Is there any event better celebrated in art than the birth of Christ? And it’s only right that the Incarnation should be lavishly depicted with images. As we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that he has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, I can make an image of what I have seen of God . . . and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled. (CCC 1159)
If you haven’t been updating your prayer table each month, this would be a wonderful time to do so. At the very least, you probably have a Nativity set or some religious Christmas cards. Either of these could work very nicely.
I’d like to recommend this piece for catechists.
It’s entitled Adoration of the Child, by Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst, painted c. 1620.
The Web Gallery of Art describes it this way: A joyous sweetness suffuses this Nativity, presented in intimate close-up. As tradition decreed, Joseph is a shadowy figure in the background, the white linen foretells the shroud of the crucified Christ, and the straw beneath the babe presages the Eucharist.
As a teaching piece, start with the characters which even your youngest students are likely to know. A serene Mary and Joseph are on the right and there are two shepherds on the left who are not much older than your students. It would be impossible to not notice their expressions! They’re so joyful and their response to what they’re seeing is reflected in their gestures of piety. (Don’t we also fold our hands in the Presence of Christ as we go up to receive holy Communion?)
The central character, though, is Jesus and the first thing you may have noticed about this painting is the use of light. It’s not shining onto Jesus from some outside source, but He is the source shining up onto the faces of His onlookers. As your students are looking at it, you may want to read a few Bible verses to them:
- What came to be through Him was life, and this life was the light of the human race, and this light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)
- About John the Baptist – A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:6-9)
- When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
- The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear? (Psalm 27:1)
- You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
Saint Paul says that all the followers of Jesus are Children of Light. (I Thessalonians 5:5) Do these verses along with this piece of art help you understand that better?
UPDATE: You can find the printable file here.