The Nativity by Vanessa Bell

Ray West talks in a short film by local videographer Richard Gravett

By the time Vanessa was undertaking this work her sister, Virginia Woolf, had taken her own life and her son Julian had been killed fighting in Spain. Perhaps her grief partly lies behind the solemnity of this scene.

The nativity portrays the central mystery of the Christian faith. An apparently ordinary child is born in the poor and simple setting of a stable (which would actually have been a limestone cave). However this particular child is both like us, but without sin, and also the Son of God.

In the birth of Jesus the Creator becomes part of His creation – the eternal enters into the temporal. The Divinity is hidden in the simplicity of the birth except to those to whom it is revealed by God. John’s gospel describes it as a ‘light’ entering the darkness of this world and subsequently Jesus refers to himself as ‘The light of the world’.

In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. John 1:1-5

As part of a census carried out by Caesar Augustus Mary and Joseph have travelled to Bethlehem.

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.

Luke 2:6-7

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them… and said:

‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger…’
…the shepherds said to one another ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in a manger. Luke 2:8-15

This mystery of the birth of Jesus leads the listener to reflect on the mystery of their own life. According to Judaeo-Christian belief, everyone is made in the ‘image of God’. The Christian faith understands that the purpose of Jesus’ life was to reclaim and redeem the divinity in every individual for the benefit of others. The humility and simplicity of the stable contrasts with that of human pride, one of the main sins that obscure the divine image.

The time of the birth is not given in the Biblical text but often, to emphasise the symbolism of light and the ignorance of the world which fails to recognise Jesus for whom he is, the scene is portrayed at night, as it is here.

The Architectural Context

The same principle applies to this painting as to that of the Annunciation. By setting the painting on the north side of the nave it is against a darker background. This helps to convey the sense that light is coming from within the painting itself, which is the central premise behind the way the image was painted.

The Painting

St John describes Jesus as the ‘Word’ at the origin and centre of all creation and so Vanessa places the infant Jesus at the centre of the painting. Directed towards him are the gazes of all the figures – including those of the animals, which represent the rest of creation.

Mary, in contrast to the rest of the figures, gazes rather blankly out of the painting as if lost in her own thoughts. Her head is held up but she appears solemn and reflective. Mary is portrayed as not always fully understanding the mystery of what is happening. ‘Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart’ Luke 2:19. Her child will bring her great joy through his popularity, teaching and miracles and great pain when she stands at the foot of the cross and witnesses his death. Mary expresses a sense of mystery, of trying to comprehend what is beyond her understanding.

Jesus is presented on Mary’s lap to the world, and the viewer is drawn into the circle of adoration and invited to see Jesus and respond to whom He is. Perhaps Vanessa has brought to this painting the deep love of a mother for her child refracted through her own experience of grief and loss: the death of her son Julian in whom she delighted. The infant is similar in appearance to photographs of him as a baby, and also of her second son, Quentin.

Vanessa has created a sense of light emanating from within the baby Jesus. In her painting there are three sources of light. At the bottom is a lantern held by one of the shepherds. At the top of the painting is a rather obscured moon. The light of the moon is reflected in a pool of water, possibly the pond at Charleston, just above the infant’s head. But the main source of light is the baby Jesus with his halo. Light which symbolically expresses that he is the source of truth and bringer of life. The gaze of the people and animals reinforce this sense of radiation from a central point.

The setting for the nativity is a Sussex barn, probably that at Tilton next to Charleston and made available to them by Maynard Keynes. Through the opening is the Sussex Downs, the outline of which resembles that of Mount Caburn – a notable local landmark and a favourite of Virginia Woolf, as it could be seen from her home at Rodmell. A chapter in Phil Pavey’s book ‘Mysteries of History in Sussex’ discusses this in more detail and can be downloaded by clicking here.

Vanessa painted her daughter Angelica as Mary and behind her she painted a farm worker, Mr Peter Durrant, as Joseph. He had fallen off a wagon on his way down from the Downs and damaged his shoulder and had to have his left shoulder and arm amputated. To the right of Joseph are three children, Ray and Bill West, sons of the gardener and John Higgens, son of Grace, the housekeeper. They remember being dressed in their school uniforms, their one smart set of clothes, and having a comb dragged through their hair by their mother before being sent into the studio for Vanessa to draw them. The shepherd to the rear left of the painting was also a farm worker, Stanley Standen (nicknamed ‘Beckett’), who had also lost one of his arms as a child in an accident.

The shepherds hold crooks of a design associated with a particular forge at Pycombe, a small Downland village north of Brighton. In the foreground is a lamb of the local South Down breed of sheep. A famous breed developed by the grand-father of the Victorian rector of Berwick, the Revd E. Boys Ellman. Vanessa borrowed some lambs and also found photographs of others in the magazine ‘Picture Post’. Making up the ensemble at the base of the painting are a Sussex trug basket filled with vegetables, and a stook of corn. Vanessa brings people and distinctive features of the locality into the painting thus rooting her art in the realities of what she saw and loved in everyday life.