In this insightful article, first published by The Guardian, 'Thoroughly modern mothers' – artists reimagine the Christmas nativity scene'.
What does the nativity scene, and most particularly the symbol of the mother and child, mean to a modern, more secular society?
Nine leading contemporary artists were challenged – including Mark Wallinger, Martin Parr, Rebecca Warren and Fiona Banner – to create their own version. Here are the artworks they came up with, along with their explanations of the journey they took.
Interviews by Laura Barnett
'My daughters Martha and Dora are playing Jesus and his mother, in Titian’s Gypsy Madonna'
'I have struggled for years to find a way to portray more than one person: somehow you have to make a single image out of the group. Old Master portrait painters like Van Dyck, who themselves looked back to Renaissance painters such as Titian and Raphael, forged ways to depict groups of people, carefully dividing the background in relation to the figures, playing with the direction of people’s gazes, the flow of drapery. They tended to paint real people in commissioned portraits like this one, rather than idealised imaginary figures. The more stylised Madonna-and-child and Holy Family compositions of the earlier era were the template of these developments. People are not always very happy with their portraits when they first see them, and sometimes ask for changes; but this family from Belgium have been very enthusiastic'
'These babies are with their mothers in the dayroom at the maternity unit in St Michaels hospital in Bristol. They’re just a day old. It’s amazing to think that by now they’re already 29 times older than they were on the day I photographed them. Not all the women I asked wanted to be photographed. They had just given birth, they were very vulnerable - but also proud of their babies. They had expended a lot of pain and energy and time delivering them, and it’s a real achievement. I was interested in capturing the look between the mothers and their babies – the connection that starts as soon as the baby is born. The bond between mother and child is a common truth, and here we have a manifestation of it in modern times'
Martin Parr / Magnum
'This image is taken from a proposal I made for a nativity at St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, London. I didn’t get the commission, but my plan was to install an empty crib in Trafalgar Square over the month of December, and employ 24-hour security to watch over it. The shop-bought crib is a familiar object that betokens thousands of everyday miracles. Employing security for an object that costs only £70 suggests a greater worth. The three guards remind us of the three men from the east, who wait in readiness for the arrival or return of the Messiah - and of the threat posed by Herod in the story. The vulnerability of the naked crib represents both hope and belief, and the fragility of that hope and belief in the modern world. Positioning the crib at the very centre of a great city heightens the sense that we are a world away from the bucolic scene fondly represented in the nativity down the years'
'Mother font knocks on the door of an inn and asks: “Can we stop for the night?” The inn-keeper answers: “We don’t want your type here.” Both of these full stops have been magnified by the same amount, but the full stop from the font called “Child” is little and cheeky; the one from the font called “Mother” is like a big egg about to hatch. There are no words between Mother font and Child font; it’s a silent conversation. Is it deep and philosophical, or a joke worthy of a Christmas cracker? I think the latter'
'What is a nativity scene about? When I first thought about it, I thought of a school playground, of camels and kings. But then I realised it’s actually about a young homeless family, and their struggle to find a place to bring up their children. My photograph is of Leyila, a young refugee from Somalia, and her eight-week-old baby, Kymora. I photographed Leyila and Kymora in their living room, basing the image around Caravaggio’s painting The Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence. Caravaggio used ordinary people as models, which I find very inspiring. I used an old Tungsten light, which takes about 15 minutes just to warm up, to give the photograph that “Caravaggio light”, and to create a contrast between the cold blue light from outside, and the stark reality of Leyila’s flat. But what I wanted to show above all is the beauty of the simple connection between a mother and her child' Tom Hunter
'These are traditional Moroccan toy figures that I saw in a market in Marrakech. The Father Christmas one caught my eye - the stall was obviously catering to the western market - so I asked the stallholder if I could borrow some figures to make my scene. I took lots of photgraphs and then Photoshopped them together. The figures are made from a strange material a bit like leather, and some of them have no faces - which makes them look eerie, a bit like Darth Vader. I drew faces on Mary and Joseph to make them look more friendly. I had to make the baby Jesus myself out of toilet paper, gift-wrap and the string from a bar of hotel-room soap'
'These photographs show a sculpture, Maternity by Jacob Epstein, before and after it was mutilated. It’s one of many statues Epstein made between 1907 and 1908 for what was then the British Medical Association building on The Strand, London. (It now houses the Zimbabwean embassy. It caused a big stink: the National Vigilance Association, [an organisation formed to combat prostitution, with links to the church], called it an affront to public decency, because the mother was bare-breasted. In 1937, the penis on a neighbouring Epstein sculpture, Man, broke off. The police, the building’s architect Charles Holbern, and the then head of the Royal Academy used this as an excuse to mutilate all the sculptures, using a hammer and chisel. The second photograph shows the sculpture as it is today. For me, it’s shocking that Christians could, ironically, be involved in defacing a statue of a mother and child.'
'Usually I use existing pictures of cats from various sources in my work. This time, I have used a picture of a turkey family (by David Guralnick) that I found on a turkey website'
With thanks and appreciation to all contributors