I love Christmas Day for many reasons including the chance to look at all those glorious religious paintings by the old masters. Whatever your belief system, this season, at the year’s darkest point, is the time to celebrate and feast but it’s also the time to wonder at the mystic joy symbolised at Christmas anticipating new birth and renewal and celebrating humanity’s fertility and continuity. Today, I thought I’d wish you all a very Merry Christmas and invite you to admire this nativity scene by one of my very favourite painters,the French artist Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665).
I love Poussin’s classically themed works, such as the sensational, and rather rude, Baccanal before a Statue of Pan, but his religious paintings show the same understanding of the human body and his sense of drama whether it’s macabre or joyful.
Christmas is also a great time for listening to some of those inspiring pieces of music associated with this time. One of my guilty pleasures is the piece known in France as Cantique de Noel (1844), a musical setting of a poem, “Minuit, chrétiens” – Midnight, Christians – (1844), by the French poet Placide Cappeau.
Placide Cappeau, who was also a wine-merchant, lost his right hand while playing around with a gun with one of his boisterous young friends. The loss of his hand and his wine-selling duties didn’t stop him having a successful career as a radical and, apparently, anti-clerical poet and his most famous poem, known as the “religious Marseillaise” is supposed to have been written hastily during a journey on a stage coach. If you don’t think you know the song I’m talking about hang on there for a moment.
Carlotta Grisi as Giselle (1841)
Christmas, incidentally, is also the time of year when may people like to go to the ballet and, one of the most popular of all classical ballets is Giselle with music by another Frenchman, Adolphe-Charles Adam (1803 – 1856). He was also the man who wrote the music for Placide Chappeau’s poem.
Here in the UK, we know the piece in an English translation under the name O Holy Night and it’s one of my all-time favourite Christmas carols. The English composer John Rutter has made an inspired arrangement of it and here it is sung, sublimely, by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge in 2009.
A very merry Christmas to you all, enjoy:
My novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, was published on 31 October 2013. It is the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.
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