Meanings of Christmas: A strange, persistent and defiant light: Kenneth Leech, for the Church of England, and John Kennedy, of the Methodist Church, continue our series of articles reflecting on the implications of Christmas
Tuesday 29 December 1992
Sensitive Christians can take some comfort from their tradition, however. The Holy was never subjected to the Commercial like this in the great ages of faith - it was much worse.
Take, for example, the biggest corporate Christmas card in history. It never stood on a boardroom table; it was designed for the hospital of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Painted in Bruges by Hugo van der Goes around 1472, its setting is the Adoration of the Shepherds. There are lovely angels, a delicate Madonna in prayerful contemplation; and, kneeling in the wings, the donor of the painting, his wife and children. This was Tommaso Portinari, agent in Bruges for the Medici banking dynasty. Now, however gross your company Christmas card, the regional manager for Belgium hasn't painted himself and his family into it. It's hard to think of a modern parallel, even in the glutinous world of corporate sponsorship.
But the picture is wonderful. It is huge: eight feet high, nearly 20 feet across. In one corner, three gigantic shepherds tumble into the picture, their peasant hands outstretched towards Joseph, whose artisan's hands signal back.
A lot is going on here. Portinari makes the point that he and God, or at least the Mother of God, are pretty close. So, by implication, is business in general (and, Medici-style, multinational enterprise in particular). But nobody has ever known what to make of these astonishing shepherds - except to say that Portinari's business was largely to finance the wool trade between England and the mainland. This was when England was heaving itself out of Third World status, ending its civil wars and selling finished cloth rather than raw material.
So here we have a late-medieval celebration - Catholic, bourgeois, self-regarding. But it ended in tears. Tommaso developed a cash-flow problem. Lorenzo the Magnificent did the Medici thing - he let his partner go belly up. Portinari died in 1501, penniless, in the Florence hospital where his altarpiece dominated the chapel. Hugo, meanwhile, went mad. His picture marks the end of an age, not least for Bruges, whose river link with the North Sea was silting up.
It is certainly worth struggling to dredge the clogged channels of the current British social order. But much topsoil of innovation and social belonging has washed off our hills. The present regime, in its different phases, has done us in. It has not only ruined the nation's ability to make a living in the marketplace, it has destroyed the market's moral credibility. It's going to be hard to put that right, to make a society in which bankers and miners can claim to share some kind of common life. You could go mad, or broke, or both, in the attempt.
Which returns us to Tommaso and Hugo, and a more central Christian response to their creation. Each of them tended to turn life into a constructive project, an arena of huge ambition. So it is with the Medici enterprise; and in Hugo's vast painting, and in his spiritual ambitions. In contrast, in Hugo's picture, there's a tiny scrap of a baby, lying almost unnoticed in the barren space at the centre of the canvas. This tot clearly cannot can make it on his own. The image ridicules the notion of human self-sufficiency. And thus it came to pass with the great achievers, Hugo and Tommaso, turned finally into desperate, dying men.
It is this that makes the Christian view of the world so awkward, rather than its attitude to gross materialism. It contradicts the human illusion that we are in charge, and invites us to live by God's grace as well as by our own endeavour. Our schemes to create a world in which shepherds and bankers can live decently together have their validity - they may even work. But it may be that the incarnation really makes sense to us only when we are outside the scheme of things - that Christmas is for the truly despairing.
The Rev John Kennedy is secretary in the Methodist Church's Division of Social Responsibility.
- 2 Smartphones are making children borderline autistic, says psychiatrist
- 3 Why this father didn’t hide his daughter’s heroin overdose in her obituary
- 4 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
Smartphones are making children borderline autistic, says psychiatrist
Nepal earthquake: More than 1,100 killed across four countries and in Mount Everest avalanche
Nepal earthquake: The race is on to help thousands trapped under rubble around Kathmandu, while remote villages face a long wait for help
Royal baby: Live updates as superbug closes ward at St Mary's Hospital where Duchess of Cambridge is due to give birth
Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election
£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...
£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...