December 19, 2014

Nativity 2

        I have two more images of the birth of Jesus today, from the broad mid-range of the chronology between the Renaissance and the twentieth century.  In general I tend not to be as excited about this middle period of printmaking.  It’s a little too detailed, a little too focussed on reproducing drawing rather than retaining a look of carving.  It’s also the period when copper engraving, etching and other intaglio printmaking techniques took over the spotlight, and an etching is, of course, really just a drawing.  In etching the artist sketches on the treated plate, and after the acid does the work of carving, it’s printed so that the drawing is reproduced in ink.  It’s really not my thing, but this is Rembrandt, and it’s a lovely scene, so I found it in my heart to include it.  Like a lot of Rembrandt’s work, much of the beauty is in the homeliness of the characters.  They’re in their own contemporary, everyday dress and they look just as the neighbors might look, coming to admire any new baby.  I like that Mary looks plausible as a woman who just had a baby, rather than those stiff, thin, cold medieval Marys who can’t possibly have ever been pregnant, let alone just been through labor.  The whole scene is suffused in warmth, and the sort of holiness that shines in its own small corner of the night rather than glaring out in a blaze of publicity.
        And skipping two hundred years to Gustave Doré again, this second nativity scene shows why wood block printing is so good for depicting light.  After all, when you draw with a pen or pencil (or etching needle), you’re drawing darkness on your light paper, but when you carve a wood block, you’re drawing the light into the black.  Doré’s scene may be the typical sentimental Victorian version of the nativity, and I think the one kneeling shepherd has a face more like a mask of tragedy than an adoring man, but I do very much appreciate that Doré’s shepherds are both men and women.  Have you ever noticed that in most versions Mary seems to be the only woman in the entire land of Galilee?  Of course women, too, came to admire the wondrous infant, and as the old joke goes, they probably brought more useful gifts than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

[Pictures: Adoration of the Shepherds, with Lamp, etching by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1654 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
The Nativity, wood engraving by Gustave Doré, 1866, from The Doré Bible Gallery, 1891 (Image from Project Gutenberg).]

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