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The crib in the dark and the desert

22 December 2016

Ben Quash escapes the traditional nativity narrative through Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ


In-between images: Rembrandt’s Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1647

In-between images: Rembrandt’s Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1647

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. Luke 2.5-6


“IT IS what you might call a Platform 9¾ picture.” This was the observation of one of the picture researchers working on a team I convene at King’s College, London, whose task is to identify images for inclusion in a planned online visual commentary on scripture.

Matching paintings from the world of art to particular biblical passages has many challenges, but one of them is what to do with images that seem to fall between those scenes that are explicitly described in scripture. These “in- between” images have often been the focus of rich and intense devotional contemplation by Christians.

The image that elicited my picture researcher’s Platform 9¾ comment was comparable. It was a painting of The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. That the Holy Family fled Herod’s infanticide, and that they fled specifically to Egypt, is recorded in the Gospels. No record exists in the scriptural canon, however, of their having rested (though, presumably, they did), nor of what that rest was like.

Nevertheless, the imagined scene had begun to become popular in Western art by the 15th century, and remained so in the Romantic period. It just escaped the strictures of the Council of Trent’s clamp­down on fanciful and extra-canon­ical religious subject matter in favour of clearly decipherable and instructive Bible-based art. Despite a little extrapolation, it was just scriptural enough; so this halfway-house platform has remained open to spiritual travellers.


INDEED, its survival has engen­dered more than an ongoing visual legacy. One of the most touching musical compositions to associate itself with the Christmas season is Hector Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ. It is a musical triptych, which makes it comparable with many works of Christian visual art. The analogy is helpful, for painted triptychs do not have a straight­forwardly linear structure, running from left to right. The centre of a triptych makes sense of the outer panels; the outer panels amplify the meaning and relevance of the central scene.

At the centre of this work is a rendition of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. It is the section of the piece that he wrote first. Despite Berlioz’s acknowledged adult agnos­t­­­­­icism, this central part is an expression of a lifelong and tender attachment to the Christianity that he encountered as a child.

Berlioz frames the narrator’s description of the Holy Family at rest with the voices of singing shepherds on one side, and singing angels on the other. In other
words, he creates in this part of his work what is, to all intents and purposes, a repristinated crib scene (there is even an ass). But he has set it up in the desert rather than in Bethlehem.

Thus, the atmosphere of Christ­mas is captured, but we come on it unexpectedly, and it gains a new freshness as a con­­sequence. The meaning of Chris­tmas is shown not to be bound by time, place, or even liturgical season: it travels, and can flower anywhere.


THIS is perhaps part of the power and the value of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt as a topic for artists, whatever their chosen medium. It stops Christmas from being a hermetically sealed moment, ino­culated against con­tamina­tion by the wider and darker biography of Jesus. In the Rest, Christmas pushes beyond its artificially imposed para­meters, and displays important, chal­­lenging, and contemporary con­nections with the things that come after the manger — while still identifiably “looking a lot like Christ­mas”.

The glowing fireside of Rem­brandt’s painted version of the theme has the spellbinding quality of any crib scene, as Mary, Joseph, and Jesus share a moment of exquisite, reverential intimacy with their baby. But what is arguably Rembrandt’s greatest night land­scape stretches in all directions, and its dark tones press threateningly on these tiny figures.

The expanse of darkness heigh­tens our sense of their vulnerability: it suggests the murderousness from which they flee, and the alienation which they may face ahead. We are not allowed to forget (as stable scenes and nativity plays sometimes allow us to) that these are refugees — asylum-seekers.


BERLIOZ achieves the same effect in his musical interpretation. As the familiar figures of the nativity recon­vene around his desert tableau, there is one group notable by its absence. Here are animals, baby, parents, shepherds, angels — but no kings.

Subtly, he directs our attention to what is one of the greatest preoc­cupa­tions of his work: the dangers of worldly power, and the dev­astating consequences of its corruption. How easily kings (like nativity playgoers) can miss the pol­­itical point of the incarnation. The only king we meet in L’Enfance du Christ is Herod. He is the central focus of Part One (the “left-hand” panel of the triptych).

Berlioz’s love of Shakespeare may well have had an influence on the Hamlet-like way in which a con­versation between two guards on night duty is allowed to set the scene in this opening part. We learn of a corrupt state, and of the uneasy monarch within the palace walls. There is an overpowering sense that something is out of joint: a quality of nervous expectation asserts itself alongside the dreary plodding of the tired soldiers.

By contrast with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, however, the “ghost” who appears in this city is no dead usurpee; he is an infant usurper — one who comes to enact the promise of Mary’s Magnificat, which, through the narrator, Berlioz echoes in the piece’s prologue: “The mighty trembled . . . the weak had hope”. This child will put down rulers from their thrones not by force of arms, but by a new set of values: the shattering of pride, and the advance of the claims of love.

Herod is haunted by the visita­tions of this child, and teeters, as a consequence, on the brink of madness. We see him torn between radically different alternatives: an aching longing for the simplicity of the life of the woodland goatherd, and a fiercely possessive concern with his own “glory” (the rhyme in French poignantly juxtaposes “gloire” with “croire”: selfish glory with the self-giving of faith). To believe, or not to believe? To cling to glory, or not to cling? Herod’s decision for glory ensures that his destiny is, in his words, “to reign, yet not to live”.


WHAT about the other panel in this triptych — the “right-hand” one? Like the bad and the good thief crucified on either side of Christ at Golgotha, Herod’s character is con­trasted in Berlioz’s arrangement with that of an Ishmaelite house­holder, in whom compassion and the ethic of hospitality run strong. This Ishmaelite welcomes the migrants into his home.

All that Herod could not do and be, the householder does and is. He does not shut the door on the child whose parents plead entrance for him and for themselves; he is instantly wide open to them.

This takes the very domestic form of simple charity: food, drink, music, and sleep. He does not have gloire, but he possesses the answer to Joseph’s urgent plea for rest; a sort of urgent Agnus Dei (laissez-nous reposer!). He offers repose, and so Christ makes his home with him, with the implicit promise of an answering peace that passes all understanding.


IT IS hard to deny the quality of devotional intensity that pervades this crystalline, jewel-like work. It gathers itself around a single, still point — the sleeping Christ-child, the very embodiment of peace. And yet it delineates the spiritual drama that shapes the whole human condition. Pride or humility? Vio­lence or hospitality? The possession that destroys self, or the obedience that consecrates it?

Berlioz may have departed from the biblical story in inventing a Herod who seems never to have met the magi, and an “infidel” house­hold in Egypt to which no scripture attests, but, in doing so, he does not seem to have acted merely in service of spicing up the entertainment value of his creation. Arguably, the ways in which he transgresses the letter of the inherited story actually make it more poignant and chal­leng­ing in religious terms.

So thank goodness for Platform 9¾ images. St Francis may, as legend has it, have bequeathed to us the crib scene, but it so easily, in our culture, floats free of the larger story. Christmas’s escape into the desert in the Rest on the Flight into Egypt makes us realise how seriously we still need to take it.


The Revd Dr Ben Quash is Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College, London.

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