lying wrapped very neatly beside him. And then I heard the wonderfully sweet and most dulcet songs of the angels. And the Virgin’s womb, which before the birth have been very swollen, at once retracted; and her body looked wonderfully beautiful and delicate ...”
“When therefore the virgin felt that she had now given birth, at once, having bowed her head and joined her hands, with great dignity and reverence she adored the boy and said to him: ‘Welcome, my God, my Lord, and my Son’. Then ...she arose, holding the boy in her arms, [while] she and Joseph put him in the manger, and on bended knee they continued to adore him with gladness and immense joy.”
The painting welcomes us to the dawn of a day unlike any other since that first day when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3). Now His “only Son” (Jn 3:16) has brought a new light into the world “the light of the human race ... that shines in the darkness (Jn 1:1-5) through an event that speaks visibly with boundless grace unclouded by human perceptions. Above the distant horizon and framed by a soaring cypress tree on the plain and sinister crags in the mountains where armed men prowl, “the angel of the Lord” races across the dawn sky to proclaim the good news to shepherds “keeping the night watch over their flocks” (Lk 2:8-9).
The vast landscape that unfolds before us is inspired by the traditional Psalm for the Mass on Christmas Night: “Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; let the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all that is in them. Then let all the trees of the forest rejoice before the Lord who comes, who comes to govern the earth, to govern the world with justice and the peoples with faithfulness” (Ps 96:11-13). So quickly does he come that St. Birgitta cannot discern the manner or member of his delivery. He simply is there, naked and alone upon the cold hard ground and miraculously clean despite the evidence nearby of an actual human birth. The passage from the Book of Wisdom in the Christmas liturgy offers this way to ponder the mystery: “For when peaceful stillness compassed everything and the night in its swift course was half spent, Your all-powerful word from heaven’s royal throne bounded, a fierce warrior, into the doomed land, bearing the sharp sword of your inexorable decree” (Wis 18:14-16).
A step or two apart, his Holy Mother kneels in the continuation of her prayer, “suspended in an ecstasy of contemplation” and “inebriated with divine sweetness.” Already, it seems, “the Son of Man truly has nowhere to rest his head” (Lk 9:58). And yet, lifting his eyes and raising his hands to his Father in Heaven, he acknowledges the reason for his coming: “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (Jn 6:38). By thus situating the Nativity in front of a dilapidated temple, now a lowly hay-barn, the artist invites us to contemplate the purpose of the Messiah’s coming, which is to replace the worn-out religion of temple-worship (Mk 11:1-13:37) with the New Temple, “the temple of his body” (Jn 1:14; 2:21-22), and to bring God’s saving grace to all men, Jews and Gentiles alike.
A resplendent angel –– God’s messenger and (in appearance) Mary’s twin –– kneels between the child and his Mother (see Image 1 at left). The likeness is so deliberate and precise that once seen it cannot be forgotten or ignored. Malichi’s prophecy in the liturgy of Dec. 23 is our key to this startling image of twinship: “Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me. And suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord who you seek, and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire. Yes, he is coming, says the Lord of Hosts” (Mal 3:1; Lk 1:17). Since Mary is the temple into which “the Word” comes (Jn 1:14), the messenger who prepares the way for the Word-becoming-flesh is represented by the artist as an angel in the appearance of Mary.
A second angel-messenger now directs our contemplative thoughts to the relation between the Nativity and the Eucharist, “the mystery of faith,” by holding up a gossamer-thin cloth emblazoned with a golden cross and crown of thorns. Spread upon the earth beneath the newborn child much as an altarcloth covers the table beneath the Eucharist, this cloth turns our thoughts the grain of wheat in Jesus’ parable that “falls to the ground and dies” so that it may produce “much fruit” (Jn 12:24). In this incomparable mix of reciprocating images we are led to ponder the mystery that this child, “naked and glowing in the greatest of neatness” and lying on the bare ground is the once and forever embodiment of “the mystery of faith.” “I am the bread of life,” Jesus told the crowd (Jn 6:35). “Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” That is the central truth of the Nativity. And it is the startling point made by the most inconspicuous detail in the entire painting: the bundle in the right foreground of the painting.
At first glance, it seems that the painter filled some left-over space with a modest still-life: a bundle of clothing with a rustic wine jug leaning against it and all but hidden among the folds a loaf of unbroken bread (see Image 2 at left). A second glance shows this to be the veil and mantle that Mary laid aside before giving birth. And within their folds, “wrapped very neatly,” are the conclusive proof that Mary so wanted St. Birgitta to see: that though her son was not born in the common manner, he was nonetheless a natural child of the flesh. At Emmaus and ever thereafter, he would make himself known “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk24:35), the bread that truly is the body that once lay upon the earth after he “bounded” into the world of men at his birth. This is the mystery of faith: the living proof that the Lord’s Nativity was, is, and remains the single most consequential prayer-event that the world has ever known.
Finally, there is the startling figure of the fourth shepherd –– obviously a stranger and who, by his archaic clothing seems to have just arrived from a distant world and a time long-past (see Image 3 below). His gift for the Lamb of God is nothing less than the “ram caught by its horns in the thicket” (Gn 22:1-19) that his father Abraham sacrificed in lieu of his own son –– a final mystery to contemplate among the images of a painting we will now be unlikely to forget.
Today, when Christmas so widely met with doubt, scorn, and hostility, Pintoricchio’s depiction of the Nativity according to the Holy Mother’s revelation of that event to St. Birgitta inspires us to pray to Our Father, that through the intercessions of St. Mary and St. Birgitta this Christmas may be held in universal reverence as a season of prayer, renewal, epiphany and peace.
Suggested further readings: St. Birgitta entry in “Catholic Encyclopedia” at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen and “Birgitta of Sweden: Life and Selected Works” by Paulist Press (1990).