The story of Christmas in 5 artworks

Since religious history has been the only conceivable source of artistic inspiration for centuries, it is not surprising there are various biblical Christmas scenes of Christmas in all of the great painters’ works. The nativity scene that Botticelli or Bruegel depicted is one we all know. The same goes for all other folkloric representations of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus. But what about the more modern representations of this celebration and its icons which have practically become universal? We have selected 5 artworks that defy the traditional representation of Christmas for you.

PAUL GAUGUIN – La Nuit de Noel (Christmas Night), 1902-1903

Although at first sight, this painting seems to respect the religious iconography of Christmas, it combines elements that say the opposite. Indeed, Paul Gauguin reveals quite exotic details. On the background of a Breton winter landscape, appear two women with traditional hairstyles and features that are reminiscent of the famous Polynesian subjects Gauguin. The oxen reminds one of Egyptian motifs and the figures on the tomb are inspired by Javanese icons. In this way, Gauguin gives a tropical dimension to an emblematic Christmas scene.

NORMAN ROCKWELL – Discovery, 1956

Norman Rockwell is an American illustrator who was able to capture the post-war atmosphere in the United States in his pieces. He was in charge of illustrating the covers of the magazine the Saturday Evening Post for 50 years. In the edition of December 1956, he depicted the figure of Santa Claus in an unexpected way, by highlighting his fictitious character. This scene of “discovering” the truth about the red and white character who is so loved by children, is touching as Rockwell perfectly captures the astonishment of the boy when realizing the truth.

MALICK SIDIBÉ – Nuit de Noël (Christmas Eve), 1963

In this iconic image of Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, we find ourselves in a Christmas Eve celebration completely different from what we could expect to see in the 60s. A black couple dancing, the woman barefoot, in perfect unison, with graceful gestures. By capturing the hope and dynamism of African youth during the transition period of the 60’s, Sidibé helped to build a true black identity. In this image, he succeeded in portraying his generation in the prism of a traditional celebration.

PAUL MCCARTHY – Santa Claus, 2001

Being a champion in distorting icons of Western pop culture, Paul McCarthy went a bit far with this installation done in 2001 for the city of Rotterdam. This provoking Santa looks like an inflatable toy holding a simplified and phallic shaped Christmas tree in his hand. He did not fail to make a scandal when this work was exhibited to the general public on Eendrachtsplein Square. The accessory Santa Claus holds, which resembles a sex toy, takes his whole innocence away, nevertheless the installation became the most visited sculpture in Rotterdam.

DAVID LACHAPELLE – Nativity, 2014

An American photographer known for his surrealist and erotic scenes, David Lachapelle approaches the Nativity scene from a completely quirky angle. While Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the other biblical characters are traditionally represented as white people, in this piece Lachapelle uses only black models. It is impossible to ignore all the pagan imagery and the overwhelmingly bright colors of the piece, which go totally against the sacred and solemn spirit of nativity. In this artwork, we are transported to another dimension where the birth of Jesus takes on an extraordinary facet.