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Ricardo Fernández Gracia, director of the Chair of Heritage and Art of Navarre.

How to read Christmas scenes: examples in Navarre

Fri, 16 Dec 2016 16:00:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

The correct reading of the figurative arts of past eras requires knowledge of religious and iconographic culture, as well as texts that help in their interpretation and contextualization. The contemplation of a cultural good increases if we are capable of correctly assimilating its message. The strength and efficacy of the images take on their true dimension if we can decipher what lies beneath the forms. With time and without haste, among the more or less evident, there are always elements that lead us, as keys, to discover and savor paintings, reliefs and engravings.

The reading of images and heritage in core topic cultural leads us to interpret and reflect, and thus to understand, taste and enjoy the more or less hidden contents of the works. Moreover, beyond the mere identification of themes, there is another reading that goes beyond, proposing values, propaganda, catechesis and even true games of wit and wit.


The setting of the cave: the ruins

The setting of the portal became very important from the end of the Age average, when the Nativity scene became independent from advertisement to the shepherds. If classical ruins were placed in the cave, it was to signify that with the coming of Christ the Old Testament had been surpassed, and even to reflect the legend of the collapse of the Temple of Peace. If they insisted on the placement of rocks and boulders, it was to recall that the birth of the Savior had taken place among beasts, in a cave, outside the inhabited place, after the Holy Family had been rejected by the people. All this gave rise to reflection on how Jesus could be expelled from the hearts of men.

Architectural ruins are abundant, especially in the painted panels of the 16th century and in the polychrome reliefs of the same century. Among the most outstanding examples are the panels of the Epiphany and the Adoration of the Shepherds of the main altarpiece of Huarte-Pamplona (Juan de Bustamante, 1535) where they appear very ostensibly and are even seen in the foreground, with pieces of entablatures and fragments of shafts with their capitals. In the same themes of the main altarpiece of Santa María de Olite, work of Pedro de Aponte (1528), the ruins are also very noticeable. Generally, they are compositional schemes derived from the creations of the great engravers, such as Albrecht Dürer or Nicoletto of Modena.

Finally, it should be noted that candles and lanterns were placed next to portal, and the floor was strewn with crushed glass and shells to reflect the light, as they were sets designed to be admired at night, in order to approach with the senses and the spirit to contemplate the "light of the world".


St. Joseph and Our Lady with the animals

The figures of Joseph and Mary are often dressed in precise and symbolic colors. She wore red or pink in her tunic, to indicate the color of the flesh for the Incarnation, and blue in the mantle that identified her as queen of heaven. In general, the tunic was white, to show her purity. Joseph, on the other hand, combined the purple of suffering and sacrifice with brown, the color with which carpenters were identified. Sometimes, he wears a yellow mantle, because of his belonging to the Jewish people. On many occasions, following the visions of Saint Bridget, both are represented before the Child "kneeling down, they adored him with immense joy and gladness".

Usually a young Mary contrasts with an elderly St. Joseph. In medieval art the Virgin appears in bed assisted by the midwives of the apocryphal texts, while St. Joseph, very old, dozes. Thus both appear in the Bible of Sancho el Fuerte and in different late medieval examples, such as in the miniature of the Cathedral Breviary of 1332, the core topic of the cloister of Pamplona and the capitals of the portals of San Cernin de Pamplona, Santa María de Olite and Ujué. In the latter case the figure of the Child is duplicated, in the hands of the midwife and on a manger that takes the form of a tomb. In the bed with the midwife and an old Joseph is also found in the 14th century Italo-Gothic mural paintings of the chapel of the Virgin of the Campanal in Olite and of San Salvador de Galipienzo. The midwife is identified with Salome of the apocryphal Pseudo-Matthew, who doubted the virgin birth and saw her hands dry and burned until, recognizing the divinity of the newborn, she touched the holy swaddling clothes and her hands regained vigor and freshness. Another pictorial example A is the panel of the Nativity of the altarpiece of the chapel of the Villaespesa of the cathedral of Tudela, work of 1412 of the Zaragozan painter Bonanat Zaortiga, where it is sample to the Virgin accompanied by the apocryphal midwife, while an old Joseph warms the swaddling clothes, contributing to the scene great emotion and intimacy.

The figure of the adoptive father of Jesus would not leave the secondary role of medieval iconography until well into the sixteenth century, when he gained prominence as an active member of the Holy Family, in times of the Counter-Reformation and thanks, in large part, to St. Teresa, in her written works and in her foundations dedicated to him.

Regarding the animals, the mule is identified with the Jewish people, hence it appears in some cases kneeling before the mystery, giving way to the New Law, while the ox is assimilated with the pagan world and gentility.


Variants of the Nativity Scene and the Child on Mary's lap

The figure of the Child God is represented in different ways. In one of the keystones of the primitive construction stage of the cloister of the cathedral of Pamplona (1280-1318), in the eastern bay, we find the Virgin lying on the bed, St. Joseph at her feet, the midwife with the Child in her arms and the animals exhaling their breath over another Child who appears in a manger in the form of an altar that speaks of the future redemption.

In Renaissance art, a symbolic sun can appear in the crib and, more frequently, an ashlar that replaces it. Among the suns, the Renaissance tables of Villanueva de Yerri and the old altarpiece of Burlada -Museum of Navarre-, work of Juan del Bosque (1540-1546) stand out. The sun rays allude to glory, divinity, truth, goodness, virtues and grace.

Ashlars are found in the aforementioned altarpiece of Huarte-Pamplona and in that of Cizur Mayor, both works by Juan de Bustamante, as well as in the Mannerist panel of the cathedral of Pamplona. In all these cases, the ashlar should be associated with the cornerstone of Isaiah's prophecy (28:16), and it is also assimilated to Christ in The Acts of the Apostles (4:10-11) and in St. Paul (Epistle to the faithful of Ephesus, 2:20-21). Moreover, it can be related to the way in which sacrifices are placed on the altar, thus acquiring a sacramental character.

The naturalistic painting of the early Baroque recovered the crib itself made with rustic materials and straws. In eighteenth-century works such as a relief of the Zurucuain altarpiece, it appears, very exceptionally, as a cradle of moved design.

The Virgin, generally kneeling since the end of the 15th century, is sometimes represented unveiling the figure of the Child. Thus we find her in a Renaissance panel of the aforementioned Pamplona church and in numerous baroque paintings, such as a tenebrist one of the Rosary of Corella. The Child as a symbolic focus of light and source of clarity that radiates in the darkness like a firefly, appears in pictorial compositions since the end of the Gothic period, although it became widespread in the seventeenth century, in tune with the prevailing tenebrism. Among those Niños ráfaga de luz we will mention the one of the Nativity of the main altarpiece of Fitero, work of Rolan Mois (1590), of clear pretenebrista atmosphere, as well as the numerous baroque canvases with the topic of the Adoration of the shepherds or the Epiphany. In all these cases it is necessary to read these representations together with the sacred texts of St. John: "God is the light", (1,1.5), "He was the true light", (1,1.4) and "I am the light of the world" (8, 12).

In the Epiphanies, the figure of the Child, instead of appearing in the manger or bundled to receive the adoration of the rustics and shepherds, is placed in the lap of his mother -SedesSapientiae-, to receive the great ones of the earth -signified in the Magi- as an authentic King of Kings. In the same scene the star will not be absent, represented in different ways, according to L. Reáu.


Angels in different attitudes

The winged figures of these celestial beings give the iconographies of the Nativity their most ultraterrestrial dimension. In some cases they were worshippers or offerers, in others they sang and played with musical instruments and in others they carried instruments of the Passion. In this regard, we must not forget the union of everything related to the infancy of Christ and the Passion, because everything was part of the same story. In one of the Renaissance reliefs of the main altarpiece of Lumbier, made in 1563, we find the topic of the Adoration of the shepherds, where the Child picks up the naked cross that an angel brings to portal , in a premonitory sign of the passion.

The angels forming a choir can be found, among other examples, in the Nativity of the Caparroso altarpiece of the cathedral of Pamplona (1507), in the main altarpiece of Cortes, work of Juan de Lumbier at the beginning of the 17th century and in the nativities of Berdusán in the second half of that century.

In some cases, in the same portal the archangels Michael and Gabriel were given quotation , as in the nativity scene of Salzillo or in the one of the Recoletas of Pamplona. The reason is no other than the account of the birth that makes the Mother María Jesús de Ágreda in her Mystical City of God, where she affirms: "The Sacred Evangelist San Lucas says that the Virgin Mother, having given birth to her Firstborn Son, wrapped him in cloths and reclined him in a manger. And he does not state who bore Him at her hands from her Virginal Womb, for this does not pertain to his intent. But ministers of this action were the two Sovereign Princes St. Michael and St. Gabriel, who, as they attended in corporeal human form the mystery, at the point that the human Word, penetrating with his virtue through the Virginal Thalamus, came forth, in due distance, received him in their hands, with incomparable reverence".

As for the angel musicians in the Nativity scene, nothing better than to read a paragraph from the book Paradise of the Glory of the Saints, edited in 1607 by Fray Diego de la Vega, where he states: "In the Nativity God wanted to enter the world as Supreme King and came down with his Royal Chapel, and also so that men would understand that he came, not of war, but of peace, not to punish, but to forgive, not to use justice, but mercy. Finally, to make it clear that he came conquered by love, he comes to earth singing ..... Music and to the average night and in the greatest rigor of winter, when the world was all snowed. The music of angels in this corner of the world, where one hears nothing but cries and sad voices. What can it be but love, let them kill me if someone in love is not here, I'll bet it's God, who, fond of our nature, has come to the world in that disguise. Your loves, my God, are the masters of this music, which, fond of my soul, you go about laying it down. It is love, Lord, who brings you from heaven to the ground, love who has made you make such disguises, love who has brought you to the hospital and to so much poverty, that you are born today in a stable, that you are wrapped in poor blankets, that you are laid in a manger, that you are among beasts".


Symbolic offerings of shepherds and kings

In the adorations of the shepherds there is no lack of surprised and admired rustics before the mystery that, as in other representations of the Nativity in Spain, acquire a high prominence. Julián Gallego interprets it as a reflection of the innate nobility of the peasants and shepherds, to which we must add the role of the religious orders that saw in them reflected their ideal of poverty. Shepherds and shepherds, accompanied by dogs, bring to portal products of the earth, especially lambs and eggs. The dogs speak of fidelity, the lambs of the sacrifice of Christ -AgnusDei- and the eggs of the baroque canvases of the Pamplona sacristy, Lerín and San Juan de Estella, refer to fertility. The staffs carried by other rustics speak of the future shepherd of souls. Between the fingers of the shepherds, also usually appears as a symbolic gift a caramillo that reminds that his disciples would follow him, as a new Orpheus.

We rarely find shepherd musicians with popular instruments in Navarre, although they do exist. The bagpipes with their large wineskin or bellows are carried by the shepherds in the Nativity reliefs of the second half of the 17th century in the main altarpieces of Los Arcos, Viana, Aberin. To the 18th century belong the examples of the altarpieces of Espronceda and Azagra and the rococo masonry of Ujué. The bagpipe is already found in the advertisement to the shepherds of the Gothic paintings of the chapel of the Virgin of the Campanal of Olite (Museum of Navarre). In the case of Milagro (1680) a shepherd carries, more exceptionally, a tambourine and in Irurita (1770) other rustics are accompanied by tambourine and recorder or shawm.

Wizards, usually on horseback, dress like western monarchs with ermine, rich cloaks, crowns and scepters. They once symbolized the three known continents, but are also often associated with the three ages of man. Their main significance is that which reveals them to us as the great manifestation, the Epiphany. Their gifts are associated with the Child King (gold), God (frankincense) and prophet (myrrh). This is the most generalized interpretation, although there are others, such as that of St. Bernard, who points out that the gold was destined to help the poverty of the Virgin, the incense to eliminate the bad smell of the stable, and the myrrh to deworm the Child, ridding him of insects and worms.

Rich goldsmith objects are used to contain the gold, incense and myrrh. Cups, censers, chests of rich materials, silver, gold, crystals and pearls appear in the Epiphanies. Among the best, undoubtedly, those that present the tables of the topic of the main altarpieces of La Oliva -currently in San Pedro de Tafalla, and of the monastery of Fitero, both works of the Flemish painter Rolan Mois from the end of the 16th century.