No Comment, Quotation — December 25, 2008, 8:39 am

John Donne’s Nativity

bruegel-adoration

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

John Donne, Nativity from La Corona (1610)


This early poem from the collection La Corona is a prime example of the Donne paradox. The key to its understanding lies in contrasting the opening line “Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,” with the contradictory “how He/Which fills all place, yet none holds Him.” The Nativity Donne presents is a historical reference, a few moments in time, standing for a message which is timeless and universal. The paradox moves in both time and space. The image of tight confinement figures often in Donne’s writings, poetical and theological, and its significance is unfolded best here: “We are all conceived in close Prison; in our Mothers wombs, we are close Prisoners all; when we are borne, we are borne but to the liberty of the house; Prisoners still, though within larger walls; and then all our life is but a going out to the place of Execution, to death.” (Easter Sunday 1619, Sermons, vol. 2, p. 107)

But the message of the Nativity, says Donne, is a message of purpose and direction on this path tread by endless humans across the ages: “Divers men may walke by the Sea side, and the same beames of the Sonne giving light to them all, one gathereth by the benefit of that light pebbles, or speckled shells, for curious vanitie, and another gathers precious Pearle, or medicinall Ambar, by the same light. So the common light of reason illumines us all; but one imployes this light upon the searching of impertinent vanities, another by a better use of the same light, finds out the Mysteries of Religion; and when he hath found them, loves them, not for the lights sake, but for the naturall and true worth of the thing it self.” This is a “supernaturall light of faith and grace,” he writes, that made its appearance at the Nativity, but it is a light of reason that enables humankind both to understand its maker and itself. (Christmas Day 1621, Sermons, vol. 3, p. 359.)

The Bruegel painting of the Adoration is almost unique among Breugel’s works in several respects. First, it has a portrait rather than landscape aspect. Second, it presents characters in a glorified way, reminiscent of the masters, such as Raphael, that Bruegel studied in Italy (notice the extraordinary attention paid to the elegant fur-trimmed robes and the careful tailoring characteristic of the High Gothic, something rarely seen in Bruegel’s works). The Adoration stands in stark contrast to most of his work, which presents figures in simple, quotidian poses, as caricatures, lacking any pretense. Here the elegance of the posing is striking and very unusual, though the faces and looks are sometimes idiocyncratic (yes, one of the soldiers on the right is wearing eyeglasses, and of course the presence of soldiers is itself quite unusual, though this is likely a way for Bruegel to protest the Spanish military occupation of his native Flanders). While unlike other Bruegels, it is a feast for the eyes, an extraordinary work of religious art, and a painting which merits a voyage to be seen. It hangs in the National Gallery in London.

Listen to Michael Praetorius’s In dulci jubilio (1607) in a performance by the Vienna Boys Choir:

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Neoliberal Arts

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today