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Issue No.117
13 November 2018

If only we were there

Click to enlarge

Richard Littledale reflects on the art of the nativity by exploring his own collection


On 19 November 1969, Alan Bean became the fourth human being ever to walk on the surface of the moon. For the next 12 years he would continue to work for NASA, rising eventually to the role of Chief Astronaut. However, after he left he began another career - as an artist. Ever since, he has been painting lunar scenes, often incorporating moon dust into the paintings. These scenes are an evocative, haunting way of saying 'I was there'.

In essence, every nativity scene - no matter how cute, bizarre, troubling or quirky, is a way of saying 'I wish I had been there'. My fascination with these sets over the years has been with the way in which they reflect our projection of ourselves onto the moment when history shifted forever.


P 36,37 1Serbia

The first set I can remember buying was this one, hand-made in Serbia. It was so bulky coming home on the plane that it took up most of my hand-luggage space. It is now a well loved part of any family Christmas and takes pride of place. The figures rotate, as if on an old town hall clock, and it can be reset each day during Advent to look a little different.


P 36,37 2 PeruAs soon as word got out that I collect these sets, people started to bring them back from their travels. These brightly painted Peruvian sets are available in every size and shape, with their gaily painted 'stable' doors. The yellow figure to the left of Jesus intrigues me, as it appears to be a budgerigar!


P 36,37 4 Clowns   P 36,37 3 Erasers

These sets, from Germany and China respectively, seem to represent something of a 'trinketisation' of this majestic scene. Would anybody really insert these erasers onto the end of a pencil, I wonder? Not only that, but why do all the figures in the German set have such clown-like red noses?


P 36,37 5 Rwanda

This small set from Rwanda is anything but comic. Made by the victims of gender violence out of banana leaves, it has a drama to it born both of the scene itself and the story of those who made it.


P 36,37 6 Kenya Shepherd

This stooped, Kenyan shepherd figure is one of a particularly beautiful set. Like the Masai on whom he is modelled - he is tall and seems to stride across the centuries as he carries his lamb to greet the infant King.


P 36,37 7 Zulu

These Zulu figures are covered all over in tightly woven beads - even the baby Jesus. They are the most striking example I have of the nativity dressed in cultural 'clothing'.


P 36,37 8 Farbel

German artist Oliver Farbel's nativity carries no clothing at all. Each character is represented simply by a wooden block bearing their 'title'. In my experience, this set really divides those who see it. Some love it because its complete lack of character means that they can picture the characters for themselves. For them it is inclusive. Those who hate it feel the exact opposite - that its lack of character shuts them out.


P 36,37 9a Clay  P 36,37 9b Clay

These figures, which look more like bishops than magi, come from a home-made set which I picked up at a charity shop. The clay has been carefully pressed into hessian to give it texture, Jesus is depicted carrying a rattle, and there is an inexplicable triangular chicken as part of the set. Though it lacks the sophistication or beauty of many of the sets above, this is closer to Alan Bean's art than any we have seen. It is a deeply personal response to the nativity.


P 36,37 10a Corks  P 36,37 10b Corks

When all is said and done, my most precious nativity set is actually my most recently acquired. It was delivered to my house on Christmas Eve last year by the family who had made it. They had spent the whole of the previous day fashioning it from old corks and scraps of material they had to hand. Two shepherds are pictured here, together with a baby Jesus made from half a cork! This nativity set means so much to me because it is the product of love. It was made for me by those who know my love of nativity sets and wanted to give me a home-made gift. I shall always treasure it.

I have spent many years training as a preacher, and then as a trainer of other preachers too. During that time, the focus in hermeneutics (or interpretation) has shifted. We used to invest a lot of time and energy in trying to determine all that we could about the original meaning of the text. What did the language mean to those who crafted it, and what did the events mean to those who were there? Of course, in truth we can never know. This was hermeneutics behind the text. For many, the focus has now shifted to hermeneutics in front of the text. Since we cannot know what went on then, we should be more finely attuned to what goes on now. What happens in the space between the biblical text and the reader who encounters it?

For me, these nativity sets are that debate writ large. They are at their most powerful when they evoke our response to the events of that first Christmas, rather than trying to depict it with any degree of accuracy. If you were to put this magazine down now and make a nativity set - what would it look like? More importantly, perhaps, where would you be within it?


All images © Richard Littledale