“Adoration of the Christ Child”
Gerritt van Honthorst, c. 1619-21, Baroque, Dutch Golden Age
Christmas. How does one select ONE single piece of art to represent Christmas? With countless paintings of the nativity scene—the birth of Jesus Christ as Savior of the world–which one should I choose?
There are also paintings highlighting the Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Visit of The Magi/Wise Men to add to the collection of choices.
As I explored art representing the event, I was quickly reminded that the era in which the artist created the work also makes a difference in the final product. Early Medieval and Byzantine art is flat and two-dimensional; it looks unreal. Northern Renaissance artists Bosch and Bruegel provided an almost bazaar twist the the scenes; also unreal. Flemish art, as seen in the Merode Altarpiece, show a Holy Family that is well-dressed, with the birth taking place in a setting that is representative of a wealthy dwelling; not real. It does not represent a poor, tired couple who were refused lodging and gave birth to their baby in a cave used for housing farm animals. But that doesn’t give us the ambiance we desire.
In the end, I selected an oil painting by one of my favorite artists, Gerritt/Gerald van Honthorst. It is simple and portrays the holy family as they were: an elderly Joseph and a young Mary. There are only angels present–looking like humble earthlings without their fancy wings!. The focus is on the Christ-child, the light source of the painting, wrapped in humble clothes, laying in a feeding trough of straw.
Honthorst, Dutch Golden Age painter
Honthorst was a Dutch painter during the Dutch Golden Age (1581-1672) with contemporaries such as Vermeer and Rembrandt. He was heavily influenced by the Italian master, Caravaggio. Like Caravaggio, Honthorst constructed psychologically intense paintings through strong contrasts of dark shadow and bright light, close-ups of working-class figures on a large scale, and expressive hand gestures. While working in Italy, Honthorst earned the nickname “Gerald of the Night” for these dramatically lit night scenes, some illuminated by a single candle.
I discovered and fell in love with paintings by Honthorst because of one such painting illuminated by a single candle at the Mia (artsmia.org) Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, Minnesota. “The Denial of St. Peter” is lit by a single candle and is the most dramatic painting of this event I’ve ever seen.
Once I became familiar with Honthorst’s style, his work is easy to spot in other museums. This awareness provided me with one of my most exciting discoveries while visiting Florence, Italy.
Honthorst Surprise in Florence!
The Uffizi (uffizi.it) Gallery is a prominent art museum located in the historic center of Florence, Italy, adjacent to the Piazza della Signoria. It is one of the most important and most visited Italian museums, as one of the largest and best known in the world. It holds a collection of priceless works, particularly from the period of the Italian Renaissance–and five paintings by Honthorst.
On my most recent visit to Florence, using my Firenze City Pass, (visitflorence.com) I had the privilege to get entry into the museum immediately after it opened, and have the morning to wander the museum before the groups and crowds gathered, self-guided, at my own pace. It was pure joy!
There’s MY Painting!
During my exploration, I encountered a special exhibit which featured the work of Honthorst! Familiar with his painting at the Mia, I was excited to view some of his other work; I was not disappointed. My favorite part was near the end of the exhibit where I saw something I quickly recognized. There, immediately in front of me, was the Mia’s painting, “The Denial of St. Peter!” I gasped aloud: “There’s MY painting!” The guard responded with a harsh “SHHHHHH!” I said “Opps! Sorry” and assured her that it was from my home town museum, far away in the middle of America, and not really mine… But it reminded me of the importance and impact of having a familiarity with artists and their work and how it helps one appreciate art museum visits everywhere, far beyond a simple viewing in some museum.
New Appreciation for Museum Swaps
This experience also gave me a better perspective on and appreciation for loans between museums. There have been countless times when I have visited a museum, home or away, only to discover that the piece I want to see is not there but on tour, loaned out for some exhibit in another museum. For example, once I went to the MoMA, NYC, to see Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and it was traveling. I was so disappointed–and disgusted. In this case in Florence, if I were leading a tour to the Mia that included “Denial of St. Peter,” I would have been aggravated that it was on loan to the Uffizi, far across the world in Italy! But here I was. And here it was, for the world to enjoy! My painting; at the Uffizi. I felt proud of it, and happy for its journey out into the world, important enough to be considered with the other Big Boys in the Uffizi!