Italian artist Genny Di Virgilio has created an elaborate nativity scene for 2020 reflecting our current reality. Mary and Joseph and even the stable animals wear masks. The Magi stand socially distanced from each other. Di Virgilio has added a doctor and nurse to the nativity scene. He says they are the world’s current saviours. Only the infant Jesus remains unchanged in DiVirgilio’s nativity scene.
Last year I introduced hundreds of Winnipeg Art Gallery visitors to a nativity scene called Res House. created by artist Kent Monkman. The bottled water behind Joseph reminds us many Indigenous communities still have boil water advisories. Joseph’s jersey references sports teams that have appropriated Indigenous names. Jesus sleeps on a blanket from the Hudson’s Bay Company whose fur trade empire changed Indigenous life in Canada forever. The painted backdrop of the installation shows priests and RCMP officers dragging a screaming child off to residential school. On the tours I led, it was not uncommon to see tears in the viewers’ eyes as they processed the meaning of Monkman’s nativity scene. When we lived in Hong Kong I purchased a nativity scene with characters in traditional Chinese garb for a family we knew who had just adopted a child from China.
St. Joseph’s Oratory Museum in Montreal set up a modern nativity scene in 2018. Mary and Joseph crouch beside their son’s manger. Mary is holding a Starbucks coffee cup in one hand and giving the peace sign with the other. Joseph is using his cell phone to take a selfie of the family. Called Hipster Nativity the scene includes a shepherd looking at his phone, a sheep in a Christmas sweater and a cow’s feed trough labelled gluten-free. The Magi arrive on Segways carrying gifts in Amazon boxes. When I visited the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence I Saw Adoration of the Magi painted by Botticelli in 1475. All the characters in his nativity scene are portrayed as wealthy nobles. The faces of many of the key characters in the nativity scene are actually modelled after members of the wealthy Medici family who were Botticelli’s patrons.
Over the centuries the Christmas story has been illustrated in ways that make it relevant to diverse people living through all kinds of experiences. If the story is going to have meaning for each new generation people need to be able to see themselves in it. Innovative artists in both the past and present help to make that happen.