Hurtling down the Mound this week on my bike, I found myself slamming on squealing brakes as I reached the bottom, despite the lights being green.
Tim Chalk’s compelling sculpture of the nativity was what arrested me. In particular, it was the realism of the skinny newborn, draped over Mary’s shoulder, which caught my eye. “I’ve seen babies look like that,” I thought.
As I looked closer, what struck me about this scene was its sense of ordinary busyness – nothing rushed, but something in progress. The baby is old enough to have been fed, cut from his umbilical, washed, burped, and lulled to sleep. He has not yet been wrapped in a cloth and laid in the manger, although Joseph is there at the ready.
What the artist has chosen to show us is not the face of the Christ-child, encircled with a glowing halo, but Jesus’ bottom – a dangerous hold for any new parent. “Behold, your saviour comes!”
At the ‘back’ of the sculpture we see a shepherd gingerly entering the stable to offer a new-born lamb, watched by an eager sheepdog. Outside, a shepherd-boy carries another lamb to a second shepherd, who lingers outside, as if the stable is sacred space.
This scene at the rear was lit by the December sun reflecting off the shop-fronts on Princes St., drawing attention to the shepherd-boy’s offering. Caught between the shops of Edinburgh’s commercial heart, and the classical grandeur of the Royal Academy building behind, the power of this humble, busy scene was magnified.
As I rode away, I left in a swirl of thoughts and feelings. A real baby, bottom and all. A young girl, who took a risk. An eager, if unskilled, father. The humble offerings of simple people. The location: rustic, sacred ground, sandwiched between symbols of commerce and culture. Clues, this Christmas, of where we might find the child.