Because tomorrow is my birthday, this period at the end of December is always one of personal reflection as well as a time to prepare with everyone else for a new year. My marriage three years ago to Mr C on January 2nd has only strengthened my sense that this is a season of new beginnings.
This beautiful painting by Viggo Johansen of Denmark, painted in 1891, is one that I have liked since I was young. “Silent Night” conveys a sense of wholeness and joy through the device of a family joined in a Christmas-eve circle about their tree. The light, the stances of the figures, and the painting’s message of domestic yet spiritual wonder and happiness are deeply affecting.
The family depicted was the painter’s own. In truth, the work of creating this image was a terrible trial to all involved. The mother (whose back is to us) and children had to pose for their painter-father for many, many hours. Though the painting was begun at Christmastime, it was not actually finished until April, after many interventions to preserve and eventually replace the dried-out tree. The mother grew weary of the project, especially when it extended into a period when each of the children came down with the measles.
When finally finished and exhibited, the painting failed to sell. Eventually, however, a buyer came forward, placed the work in a museum, and thus ensured the continued appreciation of what would become the painter’s most famous work.
The painting’s comic back-story is a poignant reminder of the strange and arduous process through which we all struggle to attain something joyous and whole. It offers a salient lesson to bear in mind as we head into the holiday and a season of new starts.