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December 2002 - Scenes of the Nativity at the Louvre

Travelers to Paris in December wishing to commemorate the spirit of the Christmas season may find inspiration in viewing some of the works depicting the Nativity on permanent exhibition at the Louvre museum.

"L'Adoration des Bergers" (Georges de la Tour, 1644), found on the second floor of the Denon wing in the George de la Tour gallery, is particularly striking for its tight composition and use of a single point of light for illumination. The painting portrays a group of five people gathered around a child, who sleeps peacefully in a straw basket. On the left we see Mary holding her hands in prayer, her face composed in quiet joy. To her left is a shepherd with one of his lambs. The lamb pushes forward, stretching curiously to view the swaddled baby.

Next to the shepherd is another, tipping his hat in a gesture of fraternity. His smile displays his satisfaction of being a witness to and a participant in the event. To his left is a woman bearing a covered pot, which she appears to be presenting as a gift. Finally, to her left sits Joseph holding a candle. His hand shelters our eyes from the brightness of the flame, permitting us to view the scene. The single point of light behind his hand radiates warmly across the painting and illuminates the faces of each personage, inviting us to participate in the joy of the occasion. The light reflects the brightest on the face of the baby, inspiring tranquility.

In another part of the Louvre (first floor of the Denon wing, gallery of 16th century Italian paintings), the "Grande Sainte Famille" (Rafaello Santi, 1518) depicts a smiling, chubby, naked child stepping out of his cradle and into the arms of his mother. The Christ child's affirmative step out of the cradle could be interpreted as a reference to the Resurrection. In the background are three figures, an angel on the left, a girl in the center and Joseph on the right. The angel bears a wreath of flowers, and is seen crowning the girl, who appears unresponsive.

Joseph, too, seems impassive. He is often portrayed at the periphery of Nativity scenes and is rarely assigned a central role. To the left, in the foreground, are Saint Elisabeth, cousin of Mary, and her young child, John the Baptist. The child holds his hands in prayer and looks adoringly at Jesus. Apart from the enigmatic girl (possibly symbolizing Claude of France, crowned queen at the age of 15 in 1517) and the brooding Joseph, the central action of the baby Jesus stepping out of the cradle to embrace his mother conveys exuberant joy.

In addition to the two paintings described above, the Louvre museum holds a vast treasure of art depicting scenes of Christ's birth, rich in symbolism and spanning several centuries.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2002