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Art review: Naïvety: A Contemporary Nativity

20 December 2019

Katy Hounsell-Robert sees Pete Codling’s take on Christmas

© pete codling

Innocents, by Pete Codling

Innocents, by Pete Codling

THE first showing of Pete Codling’s acclaimed Christmas “Naïvety” was in a small art gallery; but this Christmas, it can be seen in the loftier space of Portsmouth Cathedral, forming a pictorial screen in front of the west doors. It is Codling’s own modern, moral, and idealistic interpretation of the characters of the nativity in large charcoal-on-paper portraits, each one endowed with gold-leaf squares or halos. The Dean hopes that it will inspire people to reflect on the nativity and which modern characters they would choose.

Codling portrays Nelson Mandela as a young man in tribal dress carrying a black lamb over his shoulders and Mahatma Ghandi in his sari — both as shepherds, because they were of the people and spent their lives working for human rights with no desire for power or riches. Their shepherd dog is Anubis, the Egyptian god. In individual panels, the wise men are Stephen Hawking, suspended in black-hole space, for his contribution to science, David Attenborough for his mission to inspire love and understanding for the planet, and Malala Yousafzai in Muslim dress, standing on a pile of books and holding up a light. She risked her life defending the right of girls to be educated. Her halo is composed of bullets and pens.

Mary is something of a surprise. Based on Michelangelo’s Pietà, the young lovely head of the Virgin is cast o nto the ground and replaced by Mother Teresa, while Joseph is portrayed as a kindly Father Christmas.

Codling takes a boyish delight in his angels, portrayed as riot police, protected in armour and halo helmets, while Gabriel seems to be suspended like a marionette manipulated by God.

Codling is not afraid to portray the innkeeper as a pope guarding his material interests against intrusion of spiritual truth and holding out his mitre upside down like a begging bowl, while Herod has President Trump’s head, crowned with a halo of barbed wire, on a bloated naked body with a bird tweeting in one corner, and holding a child upside down like a piece of game. This is next to the massacre of the holy innocents, perhaps inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, focusing on large close-up view of the confused innocent children being torn mercilessly from their grieving parents.

He also added Adam portrayed with a sheep’s head and Eve with a cow’s head to suggest their original naivety, although Eve holds the golden apple tightly in her hand.


“Naïvety: A Contemporary Nativity” is in Portsmouth Cathedral until 27 January. www.portsmouthcathedral.org.uk

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