Love and Hope at the Heart of Christmas

Albrecht Dürer – The Holy Family with Three Hares, woodcut on laid paper, circa 1496

The early large scale woodcut print you see here is an image by the Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Produced around 1496, it comes from a series of prints he made illustrating scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. This image is titled The Holy Family with Three Hares and demonstrates the artist’s extraordinary delicacy of line. It illustrates the qualities of love and hope at the heart of the Christmas story.

Influenced by the artistic life of his native Nuremberg this gifted and versatile artist uses the play of lines on Mary’s dress to give form and mass to her figure. The story of the nativity is told in an enclosed garden symbolising Mary’s innocence and obedience to God’s will. Beyond the garden wall a landscape stretches into the distance. In the garden hares play at Mary’s feet – symbols of Christian love, fertility and protection. The angels hold a crown above the Virgin’s head reminding the viewer of Mary’s role as queen of heaven. She holds a lively looking baby Jesus on her lap. As Joseph watches over his family Mary stares into the distance. The infant Christ, the Word of God, reads the Bible which foretells his life and what will come to pass. The beautifully conceived scene is framed against a landscape with its detailed perspective.

It was Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings which established his reputation and influence.

To produce a woodblock print the artist’s design is pasted to the block so that the engraver can cut the image into the wood. The printer would then print the image.

As you read this I and millions of Christians across the country will be preparing to celebrate that very first Christmas when God came among us as a baby in a manger. Mary’s response to God’s calling and love is acceptance, obedience and service. Her example continues to inspire us.

There has been much to challenge us this year as Covid and its impact has continued to evolve. Whilst there have been points of personal tragedy and heartbreak the response of so many has been generous and hope filled. Our common story remains one of both of joy and sorrow.

People over the ages have often talked of value in terms of the material; by this standard, Mary and Joseph had little and yet they knew that they had been richly blessed. They shared the gift of their child with the world. This gift was so precious, so valuable that even the angels rejoiced and praised God. What was being celebrated was love.

Most of us have been expectantly preparing for Christmas as we hope to be able to welcome or journey to our loved ones. Our processions towards Christmas day will be a little more uncertain and different again this year.

I hope that like Mary and Joseph we will be inspired to share what we have with the world through acts of generosity and kindness, especially in these times. The message of Christmas is that hope comes out of our love and care for others. It is a joyful and hope filled message.

It remains for me to wish you and those you love a very happy and blessed Christmas. Keep safe.

The Joy of Christmas Trees and Cards

Rupert Toovey’s Alessi Nativity Christmas baubles

Christmas seems to be arriving at great speed this year. I haven’t even finished my Christmas cards yet let alone begun the wrapping up. But at least our Christmas tree is up!

You probably have a beautifully themed tree with a colour scheme, matching baubles and accessories but mine, I have to own, is rather more of a tinsel rush with lots of sparkly lights. Each bauble encapsulates a precious memory like Betty Southall’s marvellous gold, spray painted and glitter encrusted pine cone. It has matching wire sprays capped with imitation pearls which makes it look like a firework. Bless her, Betty was an avid auction goer years ago and would often be seen racing into the saleroom car park in her sky blue Morris Traveller trying not to be late for a lot or a party.

My favourite baubles though are a set of Alessi ones modelled as the Nativity. They are particularly precious because they were a Christmas present from my family. Designed by Laura Polinoro and Marcello Jori they’re joyful. The face of the baby Jesus smiles out from a bundle of hay, Mary is dressed in Marian blue and Joseph in red. I love the look of surprise on the donkey’s face – and those ears!

Alessi is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The company was founded by the Italian born Giovanni Alessi in 1921. The company followed in the footsteps of Giovanni’s father Carlo. From the 1970s Alberto Alessi collaborated with a number of leading designers including Ettore Sottsass, Michael Graves and Philippe Starck. Following in the footsteps of the Victorian designer Dr Christopher Dresser they once again combined art and design with the manufacture of domestic objects. From the moment these iconic Alessi pieces were released they became collectors’ items.

The tree is done so Christmas cards next.

A pen and ink Christmas card design by Dame Laura Knight

Over the years it has always been exciting to discover for auction Christmas cards from some of the country’s most prominent artists. These drawings and prints are often very intimate and personal like the pen and ink drawing by Dame Laura Knight. The card is dedicated to Gladys and Saxen Snell. The Female Nude holds a scroll inscribed ‘With our fondest love and best wishes for a Happy Xmas, Laura’.

Laura Knight was part of the English Impressionist movement. She worked in the figurative, realist tradition from the early 20th century and became one of the most popular modern British artists of her generation raising the status and recognition of women artists in a male dominated arena.

Christmas trees provide such joy and cards an expression of love – antidotes to the rising concerns around our Christmas plans especially in the light of Omicron. Stay safe.

Tinsel Rush and the Joy of a Christmas Tree

A chromolithographic Christmas Greetings Card, circa 1901, depicting the joys of a Christmas treeOne of the greatest joys of Christmas is being gathered with my family around our Christmas tree. She is already bedecked with baubles representing love and life. Hundreds of lights twinkle like stars in a night sky amongst what can only be described as a tinsel rush. Beneath the angel an array of Alessi baubles represent the Holy Family, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, accompanied by a donkey and an ox.

The fir tree, evergreen and verdant in the depth of winter has been used to decorate homes over millennia. In Christian times it came to symbolize everlasting life with God. The Christmas tree has also become a symbol for the bonds of friendship. Since 1947, in a special ceremony, Norway has donated a Christmas tree to say thank you for the help that our nation gave them during World War II.

By the 1860s most well to do homes would have had a decorated Christmas tree. Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert played a key role in popularising this tradition in Britain. In 1848 a drawing of the ‘Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle’ was published in The Illustrated London News with the Queen and her family gathered around it. The image was replicated in numerous publications. But it is thought that the Christmas tree, a German custom, was actually introduced by George IV’s wife Queen Charlotte, herself of German birth.

I was pleased to hear Boris Johnson and Chris Whitty’s reassurance that despite Covid-19 it is safe for Father Christmas to deliver presents with his reindeer this year. Though the best present will be the company of loved ones after so much separation, and the hope of the vaccines now being deployed.

A chromolithographic Christmas Greetings Card, circa 1901, depicting Father Christmas

Father Christmas and the joy of a Christmas tree are vividly portrayed in the Anglo-German chromolithograph greetings cards from Toovey’s paper collectable’s sale. Father Christmas is depicted in his famous red coat with white fur cuffs and collar carrying a sack full of presents. The boy pulls a sleigh laden with presents and carries a fine tree through the snow. Both cards date from the early 20th century.

The original Father Christmas was Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra in the 4th century. He was famous for his gifts to the poor as an expression of Christian love. During the Middle Ages children were given gifts in his honour on the 6th December.

Our gifts, too, are expressions of love for one another, for those in need, and our local charities which have had such a difficult time this year.

This has been a year of challenge and blessing, joys and sorrows, a time for all of us to reflect on what is most important to us – family, friendship, community and the common good. I hope this Christmas will bring you hope and blessing.