Visitors to National Gallery can get into the true spirit of Christmas by following a tour of six paintings highlighting the Nativity story from “Hey Joseph, guess what…” to “We’d better run ‘cuz Herod’s on a rampage”.
1: It all starts with The Big News
According to a monk by the name of Father Lippi, a Holy Mother could get pregnant via the specially-tailored hole in her gown, which gives priority access to the belly button, but only for those doves enraptured with the Holy Spirit.
2: Why is Baby Jesus always depicted like a little old man?
Case in point is the second painting in the tour, “The Nativity at Night” by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. Perhaps in an attempt to make the Baby J look worldly, the child instead resembles more Rumplestiltskin than Holy Saviour. And by this point in the story, poor Mary seems to have lost all her hair, while Joseph is relegated to the shadows (before anybody notices him and starts a salacious rumour that he is, in fact, the father of the newborn).
3: Don’t worry, Joe, it’s not yours… I swear it!
Of course the question I’d also be asking round about now is, if I were Joseph, “But if it’s not my baby, then whose is it?”. Champaigne’s painting depicts Gabriel, having ditched his glorious peacock wings for dime-a-dozen white ones, who comes in a dream to remind good ol’ Joe about belly buttons, doves and the Holy Spirit. Joseph can (and probably should) marry Mary as her reputation is still, shall we say, intact and besides, the baby on the way is Super Important.
4: Sometimes, cows could care less
In the National Gallery, there are quite a few “Adoration of the Shepherds” paintings and I would have chosen Roberti’s instead of Reni’s painting for the tour. Unlike other depictions of barnyard animals so enthralled with the halo-headed boy, in this picture, the cow dead centre is facing away from the manger. Maybe she is protesting against the sudden appearance of a squalling human in her food trough instead of hay. Aside from bovine disrespect, there’s all sorts of amusing incongruities here, from the Vulcan-looking shepherd with pointy ears to the “baby” that looks to be about two years old. And possibly stoned, “Duuuude, you can see space from here! While you’re at it, pass the Doritos…”
5: Oh, look, it’s from Uncle We Three Kings! Baby’s first frankincense!
NG’s selected “Adoration of the Kings” by Jan Gossaert is a nice painting and all, but this one by Breugel contains so many great characters: starting with the creepy codger that is always Mary’s baby (whose head doesn’t fit his neckless body), the next thing you notice is that these kings may have more money than fashion sense. Maybe they don’t have common sense either; His Highness Number One in the pink jacket with weirdly elongated sleeves offers Baby J what looks like a bowl of cranberry jelly. His Majesty Number Two in the crimson Vivien Westwood number doesn’t seem to want to give up what’s in his jar. Then there’s His Grace Number Three with his headband, buckskin cloak and pointy red books who looks a combination of Pocahontas meets Peter Pan. His gift is guaranteed to make any cherub chortle – but what would the new Saviour need with a… little wind-up boat?
6: Time to go, Joe! King Herod’s after the baby…
Where to begin with this one… the hoary wizard at Mary’s breast or the peculiar compositional elements (e.g., the tiny fountain under the donkey’s front legs). Speaking of the donkey, it has a human face. What’s that hanging from Joseph’s belt, looks like an apple… which is next to whose hand on Joseph’s rear-end? Back to mini Beau Brummel on Mary’s lap – isn’t he a little old to be breast-feeding?
*shudder* Moving swiftly on…
All kidding aside, the National Gallery’s self-guided tours are a fun way to explore their prodigious collection. And don’t forget to stop by the Gallery’s gift shop, where there a number of books, toys, accessories and other unique items inspired by art.
There are also items not-so-much inspired by art such as National Gallery’s special edition Monopoly board game (where you can race around the board trying to screw the other players as a big-time art dealer). Hipster kids will love it.
More links and information
- National Gallery website
- Follow the Nativity Trail through paintings at National Gallery
- View and Download Nativity Trail tour guide [PDF]
- There are other trails in National Gallery – click here to view/download more, which include “Mistakes and Mysteries“, “Chinese Zodiac“, “Hidden Stories” and many more!
Exhibition details: The National Gallery is located in Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN, is open 7 days a week with late Fridays til 9PM. Free admission for the regular collection.