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This Week In History

Christmas, the Birth of the New Man. December 25.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.

Paul the Apostle had a view of the birth of Jesus as a major cosmic event which brought a “new man” who  would undo the damage caused by the fall of the first man, Adam. The Pauline perspective puts an emphasis in the birth of a new man and a new world with the birth of Jesus Christ.

The first source stating December 25 as the date of birth of Jesus was Hippolytus of Rome, one of the most important early Christian theologians, assuming that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox, on March 25, and then added nine months. There is historical evidence that by the middle of the 4th century the Christian churches of the East celebrated the birth and Baptism of Jesus on the same day, January 6, while churches in the West celebrated a Nativity feast on December 25 (perhaps influenced by the Winter solstice); and that by the last quarter of the 4th century, the calendars of both churches included both feasts.

The 13th century witnessed a turning point in the development of a new “tender image of Jesus” within Christianity, as the Franciscans began to emphasize the humility and humbleness of Jesus both at his birth and his death. The construction of the Nativity scene by Saint Francis of Assisi was instrumental in representing a softer image of Jesus that emphasized how God had taken a humble path to his own birth. As the Black Death razed Medieval Europe, the Franciscans and Dominicans helped the faithful to cope with tragedies. The Franciscan approach made emphasis on the humility of Jesus and the poverty of his birth: the image of God was the image of Jesus, not a severe and punishing God, but himself humble at birth and sacrificed at death.

In the Middle Ages, the middle and upper classes usually contracted breastfeeding out to “wetnurses“, and the depiction of the Nursing Madonna was linked with the Madonna of Humility, a representation that showed the Virgin in ordinary clothes. The appearance of many such depictions in Tuscany in the early 14th century was something of a visual revolution for the theology of the time. After the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, clerical writers discouraged nudity in religious subjects, and the use of the Madonna Lactans iconography began to fade away.

The depiction of the Madonna lactans is mentioned by Pope Gregory the Great, and a mosaic depiction probably of the 12th century is on the facade of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, though few other examples survive from before the late Middle Ages.

While the 15th and 16th centuries were a time when Italian painters expanded their repertoire to include historical events, portraits and mythology, Christianity was still a mainstream in their careers. Most works of art from this era are sacred. While the range of religious themes included the Old Testament and images of saints whose cults date after the codification of the Bible, the Madonna remained a recurrent subject in the iconography of the Renaissance.

Some of the most eminent 16th-century Italian painters to turn ttheir eyes to the Madonna and reinterpret it were Leonardo da VinciMichelangeloRaphaelGiorgioneGiovanni Bellini and Titian. They developed on the foundations of 15th-century Marian images by Fra AngelicoFra Filippo LippiMantegna and Piero della Francesca among others.

The accent on all of these representations remained in the maternal bond, even though others, especially the Annunciation, and the Immaculate Conception, led to a greater number of paintings that represented Mary alone, without her son. The tenderness an ordinary mother might feel towards her beloved child is captured, evoking the moment when she first held her infant son Christ.

 

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