Nazoa, a winner of the Venezuelan National prize for Journalism, created this little poem about the birth of Christ. Embellishing tradition somewhat, he brought the figures of Mary and Joseph into the culture and context of Venezuela.
His poem captured the imagination of Caceres, another native Venezuelan, who decided to create fitting illustrations. Or should I say “illuminations” — because her illustrations are inspired by medieval manuscripts — and do worthy homage to that great tradition.
Much like the wonderful exotic nativities from around the world, both poem and illustrations reflect the tradition, as well as their own ethnic heritage. The poem and illuminations are perfectly suited to each other–matching line by line in eloquent detail. Take the following example:
The lovely Virgin shivers,
and he stops along the road
to take off his linen coat
and offer it to her.
“Come my fairest damsel,
wrap this coat around you.”
he says with forced good humor
as he feels the mischievous cold
tugging at the holes
in his striped shirt.
Now! Isn’t that lovely? What language! “Mischievous cold” and “fairest damsel.” Surely, St. Joseph did not wear a striped shirt, but if he had been a peasant in Venezuela, he would have.
Note, as well, Cacares’ illustrations. Above we see Joseph wearing his humble yellow linen coat. But when he takes it off to shroud Mary in it, we find that it is lined in rich blue. There are other wonderful details: the villagers who turn away Mary and Joseph are drawn as different creatures (Jackal, tiger) that are were associated with evil in old illuminations. (She has a glossary of images in the back of the book.)
This book is a real beauty, and merits both re-reading offering a chance to soak in all the lovely details. It is also a stunning meditation on the life of Mary and Joseph and their journey to Bethlehem, almost a prayer. Dare I say it? — it’s my favorite illustrated Nativity.