This December, in her Language Arts class, my fifth grader is retelling the Christmas story. And she can’t just write any old, kid-style paraphrase. Instead, my daughter’s story has to be from the vantage of a minor, or even invisible, character. What, my daughter must consider, did the Nativity look like to the overlooked?
Well, as ten-year-old girls will, my daughter chose a cat. As Mary and Joseph set off from Nazareth, this little cat follows them and beholds the wondrous events that unfold. It is a long, hard road for that cat, and a confusing one. What are the big people doing? What is that light? Watch out for that horse! And when will I find a mouse?
The story isn’t finished yet, but the exercise is giving my daughter new appreciation for a well-worn tale. Sometimes it takes a cat’s-eye-view to wake us up to what is overly familiar.
For a long time, artists have sought new perspectives through the eyes of animals. In a celebrated short story of 1861, Leo Tolstoy wove a tale of generations from a horse’s vantage: “Strider: The Story of a Horse” was a heart-rending and even enlightening read for contemporary audiences. The horse’s innocent and uncomplicated view on human events unmasked human pomp, prejudice, and self-deception in a completely novel way. Another celebrated artwork from the 1800s, a painting by Edwin Landseer called The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner, likewise exposed human callousness through animal innocence. Here, a humble coffin lies silently in a shabby room, abandoned except for the sheepdog that leans against it. The “old shepherd” of the painting’s title (probably a crusty loner) has been forgotten by human society, but not by his canine friend. The dog’s big, liquid eyes and yearning posture tweak at the heart.
The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner, Landseer, Edwin Henry (Sir, RA), V&A Explore The Collections (vam.ac.uk)
The great Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky coined a term for such perspective shifts: defamiliarization, or ostranenie, which literally means “making strange.” For Shklovsky, defamiliarization interrupted deadening, routinized mental habits and made one perceive life again. Defamiliarization brought the flavor of things back – the essence, the uniqueness. To use Shklovsky’s own words, it made stone once again stony. It made us once again able to see.
Of course, deadening routine is a danger for Christians in December, not only through routinized holiday observations, but through repetition of a familiar narrative. For more than two thousand years, Christian artists, preachers, prelates, and Sunday School teachers have told, again and again, the “old, old story of Jesus and His love” – especially at this time of year and especially with predictable strokes that can make one’s mind wander and one’s eyes glaze.
Yet it is, as we know, a sublime story: a tale of God become fully man, first in a mother’s womb, then in a strangling society, then in the jaws of death. It tells of a God who lowered Himself infinitely, and sacrificed Himself unsparingly, to rescue us from eternal pain. It is a story of heroism, generosity, compassion, intimacy, and union. Yet in our questing human minds, which demand novelty and stimulation, it can become too well-worn.
This is why Christian painters through the centuries, just like Tolstoy and Landseer, have tried to defamiliarize the familiar story. And like my daughter, they have often done it by bringing animals to the fore. The Nativity in particular, taking place in a stable, lends itself to manifold “defamiliarizations” through the eyes of an array of God’s creatures – not only the ox and the ass but (if one fast-forwards) shepherds and wise men and angels. In Christ’s early childhood, every echelon of creation came to pay its respects: the wood and hay that supported the Baby, the animals that watched with limpid eyes, the humble workmen (the shepherds), the elite intellectuals (the magi), and above them all, pure, angelic intelligences, singing with a music that (one guesses) made hearers shiver with fear and delight, setting the sensible world askew and tilting it ecstatically, vertiginously to Highest Heaven.
But back to the animals. In a famous tondo (round painting) of about 1450, probably made by the Italian artists Filippo Lippi and Fra Angelico, animals steal the show. As human worshippers crowd to pay respects to the Child, an insouciant peacock sits on top of the stable, its graceful neck craned inquisitively. Peacocks were a symbol of eternal life in ancient and medieval Europe, but, as anyone who has met a peacock knows, they were also blustery nuisances. (“Proud as a peacock” is an apt phrase!) The peacock in our Renaissance tondo wants to be the center of attention, and it peevishly wonders who has stolen its limelight. Despite itself, it can’t help but be fascinated by the infant Jesus.
The Adoration of the Magi, Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, Samuel H. Kress Collection (nga.gov)
There are many other animals in this charming painting, including horses, pheasants and yes, a cat. But my eye always goes to the ox. That golden-brown bovine, located glaringly at the center of tondo, seems a silent protagonist. We identify with it somehow; it seems to sit in our place.
And this blessed ox does not look at Jesus at all! Instead, it sits contentedly and placidly under the shelter of the stable, right next to the hay, thinking cow-ish thoughts behind innocent eyes. Its legs are tucked beneath its frame with endearing, jutting awkwardness. Oh, to be like that ox: so trusting, so untroubled, so still!
We are all of us, of course, part animal. The animal part of us is tumbling, warm, hairy, pulsing, panting. It drips and sweats and shakes and runs. It feels surprise and fear and thirst and burning desire. It opens wide, dark, uncomprehending eyes onto spiritual things that can only be received in faith – for they are beyond our ability to understand.
I hope we can bring our animal selves, this season, to the Child Jesus. I hope we can sit placidly in the firelight, smelling sweet hay and hearing His sighs and coos. I hope we can bring Him our fleshly hungers and fears, our aches and pains, our throbbing energy and our dragging, creaturely weariness. I hope we can bring him our hair, our skin, our spit, our fuzz, our sores. And I hope we can thank Him for the warm, smelly, swelling monumentality of it all!
What will He make of our animal flesh – what will He make of us? How will He be our shepherd, and where will He lead us? How will he shear us, and then, what will He weave? How will He groom us – not only as brides (as in Ephesians 5), but as horses that recklessly run?
This season, I bring my animal body to Jesus, that He might transform me (at last through death) into a resurrected creature, running the heaven-fields with neighing, hot-blooded joy.
Close up of Caravaggio, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Doria Pamphilij Gallery, Rome, 1597
Editor’s Note: We will take a break from posting for Christmas break until January 4th.