Who Sees Christ?
Step back…then forward
Nearly 20 years ago Neil McGregor, then director of the National Gallery, wrote a book to accompany the BBC TV Series called ‘Seeing Salvation’. It focused on images of Christ in art over the centuries. The very first chapter looks at Jan Gossaert’s ‘The Adoration of the Kings’. McGregor notes two things almost right away. First, how the familiar is used to attract you, so that the painting can teach you. Secondly, he shows how the artist has put different figures and symbols together to explain who Christ is.
Both the artist and the author of the book assume that we all know the Christmas story: the baby, Mary, Joseph, the angels, shepherds and, of course, the Wise Men or Kings. Then you start to notice the detail and the contradictions. The Kings offer their gifts to the Child in a ruined temple, with Old Testament references to Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac on the pillars. The Kings are in the foreground, but if you look you can see the angels still announcing the message to the shepherds. Joseph is depicted as a decrepit old man. The Child is offering a round gold coin back to the King who offers him the chest of gold.
You step back and realise the significance of all these figures and symbols, placed in such a way that they do not crowd you out but draw you in. This artwork was originally meant as an altar piece. The sacrifice of Abraham foreshadows the sacrifice of Christ. The gold coin symbolises communion offered to the faithful who have come to offer themselves and receive Christ in return.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Even twenty years on from McGregor’s publication, we may not assume that people who view Gossaert’s masterpiece will know the Christmas story, let alone clock the various biblical references. Notions of sacrifice and self-offering are also open to interpretation.
It is a maxim that you must start from where a person is. Hopefully, by journeying with them, sometimes ahead and sometimes behind, you will be able to understand their point of view, and, maybe, they will see where you are coming from.
Over these weeks, from Education week into Advent and Christmas, I present the Magi, along with the other Advent and Christmas characters, as those who promote gospel values. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the Magi, the Wise Men, the Three Kings. Their journey will form the background to my reflections.
Yes, I am anticipating the Feast of the Epiphany, the last traditional day of Christmas (though you could argue for the 2nd February). I am asking you to imagine that, to reach Bethlehem for the birth of Christ, the Wise Men had to set out about now. Yes, I shall ask the questions about symbol, historical fact, and story. I shall make only one assumption: that you are someone, believer or not, who resonates with the values that the gospels promote.