Frankfurt - Joseph gets depressed and contemplates deserting the Virgin Mary?

The hand of a sceptical midwife who checks Mary's virginity withers? As a child you were probably never told those Christmas stories.

They are the focus of an exhibition in the Liebieghaus Museum in the German city of Frankfurt on 2 000 years of Christmas tales.

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John leave much unsaid in the narrative about the birth of Jesus. The exhibition entitled Holy Night: The Christmas Stories And Their Imagery shows writers in antiquity and medieval times were only too willing to fill the gaps.

Though the medieval church refused to recognise these legends - and even banned them - they were part of folk culture and painters and sculptors took them up as subjects. From them, customary understandings evolved that spawned further new stories.

These are accounts that you won't find in any version of the New Testament.

Most of these stories have been forgotten today, and even the curator of the exhibition, Stefan Roller, was surprised at some of them.

 

 

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The exhibition was to be a small holiday season presentation, but then Roller discovered “a whole host of strange anecdotes,” so the project grew to include 100 objects from 40 collections ranging from the Louvre to the Vatican museums and repositories in New York City.

The Liebieghaus is making possible “a new and surprising look into something that was seemingly well-known.”

Christmas crib scenes are still to be seen at the show, but even they are unusual. One comes from Naples, one from Austrian Alps, both from the 18th century, and they are so large that each fills its own room.

In the manger from Naples there are in addition to the shepherds and sheep an elephant and a camel, numerous onlookers and musicians and even angels hanging from the ceiling.

The other is made completely from paper. Two peasant farmers and painters - a father and son - cut out, painted and formed everything into an artificial landscape in which the holy family appears over and over.

Among the curiosities at the exhibition are a statue of Mary with a flap in its stomach that provides a glimpse of a - standing - Baby Jesus; a painting that portrays in exacting detail the circumcision of Jesus' foreskin; and a “Baby Jesus” which used to be cradled daily by nuns just before Christmas with the supposed result that “visions rained down” in the convent, according to Roller.

 

 

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Ivory carvings and tapestries tell scenes out of the life of Mary, and the old illustrated books sometimes resemble comics, says Roller.

Even though most of the art dates from the Middle Ages and Modern period, its inspirations are older and are exemplified by a Byzantine ciborium decorated around the year 500 with Christmas stories.

In some of the artworks the observer can discover well-known scenes: the Annunciation, Mary and Joseph seeking an inn for the night in Bethlehem and the birth at the manger.

In others, now-forgotten Christmas fictions tell of corn that grew overnight when the Holy Family rode by, or of Salome, a midwife who doubted Mary was genuinely still a virgin. When she touched Mary's private parts to check, her hand withered.

So stricken, she changed her mind and her hand was made well again. That story, part of a novel-like story dating from around the 3rd century, was even acted out in medieval nativity plays.

The show runs until January 29.