Sunday, January 6, 2013

Artifact of the Moment: Reflections on Nativity Scenes in Two Eighteenth-Century German Bibles

I am more behind than usual in sending traditional paper/print holiday greetings. For a variety of reasons, I didn't manage to get out any Christmas cards, as such, in time for the holiday. But I did at least manage to reflect briefly on some of the iconography associated with the occasion.

Here is an image that I've customarily used on one of the greeting cards that I send. It comes from my research into German book history.

The Nativity: Vignette from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew


The unsigned copper engraving (approximately 10 x 19.5 cm) is from my battered but treasured copy of: Biblia, Das ist: Die gantze Heilige Schrifft Alten und Neuen Testaments : nach der Übersetzung und mit den Vorreden und Randglossen D. Martin Luthers ... / ausgefertiget unter der Aufsicht und Direction Christoph Matthäi Pfaffen, der Heil. Schrifft Doctorn, Professorn, Cantzlern und Probsten zu Tübingen, auch Abbten des Closters Lorch. - Mit Censur des Hochfürstl. Würtemberg. Consistorii und Löbl. Theologischer Facultät zu Tübingen, auch Allergnädigsten Privilegiis (Tübingen: Verlegt und gedruckt von Johann Georg und Christian Gottfried Cotta. Im Jahr Christi 1729).

The massive folio volume, illustrated, and edited with commentary by Professor Christoph Matthäus Pfaff (1686-1760) of the University of Tübingen, was at once a bibliophile production, thus a representative declaration of Christian faith (simply owning such a large and expensive work was a statement of sorts), and a pragmatic attempt to bridge theological differences in an age in which Lutheran orthodoxy contended with pietist challenges in the Duchy of Württemberg, which remained a bastion of hard-core Evangelical Protestantism in the otherwise largely Catholic German south.

The iconic scene of the Holy Family in the stable stands at the beginning of the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, thus introducing the New Testament as a whole (the other Gospels are not similarly graced with vignettes).

The Gospel of Matthew, as such, of course, mentions none of this. Instead, after a long genealogy establishing Jesus' necessary descent from King David, and the story of the Annunciation, it leaps right to the birth of Jesus. But there is no mention of the details, or of a location more specific than the messianically mandated Bethlehem. Instead, we suddenly read of Herod's concern over the birth of the King of the Jews when the three Wise Men, having followed their star, arrive in Jerusalem. Only after Herod interrogates the "chief priests and scribes" do he and the Magi learn that the goal of the latter should be Bethlehem. And even then, the gospel refers only to "the house" in which they find "the young child with Mary his mother." That's all. They present their gifts. Then warned in dreams by God and an angel, respectively, the Wise Men and the Holy Family flee the wrath of Herod.

Our cozy and canonical image of the Nativity, as depicted in many a work of art, comes from the Gospel according to Saint Luke, (The Gospels of Mark and John do not even deal with the Nativity and instead leap right into the career of the mature Jesus.)

And even then, there are no details. Luke contains the familiar assertion that Mary "brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn" and that the shepherds, having heard the message of an angel and the heavenly host, "came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger." That's it. And a manger, contrary to popular opinion and my childhood impressions, is not a stable, and rather, as the etymology implies, something that one finds inside a stable: a trough or feeder for livestock, thus suitable to act as a sort of ersatz crib for the baby Jesus. (For that matter, the whole Nativity narrative is historically problematic; most recently, archaeologists have suggested that the actual birthplace was Bethlehem in Galilee rather than Judea.)

The rest, with its familiar regiment of barnyard fauna, is the accretion of tradition, though quite understandable as something that would appeal to the lifeworld and sensibilities of a largely agrarian Europe in the coming two millennia and to us now conveys a kind of nostalgic Gemütlichkeit.

The image in this Bible therefore embellishes the scene in that vein. Within the Baroque frame of sinuous and symmetrically curving curling acanthus leaves is a barn or stable, though a rather artificially neat and clean one. And, although there are hay racks for the livestock all around the perimeter of the structure, the little manger holding the baby Jesus stands at the center: unrealistic and out of place in a practical sense but theologically exactly where it needs to be. To the left are Mary and Joseph (the latter depicted, according  to tradition, as elderly—perhaps in order to downplay any suggestion of sexuality). To the right are the shepherds (identifiable by their staves) in their customary poses of obeisance, from kneeling to respectfully standing in contrapposto. In a sense, they pull our attention to the right, and in emphasizing the miracle and message that brought them hither, seem to violate the symmetry, but the presence of the larger livestock in the left foreground (those at the right are depicted as smaller and in the background) exercises a countervailing weigh so that visual balance seems to be maintained in the aggregate.

Embodying as it does the most popular conception of the Nativity, the scene from Luke thus serves as a visual introduction to the New Testament as a whole. Emphasizing this, the frame bears in its corners the traditional iconographic representations of each of the four Gospels, reflecting the chief attribute of each book: the bull (Luke), the lion (Mark), the angel (Matthew), and the eagle (John).

The sophistication of this image, from its complex composition to the refinement of the figures and the elegant cross-hatching, is all the more apparent when we compare it with a later and and more humble counterpart. The 1729 Cotta Bible, as noted, was a luxury work, for the theologian and scholar, or for the patrician elite. The ordinary folk purchased something a good deal simpler and cheaper.

Both the Cotta firm and its competitors also published budget Bibles in the more common octavo format. (Think of a book with covers whose dimensions are akin to those of a typical modern paperback, or somewhat smaller than those of a Kindle, but which in this case is, of course, a good deal thicker: some two to three inches/5 to 7.5 cm.) In 1793, the young Johann Friedrich Cotta (1764-1832), who would become the greatest scion of the family, earning it world renown as the publisher of the German Classicists and Europe's leading liberal newspaper, brought out out 5,000 copies of one such volume (by contrast, new titles in his catalogue at that time typically appeared in pressruns of only 500-1000 copies). It contained no illustrations, as such, only a few modest standard printers' ornaments or vignettes to mark the transitions between sections.

Meanwhile the Tübingen printer and notorious pirate publisher Wilhelm Heinrich Schramm (who also worked for Cotta on other projects ) had brought out a revised version of his own cheap edition of the Holy Scriptures:

BIBLIA, Das ist: Die ganze Heil. Schrift Alten und Neuen Testaments, nach der Teutschen Uebersetzung D. Martin Luthers ... (Tübingen, drukts und verlegts Wilhelm Heinrich Schramm, 1791

The common title page for both Testaments in my copy is dated 1791, but the separate title page for the New Testament bears the year 1794:

Das neue Testament unsers HErrn und Heylands JEsu Christi, verdeutschet durch D. Martin Luther... 
 (Tübingen, drukts und verlegts Wilhelm Heinrich Schramm, 1794)

The illustrations in this volume are fewer and simpler (and of course smaller) than in the Cotta folio Bible. To begin with, they are woodcuts rather than copper engravings, and thus allow for less detail. Even taking that into account, though, they are cruder in composition as well as line.

The elaborate Baroque frame of the engraving in the 1729 folio gave the scene an almost theatrical appearance, so that we had the sense of being privileged observers, looking in on a scene in which the holy actors go about their sacred business unaware of us.  (Not for nothing did nineteenth-century critics liken the proscenium stage, with its sharp separation of audience and players, to the Guckkasten—peep show, or peep box—of the village fair.) It was thus at once realistic and unrealistic.

Nativity Scene: c. 3.5 x 1.25 inches/ 9 x 3 cm

Here the frame has been reduced to a bare minimum, and the effect also differs in other ways from that of its more elegant counterpart. Indeed, the four Evangelists seem imprisoned rather than framed by the stark black border. (St. Matthew, at upper left, looks absolutely desperate to escape its confines, which in the meantime seem to be crushing poor St. Luke at lower right.) Within the frame, there is no attempt to produce a realistic perspectival architectural setting: instead, the background consists mainly of an undifferentiated series of vertical lines. There is a sort of flatness to the whole. The human forms are similarly simplified and flattened. It is tempting to call them cartoonish. Certainly, they are not particularly elegant or accomplished. From the standpoint of both composition and execution, then, the Schramm woodcut may seem clumsy. The frame is simple, the background is simple, the figures are crude.

That said, there is a kind of naive charm and rustic vitality to the whole.

Mary's devotion is apparent, even though the head of the baby Jesus looks like one of those schematic skulls on a Puritan gravestone. Although somewhat obscured by the forequarters of the horse or donkey in the background, the bull at left turns his head to the right, captivated by the array of figures paying homage to the infant. Further drawing our attention to the mother and child is the outstretched arm of Joseph (for we assume that the commanding gesture identifies him, even though the staff might otherwise suggest one of the shepherds) above, despite (or because of?) his lobster claw of a hand.

And even the compositional clumsiness may ironically work to the artist's and reader's advantage: although the figures awkwardly fill the space to the extent that we fear they will bump their heads on the solid black border, there is somehow a sense of immediacy lacking in the more polished engraving of the 1729 folio. As a result, we feel ourselves to be not voyeurs, but participant-observers in the miraculous scene.

Upon reflection, then, one might just conclude that this print brings us closer to that presumed stable and the lifeworld of Judean peasants some two thousand years ago than does its more elegant Baroque counterpart. In any case, it was by means of simple images such as these that the average Christian in Central Europe formed a picture of the Nativity some two centuries ago.

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