An Engraved Nativity

"Nativity," by Albrecht Durer (1504), Art Institute of Chicago
"Nativity," by Albrecht Durer (1504), Art Institute of Chicago

If we want models for Christian art that speaks truly and deeply, giving no concession to sentimentality, I nominate Dürer.

He not only gives us a stable, but a total wreck. I love the timbers balanced precariously above the courtyard, and the window swinging on its hinges in the room above baby Jesus. How many pigeons live in there? The plaster crumbling off the exterior and the trees growing out of the ruins in the background are also marvelous atmospheric touches.

But the thing that grabs me in this engraving is the fact that I have to hunt for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The figure in plain view is that of an old man preoccupied with pouring water into a too-narrow jar. In the stress of his task, he seems unaware that God is just up those neglected steps.

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2 thoughts on “An Engraved Nativity

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  1. I’m a total art amateur, but the thing that I notice is that this looks more like 15th century Germany than 1st century Palestine. Certainly the artist must have been aware of this. What did he mean?

  2. That’s a great point. I think he was making the scene more contemporaneous for his audience, transferring the lowliness of the first navity to his own time. As another amateur, I think this is one way art can speak powerfully about truth.

    But I have to add that I find an element of fantasy in these portrayals. From my perspective as a preacher, that subjective quality has to be submissive to what the Bible portrays. Period accuracy isn’t one of the things I would require, though.

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