a religious masterpiece that is harrowing to the core


Christmas is coming in Alsace, and the in-flight magazine promises wonderful markets in quaint half-timbered towns. It’s that time of year when masterpieces of western art twinkle alongside the tinsel. The stable, the star, the wise men bearing gifts, painted by Botticelli, Veronese, Jacopo Bassano – they all did a nativity or 10. Great art gives Christmas cards a touch of class – and who’s complaining?

But there is a niggle, of course. Like playing Bach cantatas as background music to Christmas drinks, snipping out details of Christian paintings to illuminate our seasonal greetings is a debasement of their true meaning. Religion is a serious business, a fact of 21st-century life that should make us look twice at those cute angels, that dumbly innocent donkey. The most “Christmassy” paintings are often deeply disturbing when you look a bit harder: the lovely, intensely hued visionary scene on the previous page of the Madonna and Child serenaded by a choir of angels is no exception. But this cheery scene actually comes from one of the most terrifying and visceral works of art ever painted – a religious masterpiece that is harrowing to the core.

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