By John Skillen
During the season of Advent, I keep handy a photograph of my favorite painting of the Nativity from the Renaissance: the altarpiece in the family chapel of Francesco Sassetti in the church of Santa Trinità in Florence, featuring the Adoration of Baby Jesus by three tender-faced shepherds. The infant lies on the bare ground before an empty Roman sarcophagus put to use as the manger—a foreshadowing both of Jesus’s death and of his rising from the tomb. The altarpiece is the work of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1480s), who also frescoed the walls of the chapel with scenes from the life of Saint Francis.
Portraits of Sassetti and his wife are frescoed on the wall on either side of the panel. They gaze into the painting, kneeling in adoration of the Christ child, participating in the very action of the shepherds. The posture and gesture of Nera Corsi, with her folded hands, imitates that of Mary. Such placing oneself inside the biblical scene was a common mode of meditating on the stories from Scripture.
If the shepherds are inspirational models for the patrons, the patrons themselves serve as models for those who enter the chapel. They, too, are enjoined to join the patrons and the shepherds in beholding the mystery of this birth. Worshippers would likely have felt the resonance with one of the most beloved episodes from Saint Francis’s life; namely, his invention of the Living Nativity when he invited the townsfolk of Greccio to recreate the night of our dear savior’s birth. Saint Bonaventure describes the scene in his Life of Francis:
He had a crib prepared, hay carried in and an ox and an ass led to the place. … The people come, the forest resounds with their voices. … [Francis] stands before the crib, filled with affection, bathed in tears and overflowing with joy. A solemn Mass is celebrated over the crib, with Francis as deacon chanting the holy Gospel. Then he preaches to the people standing about concerning the birth of the poor King.
One of the most moving Nativities that I have witnessed occurred in another medium: theater. Karin Coonrod, whose work is everywhere marked by painterly composition, directed several versions of the medieval mystery play cycles in the streets and piazzas and churches of Orvieto, Italy. Her own multi-cultural cast collaborated with local actors and musicians. The Jamaican actor Patrice Johnson played both Eve and Mary. The Nativity was presented in front of the church of Sant’Andrea, where Mary moved in a slow dance around the piazza cradling her baby in arms. But the baby was Light. Much of this play (taken from the Second Shepherds Play in the cycle developed in Wakefield, England) is slap-stick comedy. But the breath-takingly beautiful scene of the Light of the World embraced by his dancing Mother brought the audience to hushed stillness.
Patrice described her own experience in her journal about the project:
When I first got to Orvieto, it was obvious there were not many black people there. Though people were polite, I would inevitably catch the stare of children who would either want to touch me or were actually frightened… But the magic of theatre that always breaks down barriers happened for us that night. The people gave us their hearts and took in the cast, including the black actors, as we traveled through the streets and led them through Hell and back into the open piazza. After the play, the people of Orvieto “who were until this night very polite and removed, started hugging and kissing me effusively on my face and forehead, at times lifting me off my feet. I was no longer someone or some stranger to fear. I was known to them and by all of them, intimately and in an instant. (Cited in an essay about the project by Karin Coonrod, linked here.)
This Living Nativity in the piazza opened into wonder and warmth like that of Saint Francis in the woods outside Greccio.
However—as those members of CIVA who follow the Church, or Liturgical, Year may be thinking—Advent is the penitential season of preparation for Christ’s Second Coming in power and glory. The Scriptures concerning this Second Advent unfold around us in another masterwork of Renaissance art, the frescoes of the San Brizio Chapel in the cathedral of Orvieto, begun by Fra Angelico in the 1440’s and completed by Luca Signorelli fifty years later.
The focal point is Christ the King returning to judge the world. The scenes on the walls in the entry half of the chapel depict the very readings from the Gospels for the First Sunday of Advent (Matthew chapter 24 this year, and Mark 13 and Luke 21 in other years). The exhortation of the decoration of the whole chapel is to Get Ready, to “keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”
One enters the chapel under the signs of the End Times, the darkened sun and moon, earthquake and tidal waves, fleeing people, nursing mothers. On one of the large arched walls is depicted the deceptive preaching of the false Messiah that Jesus warns us about: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many…You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death…At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other” (Matthew 24:4-11).
The Antichrist preaches from a podium to a confused group of people, with a demon whispering in his ear. Viewers always note, at second glance, that both the demon and the false Christ seem to share one arm, giving the Antichrist the appearance of a puppet in the hands of the Evil One.
Arranged around an empty space at the center of the painting—a sort of whirling vortex around nothing—are scenes of a figure in the crowd offering bribes, a false miracle by the fake Messiah, torture and execution of the faithful. In fact, these scenes are keyed exactly to the commentary for the First Sunday of Advent found in the epoch’s most widely-dispersed compendium for the Church Year, the so-called Golden Legend. The entry for the First Advent includes this section:
Also to precede the Last Judgment will be the false pretensions of the Antichrist. He will try to deceive all men in four ways, first by cunning argument or false explanation of the Scriptures. His aim will be to persuade people, and to destroy the law of Christ and establish his own. … He will also try to deceive by working miracles: “Whose coming is according to the working of Satan, in all words and signs and lying wonders” (2 Thessalonians). … A third means of deception will be his conferring of gifts. … His fourth method will be the infliction of torments …
By what criteria will the returning King separate the sheep from the goats? In His discourse on the End Times (Matthew 25:31-46) Jesus underlines our care for those in need: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, inviting in the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison. Added to these to make the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy are caring for the sick and burying the dead.
These works of mercy are the subject of the most recent artwork created for the Orvieto Duomo: the bronze-cast reliefs on the great central doors. Sculptor Emilio Greco received the commission in the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s.
I have been present at Mass when a beloved bishop of Orvieto described the panels as marking the great portal not so much as the Entrance into the Duomo but as our Exit. Gesturing first to Greco’s great doors and then to the San Brizio Chapel, the Bishop exhorted the congregation that to receive in good faith the body of Christ in the sacrament should drive us out into the world as the body of Christ now to serve those in need.
Karin Coonrod now takes her plays into prisons. A painter friend in Orvieto has been permitted to engage the inmates in painting bright murals on the walls of the local prison. My artist friend Gay Cox, a permanent deacon in the Episcopal Church, was invited to install her series of Women of the Bible in the Women’s Crisis Center in a nearby city.
How about the rest of us? Perhaps a mural of sacred meals in the Bible that frames the hall where your church serves hot meals to the hungry (commissioned with proper compensation to artists in the church community). Surely the arts are not demeaned when they become vessels for the work we are called to do during this time between the times of our Lord’s Appearing.
John Skillen (Ph.D. Duke, medieval and Renaissance studies) is the author of Putting Art (back) in its Place (Hendrickson Publishers, 2016), founding director of Gordon College’s semester program in Orvieto (Italy), and now director of the Orvieto-based Studio for Art, Faith & History.