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The 8 most festive Christmas paintings


7th Dec 2020 Art & Theatre

The 8 most festive Christmas paintings

From secular snow-filled scenes to the recognisable Nativity, Melissa Baksh on the eight paintings that define the festive season.

The Hunters in the Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565


Set in the deepest depths of winter, this is one of a series of works that depict different times of the year.

Here, Bruegel offers an image of daily life in the Low Countries. A trio of hunters and their dogs appear to trudge wearily through the snow, hinting at an unsuccessful expedition. A yellow fire burns brightly outside an inn as townspeople prepare for the singeing of a pig.

The muted greys and blues suggest a cold, calm day. However, it is both real and imagined; the mundanity of peasant life is set against an epic vista of snow-capped, jagged peaks, likely modelled on the Alps.


The Adoration of the Kings, Jan Gossaert, 1510-1515

This astonishingly detailed Northern Renaissance masterpiece captures the majesty of the nativity. The Madonna and Child sit amidst a palatial building in ruin. They are attended by lavishly dressed Kings and courtiers who have come to worship the Christ child.

Mary holds a golden goblet filled with gold coins. The Christ child holds a coin and offers it to the kneeling Caspar as if he were offering a communion wafer. On the left, Balthasar is given prominence, and the artist has even signed his name on his headdress. Gossaert’s striking use of perspective gives a brilliant sense of space and depth to the scene.


The Procession of the Magi, Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459

The Procession of the Magi, Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459
Benozzo Gozzoli: detail of Procession of the Magi. Detail with Lorenzo de' Medici from Procession of the Magi, fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459; in the Medici-Riccardi Palace, Florence. SCALA/Art Resource, New York

A cavalcade of the Three Wise Men meanders down a winding valley on their way to Bethlehem. However, the fresco, located in the Magi Chapel of the Medici Palace, is distinctively Florentine.

The annual Epiphany procession in Florence is commemorated here in a sumptuous display of pomp and glory. Luxurious fabrics and precious jewels adorn prominent members of the Medici family and their supporters, who are led by Lorenzo il Magnifico on a white horse.

Foxes and felines, hunting hounds and deer frolic in the Florentine countryside, and as a result, Gozzoli makes the biblical event relatable for his 15th-century audience.


A Winter Scene with Skaters Near a Castle, Hendrick Avercamp, c.1608-9

Avercamp specialised in painting the arctic-cold winters of his native Netherlands, and his career coincided with the "Little Ice Age" in Northern Europe. In fact, he is said to have led the way in pictures depicting "life on the ice".

Here, the townspeople of an imagined place make the most of the extreme weather. People from all walks of life enjoy skating on the ice and playing games in the snow. We look down on the revelry from a height; the figures have their backs turned to us, and as a result, details of their lives and stories are left to the mind’s eye.   


The Mystical Nativity, Sandro Botticelli, c.1500-01

In a forest, beneath a lowly thatched roof, the Christ child reaches up to the Virgin Mary, who kneels before him in quiet devotion.

Angels soar above, exulting in the holy event, carrying leafy olive branches symbolising peace. At the bottom, three pairs of angels and men embrace to signal a reunion of the human and divine. Nevertheless, this work invites a more somber kind of meditation.

Horned devils and demons flee into the underworld through cracks in the rocks as the artist foretells the Last Judgement—the end of the world and Christ’s second coming. Through Christ’s birth, we are also invited to consider his return.


Adoration of the Shepherds, Guido Reni, c. 1640

This intimate Baroque portrait is one of the more tender depictions of the birth of Christ. Humble shepherds lean inwards, gazing towards the infant in quiet reverence. The Christ child’s gaze meets theirs, and his resplendent light illuminates the whole scene.

The range of facial expressions and gestures offer a seemingly candid snapshot of the holy event and serve to highlight the range of emotions at play. Here, the human, rather than the holy is emphasised, reminding us that his birth, like the birth of every child, is magnificent. Warmth and love radiate from the scene.


Mother Mary and Child Christ, mid 18th century, late Mughal, Muhammad Shah period

This intriguing miniature from the late Mughal period depicts Mary adorned with a dazzling emerald halo with the infant Christ sat atop her lap, surrounded by lookers-on.

This work shows the European influence on the Mughal court, as we can see fusion of both European and Mughal styles used in the composition.

A tall, bearded man is dressed in a long gown with a green neck and button loops, typically worn by Medieval Christians. A woman in a green turban bends forward, towards the Christ child, offering him a gift of fruit which resembles the sugar-apple.


Nativity, Brian Kershisnik, 2006

Nativity, Brian Kershisnik, 2006
A small portion of the painting, via wiki

Inspired by the birth of his children, the artist depicts Mary nursing baby Jesus, as two midwives affectionately look on. Despite there being no mention of midwives, Kershisnik believes there would have been women helping Mary at Christ’s birth.

Joseph seems to breathe a sigh of relief as a mass of awe-filled angels swoop through the scene. Interested in the iconography of dogs as a symbol of faithfulness in Western art, Kershisnik strays from animals conventionally represented at the nativity and depicts a Labrador and puppies.

The angels go unnoticed as they depart the blessed scene in an undulating motion, suggesting an unseen but palpable cosmic force.


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