From the Annunciation to Adoration: Christmas told by Paula Rego

Da Anunciação à Adoração: O Natal contado por Paula Rego

Annunciation, Nativity and Adoration are three of the most representative and represented themes of Christian iconography. Deeply associated with the Christmas imagery, they have been the inspiration for various artists over time, from Giotto (1267-1337) to Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Using different techniques, media and figurative solutions, the viewer can follow not only the evolution of artistic language, but also the adaptation and transposition of themes to the time and experiences of their creators.

In 2002, also Paula Rego (b. 1935) would address these themes in a series of eight canvases commissioned by the then President of the Republic Jorge Sampaio (b. 1939) for the chapel of the Palace of Belém. In the three paintings with which she begins the Cycle of the Life of the Virgin Mary, the Portuguese artist breaks conventions, leaving us a portrait of the mother of Christ as a woman.


 Paula Rego | P55 Magazine | P55 - The Art platform


On a route built between Portugal and the United Kingdom, Paula Rego asserts himself as one of the most important names in international contemporary art.

Her talent was recognized from an early age, which is why her father, believing that Portugal was not a land for women, encouraged her to enroll at the Slade School of Fine Art, in London. It was during the time she attended this institution (1952-1956) that she met her future husband, the also painter Victor Willing (1928-1988), leading a troubled passion that would serve as inspiration for some of the artist's later works.

In the 1960s, he attracted the attention of the critics, receiving both applause and insults with his first exhibition at the Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes, in Lisbon. His work, then considered "a shocking novelty", already reflected the non-conformist nature of Paula Rego and a denunciation of hidden reality.

The almost abstract collages and reconstructions of this first artistic period, where some influences from Dubuffet (1901-1985) can be found, would gradually give way to a more figurative painting, which explores the potential of gouache and pastel.

Inspired by the engravings that she saw in books as a child, in the company of her father, Paula Rego favors narrative construction in his works, so often drawing inspiration from traditional and fairy tales. It was with the aim of deepening this universe that, in 1976, he obtained a grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Despite his production moving away from the exploration around performing and conceptual art that since the 1960s gained progressive prominence, Paula Rego gained recognition from the artistic system when she was the first invited to join, in 1990, the Associate Artist Scheme, at the National Gallery in London.

The images he bequeaths us, offer - which actors on stage? - complex narratives, loaded with psychological tensions and dramas, which explore the most visceral emotions. Its imaginative and imagery power asserted itself as a cry, which revolutionized the way love, sexuality and women themselves are represented.


Paula Rego | P55 Magazine | P55 - The Art platform


A Virgin with a young face marked by pain, angels who distance themselves from the ethereal imagery and shepherds in whom we recognize the faces of ordinary people, transpose onto canvas the corporeality and human character of characters we recognize from so many other representations.

Annunciation, Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds form part of the Cycle of the Life of the Virgin Mary and the Passion of Christ, commissioned to Paula Rego in February 2002 by the then President of the Portuguese Republic, Jorge Sampaio, during an official visit to the United Kingdom.

The result was eight canvases destined for the chapel of the Palace of Belém - Annunciation, Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, Nativity, Adoration of the Shepherds, Flight into Egypt, Senhora da Piedade, Lamentation over the Body of Christ and Assumption of the Virgin -, in which the artist sought to highlight the figure of Mary, recounting the events from the point of view of the mother of Christ.

Artists from different geographies and chronologies found, over time, different plastic solutions to represent these themes, drawing inspiration both from biblical texts and from the very images that were being disseminated.

In an interview with Richard Zimler (b. 1956), Paula Rego highlights the importance that his work at the National Gallery had for the conception of this series, due to his approximation and familiarity with Christian iconography.

However,Paula Rego he gives these characters Portuguese traits, which we often find in his work and which are reflected in the faces, clothes, hairstyles, transporting us to the country of the 1940s or 1950s.

The Virgin Mary of the Nativity, with her knees together and her feet turned inwards, appears as a shy girl looking at the Angel, represented here as a matron. The position of her right hand on her stomach, which at the same time seems to hold a child in her arms, is the symbol of the good news she announces. However, only a slight luminous aura around Mary and Gabriel's wings indicate its sacred character.

About this painting he would say: "I have five versions of this painting, because I couldn't hold it. I made the figures and put them on the backdrop, which resembled Indian religious paintings, the ones with very bright colors. Then he said that was it! color and mood for all frames."

Paula Rego | P55 Magazine | P55 - The Art platform


On the other hand, it would be the representation of the Nativity that raised a greater controversy. To the traditional animals and starry sky that make up the background, Paula Rego contrasted the figure of Mary lying on the ground, her legs apart in childbirth, resting her head on the legs of the same Angel of matron complexion, who is now assisting at the birth of Christ.

However, it is worth underlining how close this iconography is to that of the women who Paula Rego represented in his works on abortion: life and its loss in a dichotomy that does not cease to be associated with the very destiny of Christ.


 Paula Rego | P55 Magazine | P55 - The Art platform


Finally, the Adoration of the Shepherds, a theme that lends itself to the picturesque representation of nature and animals, is worked on by Paula Rego in this cycle as a closed scenario, which focuses attention on the characters. Once again Paula Rego uses the luminosity of colors to confer a sacred character on Mary and on Jesus, reinforcing the contrast with the dark tones that characterize the three shepherds.

When questioned about elements such as the tiger or the serpent in the hands of the Virgin, Paula Rego she says she was inspired by the elements that surrounded her in her studio, not giving them any symbolic explanation. The presence of the reptile, however, is said to be curious, not forgetting to exercise a parallel with the idea of original sin in the Old Testament.

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