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Digital Archives: Christmas Past

"The Madonna and Child: a Christmas Exhibition" (December 16, 1939-January 7, 1940)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wing E, Gallery 15: "The Madonna and Child: a Christmas Exhibition," (December 16, 1939–January 7, 1940); View of Virgin and Child from Poligny (33.23) as installed in the Galleries; Facing north. See Slideshow.

In 1937, for the very first time at the Museum, the Christmas spirit "received unusually graphic representation," according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (December 1937). A small exhibition from December 19, 1937, through January 2, 1938, featured The Christmas Story in Art: The Nativity, the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Flight into Egypt as illustrated in forty paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, and decorative arts chosen from the Museum's collection.

The exhibition quickly became popular, and in subsequent years a companion exhibition was shown at The Cloisters—including a liturgical miracle play enacted at the midnight mass on the Twelfth Night of Christmas (January 6). The play was a thirteenth-century work titled The Miracle of Theophilus, written by Rutebeuf (a French lyrical poet and playwright) and translated by then curator James Rorimer (who became the director of The Cloisters in 1949 and the Museum's director in 1955). The play depicts the legend of Theophilus, the Administrator of the Church of Adana in Cilicia, who, upon losing his office, bartered his soul to the devil. Overcome with remorse, he prayed to the Virgin Mary, who returned his soul to him and broke his pact with the devil. The play was staged in front of the thirteenth-century Coronation doorway in the Romanesque Chapel of The Cloisters. The actors were graduates from the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater, accompanied by the Pius X Choir.

The success of these exhibitions encouraged the Museum to make them a yearly event. One announcement of the exhibition stated, "May not this little exhibition, so thoroughly in the spirit of the season, be considered in the nature of a Christmas greeting to the Museum and its friends?"

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