23 x 14 1/4 in. (58.4 x 36.2 cm)
Jan Provost, Flemish, (1465–1529)
Object Type: PAINTINGS
Creation Place: Europe
Medium and Support: Oil on panel
Accession Number: 72-P-10
Current Location: Art Museum : 15-16 C Gallery
The familiar scene of the birth of Jesus is the subject of Jan Provost’s Nativity. We see the baby Jesus lying on a bed of straw and gesturing a blessing, his mother Mary and foster father Joseph adoring at his side and stable animals to complete the picture. Not too familiar to us however is the inclusion of other scenes playing out in the background simultaneously in the same panel. In the background on the left we see an angel announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds tending their flock. This is derived directly from the Christmas narrative. On the right we get a glimpse of two stately ladies walking in a path outside the walls of a Renaissance era city, possibly a nod to the birthplace of Provost in the Low Countries of Europe. See also the workers building up the walls of the stable. These scenes and realistic details are consistent with Provost’s early Renaissance Netherlandish emphasis on daily life and simple piety.
Like other early Renaissance painters Provost was learning and experimenting with portraying a third dimension of depth on a two-dimensional canvas. He knew how to make the background figures smaller than the foreground figures, but he had difficulty with architecture. See how the left pillar holding up the stable roof comes into the foreground to intersect with Mary but the right pillar holding up the same roof recedes into the middle ground behind the monk. Was this a mistake or was it his intent to put the monk on the same visual plane with Mary, thus bolstering the influence of the monk?
Who is the monk? Most assuredly he represents the donor commissioning the work. He quite possibly belonged to a Cistercian monastery in the tradition of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the abbot credited with reforming monasticism and building the Cistercian order. Could it be that the two workers building up or repairing the stable walls with their tools represent a tribute to Bernard’s reforming of monasticism and thus fulfills conditions of the commission?
Not to be overlooked is the theological import of the Incarnation. See the image of God the Father lodged and framed in the apex of the panel and pointed to by the gable of the stable’s roof. God the Father emits His word which is iconized in the writing on the scroll blowing in the spirit-wind and becomes flesh in the person of Jesus just born.
Today’s reflection is on the Provost Nativity. I find myself conflicted since there is so much in the story that is rich in theological meaning and ripe for moments of reflection, yet I keep thinking that I know the story so well and, after all these many Christmases, is there really anything new. When I stop though and look at this painting, I am struck by two things. First the stable is not my usual image. I think of a cave or a rough building with a roof and a wall or two to protect the animals. In this painting, the walls are being built, or are they being torn down. The stable here almost seems like a gazebo, open to the world around it. The child is vulnerable, unprotected. From the moment of Christ’s birth, he is accessible to us. There are no firm walls yet that protect him or to keep him from us or keep us from him. That leads me to the second striking image in the painting, the scrolls with words that seem to come out of the mouth of the Christ child and the monk. For me they represent a dialog between the Christ child and the monk. The child is not only vulnerable but wants to be in dialog, in relationship with us.
The Incarnation, God becoming human, is not only a moment of vulnerability on God’s part but it is a visitation, an invitation to us to be in dialog with God. God, in the person of Jesus has become vulnerable, become human. Why? It seems to me that becoming human is God’s way of making it easier for me to enter into a relationship with God. It is overwhelming for me, and more than a little intimidating, to think about being intimate with the creator of the universe, but with a newborn there is potential, there is an invitation into a relationship that can grow. For me then, the question is how this Christmas season will allow me to renew and deepen my dialog with the God who invites me into relationship, not just during the Christmas season but for the entire year. How will I allow myself to be vulnerable, not only to God, but to those individuals that I live, work and journey with? How will I stay in dialogue with God by being in dialogue with my fellow human beings?