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"Come kneel before the radiant Boy
Who brings you beauty, peace and joy.
Jesus your King is born,
Jesus is born.
"...they built a small chapel of cedar and fir branches in honour of the manger of the infant Jesus"
Jesuit Relations, 1642
Author of the Huron Carol, Father Jean de Brebeuf, 1593-1649
"an apostle, a brave adventurer, a skilled writer, a careful ethnologist, a man of vision"
With his seven companions, Patron Saint of Canada
"O children of the forest free
O sons of Manitou,
The Holy Child of earth and heaven
There is a history to portrayals of the Madonna in art, and it spills over into portrayals of the angels too. It begins, I was taught, with St. Luke's portrait of Mary, and was respectfully copied by generations of artists with only modest changes.
Here is Cimabue's Madonna Enthroned with Angels and Prophets: Inclined head, three quarter profile, straight nose, wide eyes, small mouth, the Infant's profile a mirror image, the angels echoing the Madonna's features and pose.
|Cimabue, Madonna Enthroned with Angels and Prophets, 1285-86|
A hundred years later, here is the Wilton Diptych (1395–1399), in International Gothic style with gorgeous blues, and the same features, profile, pose, and echoing angels.
|Wilton Diptych, 1395-1399|
A little later, the Madonna and Child with Angels, by Fra Angelico, 1395/1400-1455. The faces are a bit different but follow the same pattern.
|Madonna and Child with Angels, Fra Angelico, 1395/1400-1455|
A hundred years later, Madonna and Child with Singing Angels, Sandro Botticelli 1445-1510. There has been a jump in sophistication; these could be portraits of people we meet today. This Madonna is shown face on, but still with the classic tilt to her head, and the angels' features are echos of each other.
|Madonna and Child with Singing Angels, Sandro Botticelli 1445-1510|
And that, dear readers, is why I painted the angels in the Huron Carol like this:
From very far, a Kootenay chief of the West coast. First Nations peoples traveled and traded goods, but there were certain geographic limitations - over the Rocky Mountains was too far for this chief, a kind advisor said. But this is a story about miracles and wonders, the impossible made possible. A few mountains wouldn't get in the way.
|Young Hunters, The Huron Carol|
"Before their light the stars grew dim,
and wond'ring hunters heard the hymn."
Coming home from play in blue-shadowed snows was a frequent scene of my Quebec childhood. The snow squeaked under our boots while the first stars came out in the blue and gold of twilight. When I visited Sainte Marie in the wintertime 9 years ago it was very like this picture - white snows, blue shadows, iron-cold flakes of snow landing on our faces, and the sound of the wind in the trees.
Not a stable but a longhouse, in this version of the nativity. And connecting earth and sky, mortals and immortals, is the rising smoke from the hearth, the heart of the family.
Earth and sky again, linked by smoke rising from hearths to heaven. The angel song is for the children by the stream and the hunters deeper in the forest, for all who have ears to hear,
"And as the hunter braves drew nigh
The angel song rang loud and high"
Here are the hunter braves, the first to hear the angels' song.
The Northern Lights, the heavenly dancers. I remember my mother waking me up one night to walk under the blue-green lights flickering across the sky. In later years I slept under the Northern Lights on canoe trips. They had to have a place in the book.
There is no reference for them in the English verses by J. Edgar Middleton but there is this in Brebeuf's original verses in Huron:
The okie spirits who live in the sky are coming with a message,
They're coming to say, "Rejoice!
Mary has given birth. Rejoice!
Jesus he is born."
The Great Bear, Ursa Major. A detail from the big border of stars and heavenly creatures. I wanted to match constellations with northern wildlife and started with the Great Bear.
Aries the ram, "a rather inconspicuous northern constellation". I don't know if there is an Iroquoian or First Nations name or legend for the constellation or the first point of Aries, the location of the vernal equinox. I placed the ram here, galloping across the starry firmament, as one of many northern creatures with a heavenly counterpart.
The Lynx, another faint constellation in the northern hemisphere and not usually associated with any myths. In First Nations stories the Lynx is the name of the daughter of the Sky Woman, she who fell to Earth through a hole in the Sky World and for whom the Elder Creatures of the Earth prepared a safe place to land, Turtle Island (North America).
A detail from the border of deer, antlers and swirling snow. There were four tribes or nations in the Huron confederacy, the Bear, the Cord, the Rock and the Deer tribes.
Day by day the Wise Men get closer, on their long journey from their homelands as they follow the signs in the sky.
Brebeuf's Huron verses read,
"Three men of great authority have left for the place of his birth
Tiscient, the star appearing over the horizon leads them there
The star will walk first on the path to guide them
Jesus, he is born.
Sioux Chief, of "chiefs from far". Neither the French, English nor Huron verses stipulate how far the "men of authority" would have traveled. I gave it my best shot, choosing near, not so near, and very far. The Sioux were well to the west of Huronia, on the Great Plains.
From the Eastern Woodlands, a Shawnee chief.
How can an artist know how these long-ago people looked, how they dressed and behaved and interacted with others? The diaries and letters of the Jesuit Relations are a valuable resource, as well as other contemporary records, drawings and diaries that also document the oral history of the First Nations. In the Huron Carol we are in allegory, that the nativity in long ago Palestine could just as well have happened among any other people, that "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" applies to all of humankind. For the artist, the aim is to represent a common human experience: awe and reverence when meeting true beauty and the divine.
|Twentieth day of Advent|
"This is the season of Goodness, Beauty and Truth, both in the Peaceful Realms and in the mortal world."
The Illustrated Fairy Gazette, A Christmas Celebration
|Twenty-first day of Advent|
This is another ornament from Grandmother's Tree
. Our tree is fully decorated now, laden from top to bottom with old favorites and some glossy newcomers.
"The tree is, as it is every year, more beautiful than they remembered"
|Twenty-third day of Advent|
Finally, an English Robin. This one has come from the "Sleepyhead Feast", a party for the hibernating creatures, described in The Illustrated Fairy Gazette
|Twenty-fourth day of Advent|
Twas in the moon of wintertime
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunters heard the hymn:
"Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
The Huron Carol
|"...Mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead"|
When I do a presentation of the Huron Carol
to school groups I like to take them through the book like this: (Advent picture 1
) "Here we are above the forests; see the snowy tree tops and frozen waterways, with the birds flying away." Then I show the whole picture, (Advent picture 2 and full picture below) "That Mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead
", the earth and heavens and heavenly host.
|"Twas in the moon of wintertime"|
from The Huron Carol by Father Jean de Brebeuf
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I loved the art history classes in my art student days. One lecture in particular was about the influence of St. Luke's* portrait of Mary on succeeding generations of artists - the pose and facial features repeated in reverence and extending even to the angels and minor characters. It's a moving thing, to set out to paint holiness. A tradition of reverent iconography is a welcome place to start.
(*or ascribed to St. Luke)