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The Birth of Christ

Christmas Story, Image 207

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Audio transcription

Albrecht Altdorfer’s painting seems magical, dramatic, even fantastical with its scenic depiction and its particular lighting effects.

The words „O, Saviour, open wide the heavens!“ echo this effect. They open Johannes Brahms’s motet which he composed between 1863 and 1864 for mixed choir without backing. Brahms drew on the eponymous advent song whose lyrics were written by Friedrich von Spee in 1622 under great distress four hundred years ago in the middle of the Thirty Years War. In his motet, Brahms freely develops melodically the five verses of his source, greatly enriching the modest song’s complexity.

Equally complex is Albrecht Altdorfer’s small painting depicting the birth of Christ. Not only the star of Bethlehem shines like a huge planet, also the torn open sky emits celestial light. A further source of light brightens up the festive and intimate birth scene, painted here as an angular ruin as was common in the time: This source of light is baby Jesus himself who from within shines a celestial light. In their worship, Mary and Joseph with the angels around and above are illuminated by his celestial light.

Brahms’s multi-vocal motet responds to this dramatic lighting effect of the painting. The lead of the voices produces a veritable sound panorama that diffuses like the celestial light.

Night landscape with a ruin. Joseph with a burning candle, Mary in a blue coat, the Christ child on straw. Radiant Christ child illuminates three angels hovering over the ruin. An open sky reveals a bright gap and a large, shining star.

Full Length Music

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Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
„O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf“
RIAS Kammerchor Berlin
1877

Details

The Birth of Christ (around 1511–1513),
Albrecht Altdorfer,
Linden wood,
36.2 × 25.0 cm

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Jörg P. Anders

Detail, Christ child

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The radiant Christ child outshines all lights in the painting. Inspired by the vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden, this depiction has been present in art since the 14th century.
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Audio transcription

From an interview with Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

A light radiates from the Christ child. This motif has been used in painting since the 14th century, it is connected to the vision of holy Birgitta of Sweden. She had a vision where she saw the birth of Christ. As the Christ child enters the world in this painting, he outshines Joseph’s candle as well as the stars. Altdorfer accomplishes this so well in his piece. At the time, fine art had just discovered to paint such light that radiates from something or someone. Today, we know this kind of spotlighting from modern film and theatre, but then, it was quite a novel thing to show.

Detail, Glossy mortar joints

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The ruin where the birth scene takes place emits a peculiar light from its mortar joints, giving the location an otherworldly vision.
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Audio transcription

From an interview with Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

We see a crumbling ruin. It is a very peculiar ruin, as its structure is difficult to ascertain. It’s a strange, labyrinthine building with protruding and sometimes bizarrely formed masonry, where single beams still hold, while others have collapsed. Everything glistens in an oddly unreal light. Altdorfer accomplishes something really special here: he illuminates the mortar joints of the brick wall with great intensity. This light creates something that’s completely unreal, surreal, vision-like. There are oddly different sources of light that are neither photographic nor consistent and yet, this section is lit from the left where you can see the glossy mortar joints.

Detail, Appearances of light

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Two peculiar light phenomena in the sky, including the Star of Bethlehem and iridescent light, symbolize the supernatural.
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Audio transcription

From an interview with Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

In this darkness suddenly appear two bodies of light that are hard to explain. At one point, heaven is torn open and angels float down, and we can really see the opening and behind it golden light. We can’t see what’s there in heaven, it’s clearly not the natural, atmospheric sky, rather the celestial heaven where angels reside. There’s a second star, and that’s really strange because it comes across like a large round sphere in the corner. Due to its shape it looks like a ball with tassels and rays, almost like a star in some Science Fiction illustration, also because it is so unusually large. It’s hard to explain, it can only be the star of Bethlehem floating by.

The Birth of Christ
Gemäldegalerie
Main floor, Room 3

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