At this time of year, I usually receive through my door a collective Christmas card from my area’s local churches, which typically takes the form of a series of nativity scenes executed in felt-tip pen and crayon by school children. What strikes me about this card – coming as it does after 8 weeks of teaching an intensive course on the Italian Renaissance – is how the imagery, composition and basic colours of these drawings by children in 21st-century, officially Protestant England are in their essentials identical to the Nativity scenes painted in 15th century Tuscany by Botticelli, or Piero della Francesca, or Ghirlandaio or even the reliably unconventional Leonardo. There is a stable, a woman in blue and a small infant in the middle of the image; there may be any combination of animals, shepherds, monarchs and angels around the margins of the scene.
It might seem self-evident to us that a Nativity scene should look like this, but that in itself is testament to how powerful and embedded this iconography is. What interests me is how the pictorial conventions of the medieval and Renaissance church, which set out for artists how depictions of the Nativity should look, have been transmitted to modern English classrooms, across the centuries and across the confessional divides created by the Reformation. Presumably these children, in drawing their Christmas card, did not have reproductions of Florentine Old Masters propped up in front of them. I imagine they have picked up the archetypal Nativity composition from children’s books, Christmas cards and decorations, cribs or even theatre (an important form of religious education in Renaissance Italy, as it happens), i.e. the Nativity play, but I’m only guessing. I’ve been reading Dana Arnold’s Very Short Introduction to Art History, an excellent digest of the core conceptual problems and current controversies in that discipline, in preparation for a new course I’m teaching next term. She poses the question: when we see a painting of a woman holding a baby, how do we know it’s a representation of the Madonna and Child, and not just ‘any’ woman holding ‘any’ baby? The school-children’s Nativity drawings show, in apparently secularised 21st century Britain, how resilient, deep-seated and widely diffused the imagery of western Christianity still is; how iconography is apparently set to outlast mass adherence to traditional doctrinal belief.