Simon Bening

The centrepiece of the Millennium Dome exhibition was to have been the simple figure of a mother and child. New Labour multiculturalism prohibited this, and substituted that indeterminate distortion that proved such an apt symbol of the whole embarrassing failure. This Christmas, the same understanding is expressed in reverse. Last year’s religious Christmas stamps have been marketed by the Royal Mail under the delightfully coy title of ‘the timeless image of a mother and her child’.

Artists of the incarnation have always had to consider the ordinariness of that extraordinary event, and how much it should or should not be accentuated. One of the most delicate presentations, that says nothing explicitly and yet allows the viewer to meditate on Christ’s presence in the world, is this miniature from Simon Bening, working in Bruges in the 1530s.

This reproduction is shown actual size: the care and skill is breath-taking. All is utterly normal, and charming. Except for the cutaway into the house, where we see a mother, baby and husband. A few days after Christmas, they have moved out of the stable at the other end of the house, and ‘Mary’ now sits before a fire. And life goes on. Some day soon, down that road past the church will come three men.

Nigel Anthony