Third Sunday of Advent

Rejoice As We Continue Our Advent Journey!

Nativity at Night Geertgen tot Sint Jans National Gallery, London

Nativity at Night
Geertgen tot Sint Jans
National Gallery, London

The painting accompanying the music is my favorite Nativity scene because of the silence and light which imbue this work. It is entitled Nativity at Night by GEERTGEN tot Sint Jan (b. 1460/65, Leiden, d. 1490, Haarlem). This picture is attributed to Geertgen by analogy with works given to him in seventeenth-century sources. It may derive from a lost altarpiece; at this period large-scale compositions were frequently adapted for domestic devotions.

The subject of this magical little panel is vision: first, the mystic vision recounted by a fourteenth-century Saint, Bridget of Sweden, in which she witnessed the painless birth of Christ, the Virgin’s adoration of her son, and the baby’s radiance eclipsing Joseph’s candle; secondly, the ocular vision of dazzled shepherds shielding their eyes as the angel appears, like a shooting star, to announce the birth of the Messiah; thirdly, the marvelling gaze of childlike angels, ox and ass, Mary and St Joseph upon the Light of the World naked in the manger. And, finally, it makes evident a new vision of piety current in the Northern Netherlands, in which humility is the key to holiness, and a new artistic vision.

The divine radiance is not embodied in costly expanses of gold and rare pigments crafted into a precious object. It is made visible to us through Geertgen’s patient modulation of darkness, the winter’s night barely pierced by distant stars, hardly warmed by fire, only faintly lit by the candle Joseph once held (probably lost when the panel was trimmed at some time in the past). Through Geertgen’s mastery of naturalistic description, with only a shorthand notation of thin rays of real gold beaming from the holy infant, this winter’s night as it was before the birth of Christ can now be seen to have truly been, as is written in the Gospel of St John, a night in which ‘if a man walk … he stumbleth, because there is no light in him’ (11:10).

The Vison of Saint Bridgid follows:

“There was also with her a very respectable old man and the two had with them an ox and an ass when they went into the cave; the old man tied the ox and the ass to the manger. When they came out of the cave he brought to the Virgin a burning candle and fixed it in the wall and went out again, in case he should be present then at the birth. After this the Virgin took off her shoes and laid down the mantle that she was dressed in and took off the covering from her head and laid it down, so that she was then only in her kirtle and her very fair and comely hair, shining as bright as gold, spread down and lying on her shoulders.

Then she took out two fair linen cloths and two clean woollen cloths, delicate and finely woven, which she brought with her to lay and wrap the child in that was going to be born; and also two other fine linen cloths for covering and wrapping the head of the child. These cloths she put down beside her so that she could take and use them at the appropriate time.

When these things were done, the glorious Virgin kneeled down with great reverence, disposing herself to prayer, with her back towards the manger and her faced lifted up towards heaven towards the east. Then, holding her hands and eyes up towards heaven, she kneeled as though she was snatched out of her bodily senses into high contemplation, completely filled with godly sweetness. Then as she was at prayer in this way, I saw the child in her womb move and stir himself and suddenly in a moment and in the twinkling of an eye she had borne her child, from whom there came such a great light and such a glorious brightness that the light of the sun could not be compared to it. And the birth happened in such a sudden and discreet way that I could not discern or perceive how or with what part of her body she had borne her child.

Then I saw the glorious and blessed child lying upon the hard earth all naked, very fair, white and clean. The flesh of his most glorious body was then very clean and pure from all dirt and uncleanness. Then with marvellous sweetness and heavenly pleasure I heard also a wonderful melody and joyful singing of angels. Then the Virgin’s belly that was very large before the birth shrank and drew inward again to the state that it was in before she conceived. And then her body had a marvellous and very great beauty and was very pleasant to behold.”

Here is the entire text while only selective verses are sung by the Schola Cantorum of Riga. Employ it as a prayer as well as a hymn.

VENI, redemptor gentium, ostende partum Virginis; miretur omne saeculum: talis decet partus Deum. O COME, Redeemer of the earth, and manifest thy virgin-birth. Let every age in wonder fall: such birth befits the God of all.
Non ex virili semine, sed mystico spiramine Verbum Dei factum est caro fructusque ventris floruit. Begotten of no human will but of the Spirit, Thou art still the Word of God in flesh arrayed, the promised fruit to man displayed.
Alvus tumescit Virginis, claustrum pudoris permanet, vexilla virtutum micant, versatur in templo Deus. The Virgin’s womb that burden gained, its virgin honor still unstained. The banners there of virtue glow; God in his temple dwells below.
Procedat e thalamo suo, pudoris aula regia, geminae gigas substantiae alacris ut currat viam. Proceeding from His chamber free that royal home of purity a giant in twofold substance one, rejoicing now His course to run.
Aequalis aeterno Patri, carnis tropaeo cingere, infirma nostri corporis virtute firmans perpeti. O equal to the Father, Thou! gird on Thy fleshly mantle now; the weakness of our mortal state with deathless might invigorate.
Praesepe iam fulget tuum lumenque nox spirat novum, quod nulla nox interpolet fideque iugi luceat. Thy cradle here shall glitter bright, and darkness breathe a newer light where endless faith shall shine serene and twilight never intervene.
Sit, Christe, rex piissime, tibi Patrique gloria cum Spiritu Paraclito, in sempiterna saecula. Amen. All praise, eternal Son, to Thee, whose advent sets Thy people free, whom, with the Father, we adore, and Holy Ghost, for evermore. Amen.

About Monsignor Mark Richard Lane

I am a Catholic Priest of the Diocese of Richmond. I am also a presenter in the Theology and Symbolism in Art from the art of the catacombs to modern art. My current research is on the duplicity of art in 19th Century America.
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