Special Occasion And News

The Best Time of the Year: Christmas in Art

Pola Otterstein 25 December 2020 min Read

To many of us, the Christian religious and cultural celebration called Christmas is surely one of our favorite times of the year. Burl Ives famously sang “Have a holly, jolly Christmas... It's the best time of the year…” So, let’s sum up these jolly holidays and look again at what Christmas in art looks like.

One of the best ways to do this is to look at some beautiful pieces of art. Which things remind you of Christmas the most? If it happens to be angels, snow, and the Christmas spirit – that’s what we can find in the paintings shown below.

Did you know that during the Middle Ages, King Richard II of England organized a Christmas celebration, at which in 1377, three hundred sheep were eaten? It seems that not much has changed since then! 

The Census at Bethlehem

A Flemish village covered in snow is one of the first paintings from Western art to present a snowy landscape. Bruegel depicted the scene out of his local, daily life on a cold winter’s day, adding only Joseph and the pregnant Virgin Mary on a donkey. The scene is described in Luke 2, 1-5.

The Census at Bethlem, Peter Bruegel, 1566, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Christmas in Art
Peter Bruegel, The Census at Bethlehem, 1566, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels, Belgium.

The Annunciation

This beautiful piece is a transition from the Gothic period into the Renaissance because of the lighting and space. The delicate and innocent Mary is presented in an outdoor environment receiving a blessing from Gabriel. What was novel about Fra Angelico was that he depicted the figures in an outdoor setting.

The Announciation, Fra Angelico, 1437-1446, Convent of San Marco, Florence, Christmas in Art
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1437-1446, Convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The Nativity

Federico Barocci was an Italian painter active during the Renaissance époque, considered to have been one of the best painters of his times. In this picture we see Mary kneeling before God. There is an indication of a strong bond between the mother and her child.

The Nativity, Federico Barrocci, 1597, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Christmas in Art
Federico Barrocci, The Nativity, 1597, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Christmas Homecoming

This one is a great example of honest emotions. The people in the illustration look so jolly...And that's what Christmas should be about - laughter, joy, and happiness. Norman Rockwell asked his relatives and friends to pose for this piece to make it look more realistic.

Christmas Homecoming, Norman Rockwell, 1948, Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, December 25, 1948. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections, Christmas in Art
Norman Rockwell, Christmas Homecoming, 1948, cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, 1948. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

Snow Scene at Argenteuil

This impressionist painting might not remind one of Christmas directly, but I think it has a real Christmas feeling to it, as well as being so beautiful at the same time! It shows a boulevard by the Seine river with lots and lots of snow. It emphasizes the painter’s strong connection to the seasonality of the weather and its colors. Monet's way of presenting this scene – not simply a winter landscape – shows how strongly influenced he was by the Ukiyo-e prints popular during his times.

Snow Scene at Argeneuil, Claude Monet, 1875, National Gallery, London, Christmas in Art
Claude Monet, Snow Scene at Argeneuil, 1875, National Gallery, London

Here's some more masterpieces depicting Christmas scenes: