Thursday, December 8, 2016

Advent Traditions - Italy


Christmas time begins on the 1st Sunday of Advent in Italy, which comes 4 weekends before Christmas. This period is called "Novena." Children during this time go out singing Christmas carols & verses for sweets & coins.  The Novena is a religious ritual linked to the rosary. While there are many times of the year where this devotional activity takes place, one of the most observed is Christmas.  In the 9 days leading up to Christmas day, the rosary is said as a preparation to welcoming Christ.  This religious tradition was extended with children going from house to house just as the time of prayer was over to sing traditional Christmas songs. The children would in turn receive small gifts of sweets or cakes.



Families set up manger scenes on the 1st day of "Novena."  Every morning they gather around the nativity scene, pray & light candles.  Children write letters to their parents wishing then a merry Christmas & promise good behavior.  They also prepare a wish list of the gifts they want from their parents. These letters of appreciation are read out loud at dinnertime by the parents. 



While Christmas decorations in Italy are beginning to include Christmas trees, the main emphasis is still on Nativity scenes.  Many families place huge, life-size images of Mary & Joseph on their property.  Nativity scenes are inevitable in almost every household in all churches.  They are also found in many public areas as well. 



In the last days of Advent, before the shrines of Mary in Rome & surrounding areas, bagpipers & flute players, Zampognari & Pifferaiin, in traditional colorful costumes of sheepskin vests, knee-high breeches, white stockings & long dark cloaks, travel from their homes in the Abruzzi mountains to entertain crowds of people at religious shrines.  



Tradition holds that the shepherds played these pipes, when they came to the manger at Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus.



During Advent in Italy the ceppo appears.  The ceppo is a wooden frame several feet high designed in a pyramid shape. This frame supports several tiers of shelves, often with a manger scene on the bottom followed by small gifts of fruit, candy, & presents on the shelves above. The "Tree of Light," as it is also known, is entirely decorated with colored paper, gilt pinecones, & miniature colored pennants. Small candles are fastened to the tapering sides & a star or small doll is hung at the apex.



An old tradition in Italy is the Urn of Fate which calls for each member of the family to take turns drawing a wrapped gift out of a large ornamental bowl until all the presents are distributed.

Morning Madonna


Andrea Brescianino or Gods Piccinelli (c 1487-1525) Madonna with Infant, John the Baptist, and Hieronymus

In this blog, I try to begin each day with a painting of the Madonna & Child. It centers me; connects me to the past; & encourages me to post some of the religious paintings which were a large part of the core of early Western art.  In the 4C, as the Christian population was rapidly growing & was now supported by the state, Christian art evolved & became grander to suit new, enlarged public spaces & the changing contemporary tastes of elite private clients.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Advent Traditions - The Advent Wreath


The Advent wreath, or Advent crown, is a Christian tradition that marks the passage of the four weeks of Advent leading to Christmas in the liturgical calendar of the Western church. 

The origin of the Advent wreath is uncertain.  It is believed that Advent wreaths have their origins in the folk traditions of northern Europe; where in the deep of winter, people lit candles on wheel-shaped bundles of evergreen.  It is believed that pagan Mid-Winter rituals sometimes featured a wreath of evergreen with four candles. The candles were placed in each of the four directions to represent the elements of earth, wind, water and fire.  Rites were solemnly performed in order to ensure the continuance of the circle of life symbolized by the evergreen wreath. 

Like many Church traditions, the use of candles in the late fall and winter was originally a pagan tradition. Rev. William Saunders wrote that “pre-Germanic peoples used wreaths with lit candles during the dark and cold December days as a sign of hope in the future warm and extended sunlight days of spring.” In the middle ages, the Germanic peoples began incorporating a lighted wreath into the Christian season of Advent. It didn’t gain widespread popularity until the 1800s, and it wasn’t until the 1900s, that German immigrants brought the tradition to America.There is evidence of pre-Christian Germanic peoples using wreathes with lit candles during the cold & dark December days as a sign of hope in the future warm & extended-sunlight days of Spring.  

In Scandinavia during Winter, lighted candles were placed around a wheel, & prayers were offered to the god of light to turn “the wheel of the earth” back toward the sun to lengthen the days & restore warmth.  Both the evergreen & the circular shape symbolized ongoing life.  The candlelight gave comfort at this darkest time of the year, as people looked forward to the longer days of spring.  

By the Middle Ages, the Christians adapted this tradition & used Advent wreathes as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas. By 1600, both Catholics & Lutherans had more formal practices surrounding the Advent wreath.

The wreath is made of various evergreens which are green yeear round.  The Advent Wreath is endlessly symbolic. The evergreens in the wreath itself are a reminder of continuous life. The shaping of them into a circle reinforces that meaning. The circle is also a sign of the eternity of God.The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, & the everlasting life found in Christ. 

The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent.  In some Christian churches, one purple or blue candle is lit each week, but the Catholic church uses a rose candle on the 3rd Sunday.  Purple dyes were once so rare & costly that they were associated with royalty; the Roman Catholic Church has long used this color around Christmas & Easter to honor Jesus. The candles symbolize the prayer, penance, & preparatory sacrifices & goods works undertaken at this time.  The light signifies Christ, the Light of the world.  Some modern day wreaths include a white candle placed in the middle of the wreath, which represents Christ & is lit on Christmas Eve. 

Morning Madonna

Unknown Master, Italian (late 15th century in Valsesia). Madonna del Parto

In this blog, I try to begin each day with a painting of the Madonna & Child. It centers me; connects me to the past; & encourages me to post some of the religious paintings which were a large part of the core of early Western art.  In the 4C, as the Christian population was rapidly growing & was now supported by the state, Christian art evolved & became grander to suit new, enlarged public spaces & the changing contemporary tastes of elite private clients.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Advent Traditions - The Advent Calendar


An advent calendar is usually a poster with 24 small doors, one to be opened each day from December 1 until Christmas Eve. Each door conceals a picture. This popular tradition arose in Germany in the late 1800s & soon spread throughout Europe & North America. Originally, the images in Advent calendars were derived from the Hebrew Bible.



The Advent calendar windows open to reveal an image, poem, a portion of a story (such as the story of the Nativity of Jesus) or a small gift, such as a toy or a chocolate item. Some calendars are strictly religious, whereas others are secular in content.



During the 19C in Germany, the days preceding Christmas were marked off from December 1 with chalk on "believers" doors. Then in the late 19C the German mother of a child named Gerhard Lang made her son an Advent Calendar comprised of 24 tiny sweets stuck onto cardboard. Lang never forgot the excitement he felt when he was given his Advent calendar at the beginning of each December, & how it reminded him every day that the greatest celebration of the whole year was approaching ever nearer. 



As an adult, Lang went into partnership with his friend Reichhold opening a printing office. In 1908, they produced what is thought to be the 1st  printed Advent Calendar with a small colored picture for each day in Advent.  Around the same time, a German newspaper included an Advent calendar insert as a gift to its readers. Lang’s calendar was inspired by one that his mother had made for him and featured 24 colored pictures that attached to a piece of cardboard. Lang modified his calendars to include the little doors that are a staple of most Advent.



The idea of the Advent Calendar caught on with other printing firms as the demand swiftly increased, and many versions were produced, some of which would have printed on them Bible verses appropriate to the Advent period.  By the time that the Advent Calendar had gained international popularity, the custom came to an end with the beginning of the WWI, when cardboard was strictly rationed to be used for purposes necessary to the war effort. 


President Eisenhower's grandchildren with an Advent Calendar

However, in 1946, when rationing began to ease following the end of the WWII, a printer named Richard Sellmer once again introduced the colorful little Advent Calendar, and once again it was an immediate success.  After the war, the production of calendars resumed in 1946, by Selmer. Selmer credits President Eisenhower with helping the tradition grow in the United States during his term of office. A newspaper article at the time showed the Eisenhower grandchildren with The Little Town Advent calendar. 

Some European countries such as Germany, where the 1st Advent poster originated, also use a wreath of fir with 24 bags or boxes hanging from it. In each box or bag there is a little present for each day.


Madonnas attributed to Italian artist Simone Martini (c 1280-85-1344)

Attributed to Simone Martini (Italian artist, 1280-85-1344)  Maestà (detail) 1315

Attributed to Simone Martini (Italian artist, 1280-85-1344) Madonna and Child

Attributed to Simone Martini (Italian artist, 1280-85-1344) Madonna and Child (from Castiglione d'Orcia) 1320-25


Attributed to Simone Martini (Italian artist, 1280-85-1344)  Madonna and Child, c 1310-1315


Attributed to Simone Martini (Italian artist, 1280-85-1344)  Maestà


Attributed to Simone Martini (Italian artist, 1280-85-1344) Madonna and Child from Lucignano d'Arbia

In this blog, I try to begin each day with a painting of the Madonna & Child. It centers me; connects me to the past; & encourages me to post some of the religious paintings which were a large part of the core of early Western art.  In the 4C, as the Christian population was rapidly growing & was now supported by the state, Christian art evolved & became grander to suit new, enlarged public spaces & the changing contemporary tastes of elite private clients.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Advent in Britain Today - Candles

Today, Advent is not widely celebrated in England, although in the Anglican church calendar Advent remains the official start of the Christmas season. One tradition that remains in England is the the Advent candle. To many Christains, the 4 candles of Advent represent the 4,000 years between Adam & Eve - the birth of Christ during which mankind waited for the arrival of Jesus. In the homes of many Christains, a candle is lit each Sunday during the season of Advent to signify the entrance of Christ, the light, into the world.



One type of Advent candle has 25 marks on it, & the candle is burned down by one mark each day. In some homes, 24 candles are kept, one for each night from December 1 through Christmas eve. One candle is lit for a while on December 1, then a new candle is added each day for the 24 day period. Advent candles are lit in many homes, schools and churches, in England, with a final central candle lit on Christmas Day.  

Madonnas attributed to Duccio di Buoninsegna c 1255-1319

 Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna and Child

Duccio (c 1255-1319) was one of the most influential Italian artists of His time. Born in Siena, Tuscany, he worked mostly with pigment and egg tempera and like most of His contemporaries painted religious subjects.

Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna and Child


Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna with Angels and Saints. Detail 1308-11


Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna and Child


Duccio, Madonna and Child also called Stoclet Madonna or Stroganoff Madonna, c. 1300


Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna and Child


Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Gualino Madonna


Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna and Child

In this blog, I try to begin each day with a painting of the Madonna & Child. It centers me; connects me to the past; & encourages me to post some of the religious paintings which were a large part of the core of early Western art.  In the 4C, as the Christian population was rapidly growing & was now supported by the state, Christian art evolved & became grander to suit new, enlarged public spaces & the changing contemporary tastes of elite private clients.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent Traditions - England Medieval "Dolls" or perhaps puppets as Baby Jesus & Mary

Roman du bon roi Alexandre Manuscript by Jehan de Grise, France 1344.

In medieval & pre-medieval times, in parts of England, there were early forms of Nativity scenes called "advent images" or "vessel cups."  They were a box, often with a glass lid that was covered with a white napkin, that contained 2 dolls representing Mary & the baby Jesus. The box usually was decorated with ribbons & flowers (and sometimes apples).  They were carried around from door to door.  It was thought to be very unlucky, if the family did not see the dolls before Christmas Eve!   Bad luck was thought to menace the household not visited by the doll-bearers before Christmas Eve at the latest. People paid the box carriers a halfpenny coin to see the dolls in the box.


Roman du bon roi Alexandre illuminated manuscript at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

"In the Middle Ages, the doll was not confined to the young.  Operated as marionettes, they were often used to make money.  Adults could buy votive objects to offer at shrines, as well as statuettes of Christ or saints to keep in their houses.  Margery Kemp, the mystic of King's Lynn, when visiting Italy in 1414, met a woman who traveled abut with an image of the baby Jesus.  Other women dressed this image with clothes as an act of reverence, and Margery, seeing this happen, fell into tears for the love of infant Jesus.  Similar dolls of Christ and Mary are said to have been carried about by women during Advent in the north of England." (See Nicholas Orme. Medieval Children. Yale University Press, 2003) 


Ms. 251 from Brugge, 13C Puppet show

Icons of Madonna & Child

Chiliandari Icon of the Mother of God of the Akathistos Holy Mount Athos

Icons of Mary holding her son Jesus have been popular, since the 431 AD Council of Ephesus declared Mary to be the Mother of God.


Icon Kazan of the Most Holy Mother of God

The word "icon" derives from the Greek "eikon" meaning any image or representation, but the word usually is restricted to a religious image. Although the word "icon" applies to all kinds of religious images -- those painted on wooden panels (icons proper), on walls (frescoes), those fashioned from small glass tesserae (mosaics) or carved in stone, metal or ivory -- the term is it most often with paintings on wood.


Icon of the Mother of God of St Peter of Moscow c 1306

Early Christian images appeared around the 3rd century. That may indicate that for the first 200 years of its existence, Christianity was probably influenced by the Old Testament 2nd Commandment, "Thou shall not make unto thee any graven images" (Exodus 20:4).


Mother of God of Kiev & Arapetsk, Arabic Russian

"When Christians turned to promote their religion, they found many examples in the earlier art of religions in the art of the Roman Empire. For their images, they incorporated various elements from a number of sources: from Hellenic art they borrowed gracefulness & clarity of composition; from the Roman art they took the hierarchical placement of figures & symmetry of design; from Syrian art they took dynamic movements & energy of the represented characters; and from Egyptian funeral portraits they borrowed large almond-shaped eyes, long, thin noses, & small mouths. By the time Christianity became the official religion of the Byzantine Empire (313), the iconography was developing vigorously & the basic compositional schemes were well established." (From Alexander Boguslawski)


The Otokos of Passion

Some speculate that the earliest icon painters in Russia were Greeks or Byzantinized South Slavs. They are thought to have become teachers of the 1st Russian icon painters instructing them in the traditional Byzantine style. Their compositions were monumental, uncluttered, & simple. Some early icons exhibit close affinities with the art of classical antiquity. However, the Russians quickly abandoned the Byzantine tradition of portraying a severe religious images & developed more "humane" depictions.


Icon Russian Icon, The Vladimir Mother of God, 12C


Icon of Theophanes the Greek (c 1330-c 1410) The Virgin of the Don 1392



Icon Russian Icon, The Virgin Hodegetria of Tikhvin (mid-16C from the Moscow School)



Icon Ukranian Icon The Virgin Eleusa From the Church of St. Luke in the village of Dorosyni, Volhynia region, 15C

In this blog, I try to begin each day with a painting of the Madonna & Child. It centers me; connects me to the past; & encourages me to post some of the religious paintings which were a large part of the core of early Western art.  In the 4C, as the Christian population was rapidly growing & was now supported by the state, Christian art evolved & became grander to suit new, enlarged public spaces & the changing contemporary tastes of elite private clients.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Advent - A brief history

Advent is observed in many Western Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting, self-examination, & preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas. The name Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus, which signifies a coming.  

Advent has probably been observed since the 4C.  It would seem that Advent could not have occurred, until the Roman Catholic Church & state decided to declare December 25 as the day of the birth of Christ, in 345.  Advent was 1st recorded about 380 AD in Spain.
St. Perpetuus, Bishop of Tours 460-490, from Images of All the Saints of the Year... Paris: Chez Israël Henriet, 1636)

As far back as the 5C, there existed the custom of giving exhortations to the people in order to prepare them for Christmas. The oldest document, the 2nd book of the History of the Franks by St. Gregory Bishop of Tours (536-594), states that St. Perpetuus, one of his predecessors, had decreed a fast 3 times a week, from the feast of St. Martin until Christmas.  St Perpetuus, who died December 30, 490, was the 6th Bishop of Tours, from 460 to 490. It is unclear whether St. Perpetuus established a new custom, or merely enforced an already existing law.


St Gregory, Bishop of Tours (536-594) & King Chilperic I, from the Grandes Chroniques de France de Charles V, 14C illumination.

In the 4C & 5C, Advent was the preparation for the January "Epiphany" rather than Christmas.  It was also a time for new Christians to be baptized & welcomed into the church, while existing members of the church examined their hearts & focused on penance. Religious leaders exhorted the people to prepare for the feast of Christmas by fasting. Early documents show that many church leaders treated Advent as a 2nd Lent.

The 9th canon of the first Council of Macon, held in 582, ordained that between St. Martin's day & Christmas, the Mondays, Wednesdays, & Fridays, should be fasting days.  In 567, the 2nd Council of Tours enjoined the monks to fast from the beginning of December till Christmas.

The obligation of observing Advent, which, though introduced so imperceptibly, had by degrees acquired the force of a sacred law, began to be relaxed, & the 40 days from St. Martin's day to Christmas were reduced to 4 weeks. 

Sometime in 6C Rome, the focus of Advent shifted to the second coming of Christ. In the 9C, Pope St. Nicholas reduced the duration of Advent from 6 weeks to 4 weeks. The 1st mention of Advent's being reduced to 4 weeks is to be found in a 9C letter of Pope St. Nicholas I to the Bulgarians.

After having reduced the time of the Advent fast, the church seemed to change the mandatory fast into a simple abstinence & required only the clergy to observe this abstinence. The Council of Salisbury, held in 1281, seemed to expect none but monks to keep it. On the other hand Pope Innocent III, mentions that, in France, fasting was uninterruptedly observed during the whole 40 days.

By degrees, the custom of fasting fell into disuse; and in 1362, Pope Urban V asked only that the clerics of his court should keep abstinence during Advent.  In his 4th Council, he enjoins the parish priests to exhort the faithful to go to Communion on the Sundays, at least, of Lent & Advent; & he strongly urges them to fast on the Mondays, Wednesdays, & Fridays, at least, of each week in Advent.

And finally, sometime in the middle ages--approximately the 1500's--an additional focus on the anticipation before Christ's birth was added to that of His 2nd coming. 

Today Advent in most Christian churches begins on the Sunday nearest November 30, & covers 4 Sundays. Because the day it begins changes from year to year, so does the length of each Advent season.   

Madonnas attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440-1501)

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child with Angels


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, from 1440 to 1501 c) Detail of above Madonna and Child


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Virgin and angels


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, from 1440 to 1501 c) Detail Madonna and Child


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, from 1440 to 1501 c) Detail Madonna and Child enthroned


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, from 1440 to 1501 c) Detail of the Madonna and Child with Saints 


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels Making Music


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child Detail from panel with Saint Marcos and Lorenzo


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child with Angels Making Music


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child with Angels Making Music


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, from 1440 to 1501 c) Detail of above Madonna and Child with Angels Making Music 


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child


Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, from 1440 to 1501 c) Madonna and Child

In this blog, I try to begin each day with a painting of the Madonna & Child. It centers me; connects me to the past; & encourages me to post some of the religious paintings which were a large part of the core of early Western art.  In the 4C, as the Christian population was rapidly growing & was now supported by the state, Christian art evolved & became grander to suit new, enlarged public spaces & the changing contemporary tastes of elite private clients.