The artwork of J. Kirk Richards has previously been featured here at BCC, in particular by Brad. I do not know Richards personally but I am excited about the publication of a new volume entitled ‘The Nativity‘ which includes his artwork. Although I usually post my religious art series on Sunday I am sharing this mid-week in the hope that this post might catch some who may still be thinking about what to give as gifts this Christmas. This book seems ideal.
J. Kirk Richards (1975 – ), Nativity, 2002, oil on panel.
Richards’ paintings are often immediately striking while also rewarding sustained attention. His representations of Jesus prompt reflection about the assumptions that we bring to our worship and this painting continues to encourage such thought. Although Richards’ work is often labeled as figurative, I think such a designation situates his work incorrectly. Certainly some of his pieces are very much in this vein (cf. his stunning series on mothers and children) but his paintings of Angels are clearly something other than figurative. They attempt to compress the enigma of the divine.
This ‘Nativity’ scene is part of this effort.
In ‘Nativity’, Jesus seems, as perhaps he should, otherworldly; closely identified with the star rather than any of the people. And yet he is inseparable from this nucleus of a family who now surround him. Although the pre-mortal life is not a uniquely Mormon idea this tension certainly touches on Latter-day Saint ideas around our dual parentage. Children are born to families but they are never wholly ours.
This, of course, does not diminish the quiet intimacy of this relation between the child and His parents. The shared light of this central triad draws us in even while feel like intruders upon the scene. Like the others surrounding the holy family we do not want to encroach but neither are we ready to interrupt our worship of our Lord.
But this family are not the only people brought together by this birth. Two figures in the left of the painting embrace each other tenderly as they regard this sacred scene. Perhaps what is most strange about these figures is that they are not wholly present. The stonework behind these two is not completely distinguishable from these characters. They literally blend in with the background. To the right, another partially formed figure stands against the wall.
There are at least two possible ways to read these figures. In these precious moments of intimacy, when we are fully open to another – just like these parents and their child – it is perhaps inevitable that others who may be around us begin to recede into the background. These figures, in all their ambiguity, serve to capture that profound moment when we receive the life of another into our own without condition and give ourselves to them completely.
Additionally it is possible to see these half-formed figures as something akin to angels; perhaps here to worship and adore the Christ-child. My own sense, derived from Richards’ other work, is that these figures are not angels.
Why then depict this moment of full openness and vulnerability? What Richards’ wants to show us, I think, is that ‘peace on earth’ and ‘good will toward men’ is found and cultivated through these moments of quiet intimacy. As we regard the Christ-child surrounded by our loved ones we are blessed with that promised peace.