It’s been a long time since I had my own advent calendar, so I thought this year I would make one, and send it to you. Each day I will send you a detail of a painting. They will all be from the same painting, but I won’t tell you what it is until we get to Christmas. I’m sure many of you will recognise it though (sorry, no prizes for getting it right!). Some days I might even expand the ‘window’ it into a full blog entry, in the way that sometimes there are bigger pictures, but that’ll be a surprise (for you and me alike!) if it happens. I’m starting with
The star is one of the first signs of Christmas, and to those who didn’t know Mary and Joseph, the first sign that something remarkable was going to happen, so it makes sense to start here. It is also one of the relatively few things we associate with Christmas, and with images of the Nativity, that is actually mentioned the bible – although only in the Gospel According to St Matthew. When the wise men get to Herod’s court, they ask him ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.’ (Matthew 2:2). However, perturbed he was, Herod told them that his men suggested that the ‘new king’ might be found in Bethlehem, and the Magi took this advice: ‘When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.’ (Matthew 2:9) – or, in the words of ‘The First Noel’,
This star drew nigh to the northwest, o'er Bethlehem it took its rest; and there it did both stop and stay, right over the place where Jesus lay.
There has been a lot of conjecture about what this ‘star’ might have been – Giotto paints it to look remarkably like a comet (see Day 87 – The Childhood of Christ), and it is widely believed that this reflects the apparition of Halley’s comet in 1301. As it happens, Halley’s Comet was also visible in 11BC, and there was another very bright one seen in 5BC – and it does seem possible for other historical reasons that Jesus may well have been born 4 or 5 years before himself (the calendar probably wasn’t set up that accurately – there’s no ‘year 0’ for a start…). Alternatively there was a bright nova – a new star – recorded in 4BC. Here’s a link to an article about The Astronomical Explanations written by Victoria Gill for the BBC back in 2012.
This star certainly isn’t a comet. It radiates the most brilliantly from an undefinable centre, beams of light spreading in all directions, and causing faint, circular haloes as it passes through drops of water vapour. It bursts through the clouds, illuminating their inner edges, and in some cases stretching beyond them. It is unlike any star that has ever been seen – but then, Jesus was only born the once.