Creative thinkers have heightened my appreciation of our cribs this year, finishing on Friday with finding this carving outside St Martin-in-the-Fields.
I hadn’t appreciated the role the fourteenth century St Bridget of Sweden had played. It appears that either a direct portrayal of her vision of the nativity, or an unconscious echo of it, is evidenced every time a painting has a brighter light radiating from the crib than the one from the candles pictured. She may also be the one responsible for other details such as Mary’s hair being long and golden.
She also mentions the ox and ass, which had in fact been long included in the scene via legend which, I was reminded elsewhere, developed not so much the hint about the manger in the Gospel account but rather made a theological statement based on to Isaiah 1.3 - the ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.
And, most intriguing of all, Neil McGregor observed that subsequent painting came to be more likely to include the magi as three kings than to include the shepherds. His suggestion was that the commissioning and financing patrons were simply more likely to want to include sumptuously dressed and even crowned figures like themselves.
Which inevitably reminded me that a heavily pregnant young women being shuffled round the country to meet the administrative convenience of occupying forces and quickly then driven out in fear of the child’s life evokes a picture for us more like a Syrian refugee camp than anything else, notwithstanding the status of the displaced family having relatives among the staff of the temple in the capital.
And which did make me notice for myself that the mistake of imagining instead that the place to look would be in the company of kings is actually one that goes back to the very beginning, with the magi as not-so-wise-men-after-all having the next best thing to a neon light pointing them to the right place but instead pitching up at Herod’s Palace as if it was the obvious place at which to inquire instead.