Guernica as Nativity

This past weekend, I engaged in a mini-research project to help a friend. This friend is putting together a slideshow of Nativity images for a Christmas party; he is specifically interested in showing images which depict the biblical scene with clothing/architecture/instruments that are contemporary to the time of the artist. This project wasn’t too hard to complete, especially since Northern Renaissance artists loved to depict Nativity scenes in Northern interiors with Northern clothing. Perhaps I’ll post some of my Nativity findings in the next few weeks – it was a very fun project.

Anyhow, while compiling images I became curious to see if Picasso had ever created a Nativity scene. Since Picasso was such a prolific artist (with 271 new works recently added to his oeuvre), I thought he would have depicted a Nativity scene at least once. Surprisingly, I didn’t find any works titled “Nativity” in my limited research time, but I did come across an interesting argument that was recently published in Nómadas: Revista Crítica de Cincias Socialies y Jurídicas. Pablo Huergo Macón argues that Picasso’s iconic painting Guernica (1937, shown above) is a modern representation of the Nativity. Basically, Macón finds that Guernica “is a manger blown up by bombs.”1 Here are some of the traditional images which Macón points out:

  • Virgin Mary cradling a (Christ) child (far left)
  • Joseph (shown as a warrior brandishing a sword)
  • Angel who appears to shepherds (holding a candle in Picasso’s scene)
  • Shepherds (represented by the women on the right side, one in a shawl and one with raised arms)
  • Stable animals (Macón argues that the bull represents the ox and horse represents the mule)
  • Star of Bethlehem (light bulb in center, illuminating the scene)

I think the inclusion of the llight bulb puts an interesting contemporary twist on the whole Nativity scene (but I decided that my friend probably wouldn’t want to use this image for his Christmas party slideshow! It doesn’t exactly scream “Christmas cheer,” does it?).

Anyhow, I think Macón’s theory is interesting and deserves some attention. Even if this theory isn’t perfect, I think it could explain at least one reason why Guernica is so jarring to us: Western viewers can recognize distorted, perverse, and extremely unsettling elements of a traditional Christian theme.

1 Pablo Huergo Macón, “The Other Side of Guernica,” Nómadas: Revista Crítica de Cincias Socialies y Jurídicas 23 (2009:3): 1. Found online here.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Interesting points M!….

    But I must admit I have some trouble with it! The nativity is not a violent scene. In Christian iconography it symbolises joy and hope – even the unifying of different races with the gifts conferred by the Eastern Kings.

    Introducing violence to this scene is so anthithetical that it is even too much for the more open minded and lateral thinking among us!

    As you can remember from your 'Matisse as van der heem' post Guernica has been cited as being inspired by Raphael's Fire in the Borgo – one of the Vatican Loggia Frescoes. The correlations are stark and powerful.

    One thing that can be salvaged is that both 'Fire in the Borgo' and Guernica do have a thread of hope and positivity if you are willing to extrapolate the mayhem as a moral lesson.

    In this very loose sense you could metaphorically describe Guernica as a 'like a nativity' but anything beyond that is a bit more speculative, surely?!

    For those curious, you can see Raphael's Fire in the Borgo here:
    http://2.ly/d32g

    H

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    The more usual (and compelling) comparison is with the Massacre of the Innocents, isn't it (e.g. Giotto, Poussin, etc.)? And that subject does make you think of the nativity, so there's a kind of associational logic to the argument, at least. Still, it seems like a stretch!

  • H Niyazi says:

    I forgot to include in my original comment – the link for a great web page looking at Guernica and some studies Picasso did for it. It describes the figures that were an amalgam of Raphael's figures from 'Borgo'

    http://2.ly/d32s

    H

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments! I agree that this theory is strained at parts. (But it is interesting to think about, huh?) Macón argues that Picasso was inspired by Murillo's Adoration of the Shepherds (1650-55), largely because the ox/bull is staring at the viewer in both paintings. I don't see much of a connection between the two paintings, and I think this example weakens the overall argument. Like Ben and Hasan, I can see more connections between Guernica and the Fire in the Borgo or Massacre of the Innocents.

    Actually, in addition to the Massacre of the Innocents, I think Picasso's woman on the left references the Pieta. But regardless of which iconographic tradition(s) Picasso meant to evoke, the overall effect is disturbing.

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    Incidentally, according to ARTnews Guernica is "next on the list" for getting the Greenaway treatment (i.e. the kind of multimedia "remix" that he's already given to Leonardo's Last Supper, Veronese's Marriage Feast at Cana, and Rembrandt's The Night Watch.) It'll be interesting to see what he does with such a radically different work–and the first of the bunch that doesn't have linear perspective.

  • e says:

    I know this isn't completely related, but my aunt just gave her partner a Menorah that has paintings by Picasso on it. It's really interesting to look at and kind of different that Picasso's work was used on a Menorah.

  • M says:

    I didn't know that about Greenaway, Ben. Interesting! I'm also curious to see how he treats this painting. You're right – no linear perspective this time. :)

    e, That's really unusual! I wonder who came up with the idea to put some of his paintings on a menorah. I'm guessing it looks something like this?

  • e says:

    That's the one!
    You're good.

    And, yes, such an interesting idea.

  • M says:

    I just found another Picasso painting which could be interpreted as a Virgin/Christ child scene:

    Mother and Child, c. 1901.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.