The story of Jesus’ birth is well-known by most: He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born nine months later to a teenage virgin in the overcrowded city of Bethlehem in Judea. Star and angels heralded his birth, leading wise men and shepherds to that manger where he lay, that God-man whose coming had been foretold by Jewish prophets many times over.
The settings of these events are likewise well-known: interior (Annunciation), desert (Journey of the Magi), field (Annunciation to the Shepherds), stable (Nativity). Especially the last one, which has become part of the all-too-familiar Christmastime image that decorates front lawns, altars, tabletops, and mantles all season long.
So what would happen if we were to replace these traditional backdrops with more contemporary ones? Would it make the story less foreign, less stale? Would it help us to celebrate Christ’s advent in a more conscious and grateful way?
This was the objective of Norwegian artist Trygve Skogrand, who in 2007-08 created a series of digital collages that place the baby Jesus in everyday settings, swapping out the ancient Judean environment for a more modern one. Skogrand transplants a Renaissance-style Virgin and Child into a diner, a shopping mall, an airport terminal, a bus stop, a junkyard, and onto a snowy front lawn. Through these images, Skogrand urges us to consider the Christmas story anew, for our time.
Skogrand first got the idea to create these anachronistic images when he rediscovered a holy card that he had received at a childhood Christmas party. It pictured Jesus as the Great Shepherd—calm, peaceful, glowing, leading a flock of sheep. He remembers thinking, as a small boy, how beautiful Jesus looked in that picture. But with time, the card became crumpled and worn; it seemed to lose its luster, Skogrand said, and not only that, but its relevance, too. And so he wondered, “What would happen if I let the figure on the holy card loose from its rather kitschy surroundings of sunsets, tiny birds, and pink flowers? Would something happen to the figure if the surroundings changed?” Out of this question was born the “Sacred Pilgrims” series in 2001, and, six years later, “The Christmas Story.”
Skogrand says on his website that Christmas, to him, is about the meeting of the sacred with the commonplace, “and how it changes both of them.” It is the story of a holy God becoming a mortal man, so that he could make mortal men holy.
There’s nothing novel about reimaging an old story into a modern-day context; since humans first started creating art, this is what they’ve been doing. What’s unique about Skogrand’s art is the visible juxtaposition, the physical layering, of old and new inside a single narrative image.
The very purpose of collage is to piece together different forms from different sources to create a new whole. The process involves cutting, pasting, and shuffling around. For this series, Skogrand created cutouts of figures from prayer cards and overlaid them atop photographs of twenty-first-century urban locations. The result is a group of images that are simultaneously otherworldly and this-worldly.
I wonder if this is how people perceived Jesus: as belonging to both heaven and Earth. Jesus was in every way distinct from the created world, yet he removed himself from his natural surroundings, overlaid his divine nature with a human one, and threw himself down onto the plane of human history. Jesus is out of place in Skogrand’s images, yet oddly, paradoxically, he fits. The buzz and whirl of modern life, and the still quiet glow of “God with us”—these two disparate elements combine in these works to create a new, meaningful whole.
Now maybe when you walk down a sidewalk, up an escalator, or through a graffitied tunnel, you will be able to see Jesus in those places. Because his sacred presence infuses the commonplace.