Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas, courtesy of Jan Steen

I love this painting:

It's called "Het Sint-Nicolaasfeest" (The Feast of St. Nicholas) by Jan Steen.

I discovered it here: The Flemish Claim To Sinterklaas In America.

Yesterday, December 6th, children in Flanders received gifts. These gifts ostensibly come from Sinterklaas with the aid of his Moor assistant, "Swarte Piet". This tradition had strong Catholic origins, which of course made it anathema to 17th century convicted Calvinists. Thankfully, key members of the Dutch Reformed Church in Nieuw Nederland who had roots in officially Catholic Flanders, were unwilling to give up their cultural traditions. [...]

That inspired me to look up the facts about the painting. I didn't save the links, so I'm going to try to summarize what I read about it from memory.

It's believed to be painted around 1665-1668, and shows a Catholic family celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas.

"Sinterklaas" would supposedly come down the chimney while everyone slept, and leave goodies in the shoes of the children. But if the children had been naughty, they would get something that wasn't nice. Thus, the fun begins!

See the boy on the left, who's crying? He apparently had been naughty, and got a lump of coal or something equally disappointing in his shoe. Witness the smirking older girl, probably his sister, passing the shoe around for everyone to see. And another sibling, a younger brother, pointing, who's also pleased by his brother's humiliation, in that way that siblings will do. The father can be seen sitting in the background, looking rather pleased with himself.

In the foreground, the mother is doting on a little girl (often described as "spoiled" in most of the descriptions I read), who is clinging to a doll. The doll is supposed to be a saint (I forget the name) who is known for protecting children.

Leaning against the table next to the mother is an odd piece of decorated bread. It's a special loaf made for the feast. The Protestants at one time passed laws forbidding the bread to be made, condemning the practice as "Papist". But apparently the law was largely ignored.

On the right of the painting you can see a young man holding a baby and pointing upward towards the chimney. He's telling the baby the story of Sinterklaas, and how he comes down the chimney bringing gifts. The little pie-faced boy next to them with his mouth wide open, is singing a song of thanks to the Saint, for bringing all the goodies.

And last but not least, in the background you see grandma, who seems to be motioning to the crying boy to come over to her. Does she have something for him behind that curtain? So it will be a happy Christmas for everyone after all!

The expressions on the faces are so realistic, and all the little things going on, the details... it's timeless. I love it!

A high-resolution version can be seen on Wikipedia. Click on the link, then click on the picture to zoom in even closer:

Jan Steen - Het Sint Nicolaasfeest

Merry Christmas, and best wishes to all for the Holidays.

1 comment:

benning said...

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year, Chas! Hope all is well at Robin's Wood.

Where is Patrick?