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Stories of the nativity

By Alix Norman

Nativitiy Stories, co-curated by Myrto Hatzaki (curator of the Paris Collection) and Loukia Loizou Hadjigavriel (Director of the Gallery), is the first international temporary exhibition at the AG Leventis Gallery, and runs until the beginning of March. But surely there’s no better time to see it than the present – after all, what could be more topical than artworks of the nativity at this time of year?

“Of course, it’s the perfect theme for Christmas,” says Katerina Stephanides, the Gallery’s Education Officer. “The exhibition looks not just at the Nativity, but how the story has changed over time,” she says, enthusiastically. “How the history of art has shaped the relationship between text and image. Imagine,” she says, explaining that this is a technique she often uses with school groups, “our modern day idea of the Nativity scene – Mary sitting up, holding a naked baby Jesus and surrounded by the adoring Magi – as the culmination of a chronological game of Chinese Whispers…”

Painters through the ages were influenced, she suggests, not just by the artists who had gone before, but also the prevailing mood and dictates of the time. St Bridget’s Revelation in the 1300s, for example, greatly shaped the succeeding iconography: “From a prone Virgin Mary and swaddled Jesus, we suddenly change to Mary venerating a naked baby. And in a similar manner, the Council of Trent ruled that, in the 1500s, the midwives should no longer be present – this, after all, was an immaculate conception, and anything ‘inappropriate’ should be removed.”

In effect, then, the exhibition is aptly titled, for it’s really all about storytelling: the story not just of the Nativity, but also of how perceptions of this best-loved scene have changed over time. Describing a roughly chronological expedition down the ages, it’s a journey from traditional Byzantine depictions through western mediaeval art to the 17th century and the aftermath of the Baroque period into Modernism. Comprising nearly 60 different works – most of which are on loan from internationally renowned galleries and museums – the exhibition aims at bringing a new perspective to the relationship between holy texts and art, focusing on the juxtaposition of images and words.

And what emerges is a Nativity that’s not merely a single narrative, but an exciting and multifaceted story. From the 13th century cameo keepsake to Diamantis’ oil on canvas The Nativity of 1959, this is an exhibition which utterly transports the viewer. There’s a divine Jacopo Bassano lapis lazuli miniature (“Other than gold, this would have been the most valuable material of the time,” says Katerina. “It’s the idea of combining art and religion in something equally precious”) from the 1500s; the Rhodes Missal of 1504 (a richly illuminated manuscript on vellum); a Breughel masterpiece Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist in a Landscape; 17th and 18th century prints from the Bible Museum in Amsterdam; and a Konstantinos Parthenis work of humble beauty (entitled simply Madonna and Child) which was the artist’s gift to his own daughter on her 21st birthday.

And complementing the outstanding artworks are pieces from three great photographers: Stelios Kallinikou, Matt Crossick and Guillaume Onimus. Commissioned to approach afresh the historical representations of the Nativity – exploring the interaction between viewer, image and text – the trio worked independently, photographing famous paintings of the Nativity in churches, museums and a number of other institutions as they identified the ways viewers and the environment converse with these famous works.

“One of the photographers, for example, focused on the idea of religious places that are also monuments, such as UNESCO churches,” Katerina clarifies. “Another turned a picture of a famous, religious-themed painting into a diptych – a traditional format for Christian art –highlighting the artistic layers of interpretation and reinterpretation.”

Interspersed throughout the paintings, the photographers’ work serves to accentuate what is truly a glorious – and topical – exhibition; the ideal seasonal getaway when you need an hour or two of quiet beauty. And, who knows, you might also find the perfect last-minute Christmas gift: in conjunction with the exhibition, the Gallery is offering a range of related merchandise. So whether you need a jigsaw puzzle for the kids, the complete catalogue of works for a coffee table culture vulture or merely a tranquil hour of contemplative peace, don’t miss out on The Nativity Stories this Christmas.

The Nativity Stories
At the Leventis Gallery runs until March 2. Showcasing notable art on loan from museums and galleries worldwide. A free tour in Greek will take place tomorrow, December 22, at 11am; reserve your place on 22 668838 or at [email protected] Dates for tours in English and Educational programs will be announced shortly. A bilingual catalogue and gifts inspired by the exhibition are on sale at the gallery shop, and audioguides are available from reception. The Gallery is open every day – except Tuesdays and public holidays – from 10am to 5pm, and on Wednesdays from 10am to 10pm.

The Nativity Stories Through the Child’s Gaze
A morning of story telling and creativity for children. December 29. AG Leventis Gallery, Nicosia. 10.30am-12.30pm. €10. Tel: 22-668838

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