Art State of Mind

The 12 Days of Christmas

Isla Phillips-Ewen 22 December 2021 min Read

In the spirit of the festive season, our gift to you is the 12 days of Christmas retold in artworks. The Twelve Days of Christmas is a carol with roots in 18th century England, heavy with symbolism and tradition. One theory is that The Twelve Days of Christmas was a child’s game about remembering verses and another is that it connects to a time when practicing Catholicism was forbidden. Each verse reminds Catholics about their beliefs meaning they could express their faith through a secret song. Either way, it’s a jolly yuletide hit and as we’re all art lovers here is a mixed-bag visual rendition.

1. A Partridge in a Pear Tree

The first day’s partridge is Jesus Christ! So, here is Charles Le Brun‘s rendering of the Nativity.

12 Days of Christmas: Charles Le Brun, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1639, Louvre, Paris, France.
12 Days of Christmas: Charles Le Brun, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1639, Louvre, Paris, France.

2. Two Turtle Doves

The doves, who knew, are symbolic of the old and new testaments. In honor of them, here is Banksy’s dove in armor in Bethlehem, Palestine.

12 Days of Christmas: Banksy, Peace Dove, 2007, Bethlehem, Palestine.
12 Days of Christmas: Banksy, Peace Dove, 2007, Bethlehem, Palestine. Artist’s website.

3. Three French Hens

The hens remind us of the three Christian virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. For art history lovers, let’s remember the graces of Greco-Roman mythology who are forever being put into artworks.

Raphael, The Three Graces, 1504-1505, Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.
12 Days of Chritsmas: Raphael, The Three Graces, 1504-1505, Musée Condé, Chantilly, France. Wikimedia Commons.

4. Four Calling or Collie Birds

A collie is essentially a black bird, and the general idea on day four is to remember the four gospels. But, for our purposes, let’s look at Tracey Emin’s marvelous installment of bronze birds in Sydney. The seventy life-size bird sculptures jewel the city and encourage flânerie.

A bronze bird by Tracey Emin, 'The Distance of Your Heart.'
12 Days of Christmas: One of the bronze birds from Tracey Emin’s The Distance of Your Heart, 2003, Sydney, Australia. City of Sydney News.

5. Five Golden Rings

This seems a little strange, but apparently, the rings are the first five books of the Old Testament. To celebrate this, why not check out Chagall’s illustrated bible or make the tenuous link to some ladies dancing in a ring…

12 Days of Christmas: Henri Matisse, Dance, 1910, The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.
12 Days of Christmas: Henri Matisse, Dance, 1910, The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.

6. Six Geese-a-laying

The six days of Creation, of course! Here are a feisty goose and some ducks, all braving it out in some gloomy weather.

12 Days of Christmas: Johannes Spruyt, Geese and Ducks, c.1660, National Gallery, London, England, UK.
12 Days of Christmas: Johannes Spruyt, Geese and Ducks, c.1660, National Gallery, London, England, UK.

7. Seven Swans-a-Swimming

The seven swans are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, understanding, piety and fear of God. That’s quite a lot of swans, so let’s just stick to looking at two lovely specimens in the sketchbook of none other than Turner.

12 Days of Christmas: Joseph Mallord William Turner, Two Swans, c.1799, Tate, London, England, UK.
12 Days of Christmas: Joseph Mallord William Turner, Two Swans, c.1799, Tate, London, England, UK.

8. Eight Maids-a-Milking

The eight maids are the eight beatitudes, which are the blessings in a sermon by Jesus as told in the Gospel of Matthew. Here’s Jan Brueghel the Elder‘s version of the scene.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Sermon on the Mount, 1598, J. Paul Getty Museum, California, USA.
12 Days of Christmas: Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Sermon on the Mount, 1598, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA.

9. Nine Ladies Dancing

Our nine ladies are meant to represent the fruits of the holy spirt, and to go with that here is a Lady with Fruit.

12 Days of Christmas: Benode Behari Mukherjee, Lady with Fruit, 1957, Tate Britain, London, England, UK.
12 Days of Christmas: Benode Behari Mukherjee, Lady with Fruit, 1957, Tate Britain, London, England, UK.

10. Ten Lords-a-Leaping

You guessed it (maybe): the ten commandments. So here’s a fun image of Moses receiving them.

Moses receives the Ten Commandments, depicted in a Carolingian manuscript circa 840
12 Days of Christmas: Moses receives the Ten Commandments, depicted in a Carolingian manuscript, Moutier-Grandval Bible, c. 800-850 CE, British Library, London, England, UK. Medievalists.

11. Eleven Pipers Piping

Our musical pipers are the eleven faithful (aka not Judas) apostles. Thus, we bring you a a not so faithful rendition of a pipe (the non musical kind), which you can read more about here.

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images , 1929, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
12 Days of Christmas: René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, USA.

12. Twelve Drummers Drumming

Finally, our drummers are meant to be the 12 points in the apostle’s creed. If you’re not sure what those are, here is an illuminated manuscript that tells you.

Twelve articles of faith set out by twelve apostles, illuminated manuscript of the Apostle's Creed, c.1300, Bibliotheque Mazarine, Paris, France
12 Days of Christmas: Twelve articles of faith set out by twelve apostles, illuminated manuscript of the Apostle’s Creed, c.1300, Bibliotheque Mazarine, Paris, France. Initiale.

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