Review: Reflections on UWM's Exhibition"Nativity"

Prints Portray Traditional Gospel's Story

Dec. 22, 2012
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In the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, a place of quiet reflection can be discovered in the University of Milwaukee Wisconsin’s art history gallery. Their exhibition “Nativity” presents more than two dozen prints, primarily etchings. engravings and woodcuts, all tiny artistic gems, reflecting the life of Jesus of Nazareth in a linear narrative around the gallery from left to right. Artists have long since recorded the Bible’s New Testament gospel story  (the first four books, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), and these primarily minute prints were often created to form the leafs of a book necessary to edify the clergy or educate the public.

The exhibition begins its story with The Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel visited the young girl Mary, announcing to her she will birth a son to be named Jesus. Master printmaker Albrecht Dürer’s lovely woodcut precedes his print of the actual baby's birth titled Nativity (1509-1511) from his series The Small Passion. In Dürer’s scene a delicate angel hovers over the baby’s bed with a shining star in the upper right corner.  Alessandro Vecchi also portrays The Holy Family (1617) with the words translated from underneath the wood engraving: “Bring roses, violets, and lilies quickly, for the one who comes down from heaven lies on soiled straw."

After the birth of Mary’s baby, the Gospel’s tell of how angels sing this news to humble shepherd’s in a field tending sheep. A star over the stable identified Jesus's birth and pointed the way for three Magi, or King’s, to come to Bethlehem, where the Mary, baby Jesus, and her betrothed Joseph came to stay. Since there was no room at any inns in Bethlehem proper, one innkeeper offered the family a place in a stable where his domestic animals slept, as so the manger was where the baby Jesus was born. 

Perhaps one of the most beautiful and dramatic pieces in the entire exhibition is Rembrandt’s Adoration of the Shepherds: A Night Piece (1652). Through the skilled use of cross hatchings and the placement of light from a lantern and on Mary’s and the baby’s face, Rembrandt’s depth of chiaroscuro depicts a tired mother woken in the middle of night after being huddled in warm blankets, only her face visible. 

The artist’s portrays a very human interpretation of this divine event where the shepherds interrupt the family’s peace after the birth of a baby. With a magnifying glass provided by the gallery, gaze on their faces, especially the baby’s face and his slight, charming smile lying in swaddling rags as the traditional carols describe.

Another miniature etching by French artist Jacques Callot deftly captures the Adoration of the Magi (!631) in a mere 3 ½   x 2 ¾ inches.  By using the magnifying glass again, the viewer can appreciate the expressions on every face and see the gifts the three kings bear, supposedly arriving on Epiphany, or January 6.

The serene exhibit viewed in quiet surroundings allows the visitor to be awed by the superb skill the artist’s applied to create these petite treasures telling an age-old story and tradition. The Gospel’s speak to thousands of devoted people throughout 2000 centuries in celebration of the holiday known as Christmas. The holiday's meaning speaks to how the event in the birth of the child Jesus came to incarnate God seen through human form on earth and deliver the message of forgiveness, love, peace and redemption to all those who would listen and believe. The message these precious prints reveal still resonates in the world today: Love and Peace in 2013!

The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee  presents “Nativity” at the Art History Gallery through January 11, 2013 in Mitchell Hall, room 154. If the gallery is locked during the exhibition hours, Monday through Thursday, 10:00 am. until 4:00 p.m., please contact someone from the art history department offices in the hall and they will gladly open the gallery for visitors. 


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